9 People Who Died Surprisingly Young but Left a Lasting Impression

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A Brief History

On September 30, 1955, up-and-coming actor James Dean perished in an auto accident aged only 24.  In 3 movies he had already established himself as a “giant” of the silver screen, but his death at such a young age meant he would stay forever young in the eye of movie fans.  History is full of people who left their mark in a surprisingly short amount of time.  Here 9 such people are listed, in no particular order.  Who else would you include on this list?  Any of your ideas might flow into a sequel.  (Remember, the criteria is not just death at a young age but also lasting fame and/or influence.)

Digging Deeper

9. James Dean, Actor, died aged 24.

As mentioned in the introduction, James Dean starred in only 3 movies, Rebel Without a Cause and East of Eden, both released in 1955, and Giant which was released in 1956 after his death.  In that brief time period, Dean became a movie icon.  Who knows how much his impact and fame would have grown had he lived or if he would have sunk into obscurity. We can only speculate.

8. Dorothy Stratten, Playboy Playmate, died aged 20.

An incredibly beautiful young lady, in August of 1979, this Canadian looker became Playboy Playmate of the Month and soon after Playboy Playmate of the Year for 1980.  She then began a promising acting career with bit parts in a few television shows and in a science fiction parody film.  Her road to stardom was cut short, however, when the pimp she married (seriously, not name calling) gunned her down for leaving him for movie director Peter Bogdanovich.  Before killing her with a shotgun, he raped her, and afterwards he abused her body before killing himself with the same shotgun, leaving us with another case of what might have been.  Bogdanovich later married Stratten’s younger sister. Stratten has been portrayed by Jamie Lee Curtis and Mariel Hemmingway in movies.  Not as influential as the others listed here, it is Dorothy’s haunting beauty and tremendous lost potential that earned her her spot on this list.  History and Headlines Trivia: Stratten was preceded as Playmate of the Month by another Dorothy (Mays). 

7. John Keats, Poet, died aged 25.

This famous English poet died of tuberculosis in Rome in 1821.  Although famous for his poetry, he was actually a licensed physician.  His influence while alive was minimal, perhaps due to the fact that his works only first started getting published 4 years before his death.  Keats’ fame and influence grew after his death to the point that within 100 years, he had become one of England’s most beloved poets of the Romantic period.

6. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Composer, died aged 35.

Mozart created so much great classical music that it is hard to believe that he composed as much as he did in such a short life.  He is still such a superstar that even after his death, a major Academy award-winning movie (Amadeus, 1984) and a popular rock song (“Rock Me Amadeus,” 1985 by Falco) have been made about him; both were hugely successful.  Mozart also influenced many other composers, including Beethoven.

5. Hank Williams, Sr., Country Singer, died aged 29.

One of the godfathers of country music, his 29 years of life must have included some serious hard living in order to create the sound he produced.  11 of his singles reached number 1 on the Billboard Country and Western Best Sellers Chart.  When he died of a heart ailment in 1953, public mourning was great, and all of his records were bought up.  At his death, he left behind a young son, Hank Williams, Jr., who would grow up and become a major country music star in his own right.

4. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Civil Rights Activist, died aged 39.

King always looked older and wiser than his years would have indicated, and he seemed like an elder statesman for all the years he had been active during the Civil Rights Movement, but in reality he was still quite young with so much life ahead when an assassin’s bullet tore through his neck.  39 may not seem young when compared to the others on this list, but it is when compared with his accomplishments.

3. Buddy Holly, Rock Star, died aged 22.

Buddy Holly was one of the first rock and roll idols and was idolized by many future musicians such as the Beatles.  Linda Ronstadt covered some of his songs as did many other artists, and many claimed to have been influenced by him.  Holly died in an airplane crash along with Richie (La Bamba) Valens (17 at the time of death!) and The Big (Chantilly Lace) Bopper (aged 28). Contrary to urban myth, the name of the airplane was not “American Pie.”

2. Baron Manfred von Richthofen, Ace Pilot, died aged 25.

Better known as the “Red Baron,” Richthofen was the commander of the “Flying Circus” of German fighter planes in World War I .  He was the greatest aerial “ace” of that war and shot down 80 Allied aircraft before himself being shot down by rifle fire from the ground.  His last word was “kaputt,” which he uttered when approached by Australian infantry.  The “Bloody Red Baron,” as he is known in the 1960s hit song about the battles between Snoopy the cartoon dog and himself, has also been immortalized on a culinary scale by a brand of frozen pizzas that has been named after him.  If not the most famous pilot of all time, he is certainly a contender. 

1. Joan of Arc, French Patriot/Saint, died aged about 19.

Known in French as Jeanne d’Arc, the Maid of Orleans donned male armor and led the French into battle against the English.  Burned at the stake for heresy, she was vindicated by the Catholic Church 25 years later and in 1920 was made a saint.  She has been depicted in movies and other cultural references numerous times and remains a national heroine in France.

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.