10 comedians who died on stage doing what they loved

cover for The Show Won't Go On by Jeff Abraham and Bruce KearnsThe recent death of British comic Ian Cognito made international headlines because of his comedic timing—he died onstage in the middle of his act. Officials say Cognito died as the result of a heart attack. Though there was shock over the circumstances, Cognito (born Paul Barbieri) wasn’t the first comedian to die in front of an audience, nor will he be the last. A couple of pop culture obsessives, Jeff Abraham and Burt Kearns, have come up with a new book, The Show Won’t Go On: The Most Shocking, Bizarre, and Historic Deaths of Performers Onstage, all about the epic phenomenon of mid-performance fatalities.

The book, out September 3, is a celebration of lives both famous and obscure, that ended “doing what they loved.” Abraham and Kearns give a sneak peek of their upcoming book with a top 10 list of most epic on stage deaths.

Emil Hasda

Comedian Emil Hasda in a Berlin touring company came out for five curtain calls at the Municipal Theatre in Nimph, Poland on March 24, 1904.  On the sixth time, he pulled a revolver out of his pocket, raised the gun to his head, pulled the trigger, and blew out his brains. The reason? An actress in the troupe had turned down his marriage proposal.

Bert Marks

Every night in his act, burlesque comedian Bert Marks threatened to “take his life for love.” On February 4, 1942 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, he made the vow, then slumped to the stage as the curtain rang down. Marks had a heart attack and did not get up. He was 41.

Harry Einstein aka ‘Parkyakarkus’

The father of Albert Brooks and the late Bob Einstein performed on November 23, 1958 at a Friars Club tribute to Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz in the International Ballroom of the Beverly Hilton hotel. Harry Einstein finished his routine, returned to his seat on the dais and, amid the applause, collapsed onto Milton Berle’s lap.  He was 54.

Al Kelly

The vaudeville and Borscht Belt comic—and “the king of double-talk”—died at the Friars Club in New York City on September 7, 1966, immediately following his performance at a roast of Joe E. Lewis.  Lewis wound up toasting Kelly as the body was carried out. “If you have to go, that’s the way to do it,” he said. “Leave with the cheers ringing in your ears.” Al Kelly was 69.

Jodie ‘Butterbeans’ Edwards

The surviving member of the long-running vaudeville duo Butterbeans and Susie (known for saucy and raunchy numbers like I Want A Hot Dog for My Roll) died of a heart attack on October 28, 1967 as he walked offstage to thunderous applause at the Dorchester Inn outside Chicago. Jodie Edwards was 70.

Frank Fontaine

The singer and comedian who appeared as the cheerful drunk  “Crazy Guggenheim” on The Jackie Gleason Show performed for the international convention of the Fraternal Order of Eagles at the Spokane Opera House on August 4, 1978. During his final encore, he accepted a $25,000 check he promised to donate to heart research. Then he had a heart attack and dropped dead on the stage.  Frank Fontaine was 58.

Joe E. Ross

The burlesque comic-turned-sitcom star (known for blurting “Ooh! Ooh!”), suffered a heart attack on August 13, 1982, while performing in the clubhouse of his apartment building in Burbank, California.  He was 68. Joe E. Ross had been offered $100 for the show. His wife reportedly only got $50 because he didn’t finish it.

Tommy Cooper

British comedy magician Tommy Cooper collapsed from a heart attack on April 15, 1984 while performing on Live from Her Majesty’s, a Sunday night variety show that aired live from Her Majesty’s Theatre in London’s West End. Millions witnessed his death on the broadcast, which also featured Donny Osmond. He was 63.

Dick Shawn

Comedian and actor Dick Shawn was performing his one-man show at the University of California San Diego’s Mandeville Hall on April 17, 1987 when he collapsed face-first on stage.  He lay there for five minutes until the audience realized it wasn’t part of his act. He was 63.

Lasse Eriksson

One of Sweden’s first and most popular stand-up comedians Lasse Eriksson died onstage at the Regina Theatre in Uppsala, Sweden on March 3, 2011.  Eriksson was coming to the end of the comedy show Fyra Lycklinga Män 2 (which translates to Four Happy Men 2) when he suddenly clutched his chest and fell to the floor in front of the audience.  He was 61.

The Show Won’t Go On: The Most Shocking, Bizarre, and Historic Deaths of Performers Onstage is currently available for pre-order and hits bookstores and e-book platforms on September 3.

Jeff Abraham and Burt Kearns

Jeff Abraham is a public relations executive who's regarded as one of Hollywood's top comedy historians and go-to pop culture experts. Burt Kearns is an award-winning television and film producer, director, writer, journalist -- and author of the controversial memoir Tabloid Baby. The Show Won't Go On: The Most Shocking, Bizarre, and Historic Deaths of Performers Onstage will be published on September 3 by the Chicago Review Press. The book is available as a pre-order (at a bargain price!) at diedonstage.com.

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