When a celebrity dies young, you can't help but wonder: What would have happened had they lived? This "alternate reality" list, half research and half speculation, attempts to answer that question for nine dead movie stars. My only criteria: they had to be under 50, they had to be at the peak of their careers, and they had to die during the current star-driven era, where popular actors are booked up for years. This list is all-male because the only female contenders had already slipped to the C-list (Brittany Murphy, Natalie Wood) or were singers first, actors a distant second (Whitney Houston, Aaliyah).
- John Belushi (1949-1982). In short: Ghostbusters. Dan Aykroyd had originally conceived Bill Murray's character for best pal Belushi. We also know that Spies Like Us was developed around the Belushi/Aykroyd partnership. (Aykroyd went on to make the film with Chevy Chase.) But Belushi, after the rom-com Continental Divide, clearly had ambitions beyond broad comedies: he was eyeing a turn as a Prohibition-era gangster in Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in America when he died. The part went to James Woods.
- River Phoenix (1970-1993). At the time of his demise, Phoenix was more ensemble player than leading man: he was just about to start work on Interview with the Vampire, in a supporting role that ultimately went to Christian Slater, and he may have costarred in the little-remembered Susan Sarandon vehicle Safe Passage. Many erroneously believe that Leonardo DiCaprio took over roles meant for Phoenix, from The Basketball Diaries to Titanic, but in fact Phoenix had already declared himself too old for Diaries, and we know James Cameron picked the puckish DiCaprio over the more mature, Phoenix-aping Jeremy Sisto for Titanic. If Phoenix had lived, his filmography would more likely have eaten into those of Ethan Hawke, Matt Damon, and brother Joaquin. Training Day, The Talented Mr. Ripley, and The Master – all were in his wheelhouse.
- Philip Seymour Hoffman (1967-2014). Ripley/Master player Hoffman was preparing to direct the Amy Adams-Jake Gyllenhaal drama Ezekiel Moss and star in the Showtime series Happyish when he overdosed on heroin. Because of those two time-consuming projects, Hoffman had no big-screen acting engagements lined up after the final Hunger Games installment. As he was such a unique character type, it's hard to say what future films he could have appeared in. I came up with Steve Jobs (as Steve Wozniak), The Big Short, Spotlight, The Shape of Water, and maybe Sicario. Lots of S'es.
- Heath Ledger (1979-2008). It still kind of stings that Ledger lost the Best Actor Oscar for Brokeback Mountain to Hoffman for Capote, but now both men have Oscars and both men are dead. Certainly, Ledger's career was white-hot after his incendiary turn in The Dark Knight. If he had lived, would The Dark Knight Rises have been retooled to include his Joker? Ledger's family says yes. He was also supposed to star in a drama called The Queen's Gambit; that it was never made is a testament to how much a film relies on star power for funding. Anyway, Ledger, a handsome young lead with enormous range, would have had his pick of any number of projects: 127 Hours, Mad Max: Fury Road, The Revenant, Inception, La La Land... the list is endless.
- Chris Farley (1964-1997). Farley was nearly finished voicing the title role on Shrek when he OD'ed, so that franchise would have been a major part of his career. Other movies he was attached to were never made, but it's easy to assume that several Kevin James roles would have been Farley's, from Paul Blart: Mall Cop to Zookeeper. Some say Farley might have moved on to dramatic work, but I'm doubtful he had the chops.
- John Candy (1950-1994). As with Belushi and Farley, Candy was considered for a lot of "funny fat guy" roles in movies that never happened: adaptations of A Confederacy of Dunces and The Incomperable Atuk, and a Fatty Arbuckle biopic. But when he died, Candy's career was at a crossroads. On the one hand, he was quite good in JFK, displaying an aptitude for serious work. On the other, his final films were the vile comedies Canadian Bacon and Wagons East! He was meant to voice a character in Pocahontas that was scrapped after his death. After that? We could wish for ensemble hits like Anchorman, Ocean's 11, or Waiting for Guffman, but in reality Candy was attached to yet more vile comedies: Gone Fishin' and Holy Man.
- Phil Hartman (1948-1998). The bummer about these funnymen dying in the '90s is that none of them got to partake in the smarter, hipper comedies of the 21st century. The hugely talented Hartman, who shone so brightly on SNL and The Simpsons, never headlined a decent movie; the dreadful Houseguest, costarring Sinbad, was his only vehicle. Hartman's glib persona would have been a good fit for black comedies like Burn After Reading and Tropic Thunder, though he surely would have been a bigger name in animated films.
- Brandon Lee (1965-1993). Would Lee's breakthrough vehicle The Crow have still been a hit, had its star survived the production? I think so. As for subsequent films, well, if anybody was born to star in The Matrix, it would have been Brandon Lee.
- Paul Walker. Sometimes you don't need to speculate: Walker would have continued to do Fast and Furious sequels until the end of time.