Ten years ago today, Saturday Night Live alum Phil Hartman was murdered by his wife. Due to the tragic nature of his death, as well as other high-profile deaths of former SNL cast members, the media was abuzz with talk of an SNL curse. In 31 seasons, 118 cast members have appeared on the show and seven of them have died. That’s only a five-percent fatality rate. While there probably isn’t a curse, here is a chronological look at the deaths of seven former cast members.
Easily one of the best-known cast members of all time, original player John Belushi also became a wildly successful film actor. On his thirtieth birthday in 1979, Belushi had the number one album (The Blues Brothers: Briefcase Full of Blues), the number one movie (Animal House) and was the star of the highest-rated late night television show (SNL). Of course, Belushi was equally well known for his drug and alcohol indulgences. In a sketch called “Don’t Look Back in Anger,” which aired in 1978, John Belushi plays an elderly version of himself, visiting the graves of his fellow cast members. ‘’They all thought I’d be the first to go,'’ he gloats. ‘’I was one of those live-fast, die-young, leave-a-good-looking-corpse types, you know. But I guess they were wrong.'’ Belushi died of a drug overdose at the famous Chateau Marmont hotel. The lethal dose of cocaine and heroin was given to him by backup singer and notorious groupie Cathy Smith. Years later, Smith would serve prison time for her involvement in his death, among other crimes.
In one of his final television appearances, Belushi was filmed dead and face down in a swimming pool for the opening sequence of the show Police Squad. The footage was part of a running gag during the opening credits, where the episodes’ guest-star would meet an untimely demise before the show even started. Due to his untimely death, the sequence never aired.
Original cast member Gilda Radner, known for her vibrant characters like Roseanne Roseannadanna and Baba Wawa, became the second cast member to pass away. She died in 1989 at the age of 42 after a second battle with ovarian cancer. For Radner, the true tragedy was that her cancer had been misdiagnosed several times, and though it was treated and went into remission, its return struck too quickly to cure. She was re-diagnosed with cancer in early May and died within the month. She had been scheduled to host an episode of SNL between her bouts of cancer but a writers’ strike ended the season prematurely. She died on a Saturday, just before a new episode of SNL was to air. A tearful Steve Martin introduced a clip of a skit featuring Radner and himself dancing.
Her widower, Gene Wilder, created an ovarian cancer detection center and testified before Congress about ovarian cancer awareness. Radner once said that “Having cancer gave me membership in an elite club I’d rather not belong to” and in 1991, a support group to raise awareness of cancer called Gilda’s Club was founded.
Vance joined the SNL cast for the historically disappointing 1985 season and became the first African-American female repertory player. She received little screen time and was often blatantly typecast. One of her more famous recurring characters was Cabrini Green Jackson, a professional teenage mother who gave advice on pregnancy. Frustrated by her demeaning characters, Vance left at the end of her first season. The majority of the rest of the cast was fired shortly after she left due to poor ratings. Four years after she left the show, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She went into remission and created a skit based on her experiences. Unfortunately, the cancer returned and she died in 1993 at the age of 35.
O’Donoghue was never as famous as Farley or Hartman, but he was an integral part of the original SNL cast as the head writer. He appeared in many sketches, memorably in the opening of the first show as an English-language teacher instructing John Belushi in such phrases as “I would like to feed your fingertips to the wolverines. We are out of badgers.” Later in his tenure, O’Donoghue cultivated the persona of the grim “Mr. Mike” who told “Least-Loved Bedtime Stories” such as “The Little Engine that Died.” The sketch had the line “I think I can! I think I can! Heart attack! Heart attack! Ohmygodthepain! Ohmygodthepain!” which turned out to be strangely similar to O’Donoghue’s own last words. On the morning of November 8, 1994, O’Donoghue awoke to what he thought was a migraine, an affliction he often suffered. He took some medication and went back to bed. He later woke up a second time in immense pain and exclaimed “Oh, my God!” He was rushed to the hospital but he never regained consciousness after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage.
Farley made himself a household name with his hilarious physical comedy. Struggling with his success and pigeon-holed with big, awkward and dim-witted characters, Farley turned to alcohol and drug abuse. His struggle landed him in rehab facilities 31 times in his short life, but sadly the treatments did not keep him sober. He died at the age of 33 after a speedball overdose, the same drug cocktail that killed John Belushi at the exact same age.
During Hartman’s final show, he cradled Farley (who was dressed as his wildly popular Matt Foley character) and he sang “So Long, Farewell”; the two died within six months of each other. At the time of his death, Farley had recorded vocal tracks for the title character in Shrek and was rumored to be starting work on Ghostbusters 3 and Blues Brothers 2000.
When he left SNL in 1994, Phil Hartman was the show’s longest serving cast member, appearing in eight seasons as dozens of beloved characters. He earned a reputation as one of the nicest and most genuine castmembers to ever grace the stage of studio 8H. Following his departure from SNL, Hartman continued to serve as a voice actor for The Simpsons and joined the cast of the NBC sitcom NewsRadio. But Hartman wasn’t just a smooth voiced comedian; he was also a graphic designer and created the logo for Crosby, Stills and Nash and designed three album covers for America.
Hartman was killed in his sleep by his intoxicated wife, Brynn, who killed herself just hours later. Family members attribute the act to the prescription drug Zoloft and sued the drug’s manufacturer and the doctor who prescribed the medication. Several sources have stated that Brynn was jealous of Hartman’s career, but friends stated that they always appeared to be a happy couple. Oddly enough, his NewsRadio character, Bill McNeal, claims to have numerous enemies and stalkers and often mentions a girlfriend who is unstable and tries to kill him.
Following the departure of the original cast and Lorne Michaels before the 1980-81 season, temporary replacement producer Jean Doumanian hand picked Charles Rocket to be the breakout star of the new Saturday Night Live. Billed as a combination of Bill Murray and Chevy Chase, Rocket appeared in more sketches than any other male cast member that season and even hosted Weekend Update. During a sketch in the middle of the season, Rocket said the most notorious obscenity on live television and soon was fired, as was Doumanian and the bulk of the unpopular cast.
While he had a steady stream of acting work after the abrupt end of his SNL career, Rocket was found in a field near his home with a slit throat in October of 2005. His unexpected and tragic death was ruled a suicide; a motive was never determined.