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Chadwick Boseman joins select group of actors with posthumous Oscar nominations

The late actor was nominated for "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom."
/ Source: TODAY

Chadwick Boseman has always surprised and delighted us. But it was somehow not a surprise to find out that the actor, who died in August 2020 of colon cancer at just 43, had earned his first Academy Award nomination for "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom."

His co-stars already knew he was a rare talent: "From the moment we met, I loved Chadwick Boseman," his "Black Panther" co-star Letitia Wright wrote in British Vogue. "I heard God speak to my heart; that he would be my brother, and that I was to love him as such."

Chadwick Boseman in "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" and Heath Ledger in "The Dark Knight."Getty Images

But last month, Boseman became another kind of rare actor: He is just one of eight performers total who've ever earned Academy Award nominations posthumously, and only the first Black actor to do so. Now, only two of those posthumous nominations have ever actually led to the Oscar. But we think there's a good chance that Boseman's passionate, complicated jazz trumpeter does have a chance of making him the third, so let's take a look at the club he's now joined, which includes luminaries from Spencer Tracy to Heath Ledger:

Jeanne Eagels was the first actor (and thus far only woman) to be so honored, though she didn't actually get an official "nomination," Variety explains. "The Letter" (1929) featured her as a lonely woman who kills her ex; Eagels died at age 39 shortly after production ended on the movie. In those days, nominations were considered by a private board of judges, and she lost the award to Mary Pickford in "Coquette."

Massimo Troisi in "Il Postino" and Jeanne Eagels on the poster for "The Letter."Getty Images

Over two-and-a-half decades passed before another late actor was nominated; this time, James Dean (who starred in only three films before he died in a car crash in 1955 at age 24) was nominated for "East of Eden" (1955) and the following year for "Giant" (1956). Both roles featured him as the loner who rejected convention, and he first lost to Ernest Borgnine for "Marty" and the following year to Yul Brynner for "The King and I."

James Dean in "Giant" and "East of Eden."Getty Images

Spencer Tracy, considered one of Hollywood's greats from the Golden Age, had already been nominated for an Oscar eight times and had two awards when he appeared in "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" (1967) as a father whose daughter gets engaged to a Black man (Sidney Poitier). Tracy died of a heart attack, aged 67, days after he finished filming. But he lost the prize when Rod Steiger won for "In the Heat of the Night."

In 1977, a posthumous actor finally won an Academy Award, as Peter Finch earned a best actor award for "Network" (1976) as a news anchor who snaps and tells his live audience, "I'm as mad as hell and I'm not going to take this anymore." He died aged 60 two months after the film premiered.

Peter Finch in "Network" and Spencer Tracy (with Katharine Houghton and Katharine Hepburn) in "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?"Getty Images

Over the next years, posthumous actors became a bit more common as nominees: Ralph Richardson was nominated for supporting actor in "Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes," but died before the film opened, aged 80; he lost to Haing S. Ngor in "The Killing Fields." And Massimo Troisi, co-writer and star of "Il Postino" (1995) earned multiple posthumous Oscar nominations (actor and adapted screenplay). He died the day after finishing his role as a postal worker of a heart attack, age 41, but he lost both nominations. Nicolas Cage earned the acting prize that year for "Leaving Las Vegas."

Perhaps best known for a posthumous award in this generation aside from Boseman is Heath Ledger, who starred in "The Dark Knight" (2008) as a truly terrifying Joker. He died of an accidental overdose of prescription medicine at age 28, months after completing the role. Not only that, he won, making him the second-ever posthumous nominee to earn such a prize; his father, sister and mother accepted the supporting actor prize.