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18 Famous People The Press Mistakenly Declared Dead

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This time it's not a hoax: Abe Vigoda, who had been dogged by persistent false death rumors since 1982, died this morning at age 94. (Wikimedia Commons)
This time it’s not a hoax: Abe Vigoda, who had been dogged by persistent false death rumors since 1982, died yesterday morning at age 94. (Wikimedia Commons)

Actor Abe Vigoda, star of TV’s Barney Miller sitcom and the first two Godfather movies, has finally died.

I say “finally” because since 1982—ever since People magazine mistakenly referred to him as “the late Abe Vigoda”—there has been a running joke that he’s already been dead. Claiming that the rumors hurt his career, Abe even once posed sitting up in a coffin holding a picture of the People magazine issue in question to prove he was alive. But in 1987, a reporter for New Jersey’s WWOR TV station also slipped and called him “the late Abe Vigoda.”

The jokes persisted so long that they led to a new verb—“to Vigoda“—meaning to announce someone is dead long before they’ve actually croaked.

Here are 17 other people throughout history who’ve had the uniquely unpleasant experience of reading their own obituary while they were still alive.

Steve Jobs. (Wikimedia Commons)
Steve Jobs. (Wikimedia Commons)

1. steve jobs

In 2008, Bloomberg published a lavish 17-page obituary of the tech pioneer. The prewritten obit had been clearly marked “HOLD FOR RELEASE – DO NOT USE – HOLD FOR RELEASE – DO NOT USE,” but somehow it slipped through quality control and was unleashed on the world. Jobs died of pancreatic cancer in 2011.

2. paul mccartney

Paul McCartney. (Wikimedia Commons)
Paul McCartney. (Wikimedia Commons)

In 1969 when The Beatles were literally bigger than Jesus among the world’s youth, Paul McCartney became the subject of conspiracy theories claiming that several hidden messages on Beatles albums proved that he’d already died and been replaced by a lookalike. To the great relief of Beatles fans—and to the tremendous dismay of people who hate The Beatles—Paul continues to live.

3. mark twain

Mark Twain. (Wikimedia Commons)
Mark Twain. (Wikimedia Commons)

The man whom many consider America’s greatest novelist was the subject of a false death report in 1897 when reporters confused him for his cousin, who was gravely ill. Twain wrote about it in the New York Journal, famously stating that “The report of my death was an exaggeration.” This is often misquoted as “Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated” or even “Reports of my death were premature.”

4. Fidel Castro

Fidel Castro. (Wikimedia Commons)
Fidel Castro. (Wikimedia Commons)

In 2003, CNN’s website falsely reported that Cuba’s cigar-chomping communist revolutionary had died, describing him as a “lifeguard, athlete, movie star.” The text had actually been taken from a template of Ronald Reagan’s prewritten obituary and was part of a much larger fuckup known as the “CNN.com incident” during which the website accidentally leaked prewritten obits of not only Castro, but of Reagan, Dick Cheney, Pope John Paul II, Bob Hope, and Nelson Mandela.

5. kurt cobain

Kurt Cobain. (Illustration by Thomas Mikael via Wikimedia Commons)
Kurt Cobain. (Illustration by Thomas Mikael via Wikimedia Commons)

In March 1994, the weepy and self-loathing grungester fell into a coma in Rome after a heroin overdose, leading CNN to falsely report that he’d died. Cobain killed himself with a shotgun blast a month later.

6. Alfred Nobel

Alfred Nobel. (Wikimedia Commons)
Alfred Nobel. (Wikimedia Commons)

The namesake of the Nobel Peace Prize was actually an arms merchant who peddled in death. In 1888 when his brother Ludvig died, many newspapers erroneously reported that Alfred had perished. One French obituary stated “The merchant of death is dead” and claimed he “became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before.” Panicked about his legacy, Nobel forked over most of his estate toward establishing the Nobel Peace Prize in 1895, a year before he died.

7. P. T. Barnum

P. T. Barnum (left) with circus entertainer Commodore Nutt. Photograph by Charles DeForest Fredricks. (Wikimedia Commons)
P. T. Barnum (left) with circus entertainer Commodore Nutt. Photograph by Charles DeForest Fredricks. (Wikimedia Commons)

The famous circus entrepreneur—who is often falsely credited with originating the statement “There’s a sucker born every minute”—was so worried about how the world would remember him that when he fell terminally ill, he requested that they publish his obituary while he was alive so that he could read it. The New York Evening Sun ran an apparently flattering obit of him two weeks before his death in April 1891.

8. Alice Cooper

Alice Cooper. (Wikimedia Commons)
Alice Cooper. (Wikimedia Commons)

The 1970s’ premier shock rocker—who among other urban legends was once falsely accused of biting off a chicken’s head and drinking its blood during a live show—was also falsely accused of being dead by Melody Maker magazine in the early 1970s. The rumor became so pervasive that Cooper issued a public statement: “I’m alive, and drunk as usual.”

9. Macaulay Culkin

Macaulay Culkin. (Wikimedia Commons)
Macaulay Culkin. (Wikimedia Commons)

The Home Alone star grew up fast—so fast that he began resembling a skeletal junkie in early adulthood. This led to a false Internet rumor in November 2014 that he’d been found dead in his Manhattan apartment. Culkin handled the rumors good-naturedly, posting Instagram photos portraying himself as the corpse in the film Weekend at Bernie’s.

10. Bob Denver

Bob Denver. (Wikimedia Commons)
Bob Denver. (Wikimedia Commons)

Most famous for playing the lovably clumsy Gilligan on Gilligan’s Island, Bob Denver was the subject of false rumors in the early 1960s that he’d died when a radio fell into his bathtub, electrocuting him. He claimed that throughout his career, people who met him would often act shocked to find him fully alive. He died of throat cancer in 2005.

11. Zsa Zsa Gabor

Zsa Zsa Gabor. (Wikimedia Commons)
Zsa Zsa Gabor. (Wikimedia Commons)

The cop-slapping Hungarian temptress was targeted by yet another Internet death hoax in 2011 when her Wikipedia page and several websites prematurely reported her death. At this writing, she is still kicking at 98 years old.

12. jon heder

Jon Heder. (Wikimedia Commons)
Jon Heder. (Wikimedia Commons)

In 2005, rumors spread that the star of Napoleon Dynamite had died in a car accident. When a reporter asked him about the rumors, he retorted, “Yeah, and apparently it’s not true.”

13. william hung

The multitalented American Idol contestant who is most famous for his kinetic cover of “She Bangs” was victimized by a 2004 hoax claiming that he’d died of a heroin overdose. He appeared shortly thereafter to insist he was still alive and would continue entertaining his legions of fans until the day he actually died.

14. lou reed

Lou Reed. (Wikimedia Commons)
Lou Reed. (Wikimedia Commons)

With his song “Heroin,” the legendary Velvet Underground singer and songwriter likely inspired thousands of confused teens to try opiates and eventually die prematurely as a result. In 2001, a hoax email claimed that Reed had died of an overdose. He would not finally die until 2013.

15. axl rose

Axl Rose. (Wikimedia Commons)
Axl Rose. (Wikimedia Commons)

In late 2014 a false report circulated online that the Guns N’ Roses singer had died at home. Still somewhat alive, Rose tweeted, “If I’m dead do I still have to pay taxes?”

16. kanye west

Kanye West. (Wikimedia Commons)
Kanye West. (Wikimedia Commons)

The musical artist and Trump-level megalomaniac once described as “so dumb he probably has another brain under his balls so he can walk” fell victim to a 2009 Internet hoax claiming he’d died in a car accident. As everyone knows, he is still very much alive.

17. Shoichi Yokoi

Shoichi Yokoi. (YouTube)
Shoichi Yokoi. (YouTube)

Reported dead in 1944’s Battle of Guam, this Japanese Army sergeant famously emerged from Guam’s jungles fully alive in 1972 and under the delusion that the war was still being fought. He returned to Japan as as hero, stating, “It is with much embarrassment that I have returned alive.” TC mark

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    • p2d2

      RIP Abe, you were a great actor! Hope you lived a nice a fruitful life. Have to respect Culkin for playing the humor card, it was kinda funny. Yokoi was really a fascinating story.

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