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Roles of a lifetime appreciated after death

With a much-buzzed-about performance as the Joker in “The Dark Knight,” Heath Ledger becomes the latest actor to get acclaim for a posthumous role

There’s a reason they call it “screen immortality” — generations to come will have the opportunity to enjoy the performances of screen legends like Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, Buster Keaton, Bette Davis and John Wayne no matter how much time has passed since each of these actors have shuffled off their mortal coils.

The lag time between a film’s production and its release into theaters, however, sometimes means that a movie’s original audience is already seeing work by a performer who died. Take Heath Ledger, who died recently of a tragic overdose but whose show-stopping turn in “The Dark Knight” has gotten more Oscar buzz than anything else on screen this year. Ledger died during a break in shooting Terry Gilliam’s “The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus,” so he’ll have more than one posthumous big-screen appearance.

Hollywood has a sad history of actors who didn’t live to see their final movie; even if you disqualify people like Peter Finch, who was around when “Network” opened in theaters but passed away before winning an Oscar for that same film, there are many examples of exemplary performances from artists who were not long for this world. Here are a few of the more notable ones:

James Dean, “Rebel Without a Cause” and “Giant”: Perhaps the epitome of a movie legend who was taken from us far too early, Dean saw only one of his three big-screen starring roles — in 1955’s “East of Eden” — at its premiere before his legendary fatal car accident on Sept. 30 of that year. That trio of films, however, was enough to ensure his enduring legacy.

Bruce Lee, “Enter the Dragon” and “Game of Death”: Following his stint as Kato on “The Green Hornet,” Bruce Lee returned to his childhood home of Hong Kong and made three smashingly successful kung fu extravaganzas. With backing from Warner Bros., “Enter the Dragon” was the movie that was going to be Lee’s big breakthrough in the West. And it was — unfortunately, it opened in the U.S. a few months after Lee died from a cerebral edema back in Hong Kong.

His post-death star shone brightly enough to make those first three movies hits in the States when they were released post-“Dragon.” Not wanting to lose out on a good thing, producers took about 20 minutes of Lee footage and built “Game of Death” around it, casting another actor who was often cloaked in shadow to fill out Lee’s character for the rest of the movie. (The producers of “Trail of the Pink Panther” pulled a similar smoke-and-mirrors bit with old footage of the late Peter Sellers.)

Bela Lugosi, “Plan 9 from Outer Space”: If you think “Game of Death” sounds cheesy and in poor taste, that’s nothing compared to what happened to “Dracula” star Lugosi in his final screen appearance. Director Edward D. Wood, Jr. — now a legend in his own right as one of the worst directors to ever stand behind the camera — befriended Lugosi in the final days of the Hungarian actor’s life, casting in him in zero-budget movies like “Glen or Glenda?” and “Bride of the Monster.”

Wood shot Lugosi lurking around his house in a Dracula cape for a proposed film that would have had the actor once again playing Bram Stoker’s undead bloodsucker. Alas, Lugosi died soon thereafter, but Wood was determined to find use for the footage. He inserted it into his brilliantly inept masterpiece about aliens who revive the dead, casting his wife’s chiropractor to complete Lugosi’s “role.” His solution for the fact that the two men looked nothing alike? The stand-in held a cape in front of his face whenever he was on-camera.

Natalie Wood, “Brainstorm”: During filming of this sci-fi love story, Wood, her co-star Christopher Walken and her husband Robert Wagner set sail on Wood and Wagner’s yacht; she fell in the ocean and drowned, in an accident that still inspires gossip and speculation. What’s certain, however, is that Wood gives a warm and empathetic performance in the film, giving it a strong dose of humanity among the special effects. While she hadn’t completed shooting, director Douglas Trumbull was able to work with the footage he had to create a complete performance; the film was dedicated to her memory.

Brandon Lee, “The Crow”: Whispers of a “curse” around Bruce Lee got much louder when his son, actor Brandon Lee, died in an accident involving a prop gun on the set of “The Crow.” Making matters more eerily coincidental was the fact that, in the film, the younger Lee was playing Eric Draven, a man who returns from the dead a year later to avenge the murders of himself and his fiancée. Brandon Lee seemed to have similar posthumous impact, with “The Crow” winding up a hit among both audiences and critics.

Tupac Shakur, “Bullet,” “Gridlock’d” and “Gang Related”: Any number of “new” Shakur CDs have been released since his murder in Las Vegas in September of 1996, but the musician also had quite a few films in the can as an actor when he died. Of the three of them, perhaps the most acclaimed was “Gridlock’d,” starring Shakur and Tim Roth as two friends trying to kick their drug habits and get into a government rehab program, only to encounter hostility from both bureaucrats and drug dealers.

Adrienne Shelly, “Waitress”: The loss of writer-director-actress Shelly before the release of the 2007 indie hit was a particularly poignant one; not only was her death heartbreaking in its seeming randomness — she was strangled by a construction worker who panicked when she discovered him rifling through her purse — but the film marked the greatest success of a career already notable for its offbeat choices. She left behind a widower to raise their young daughter, but her survivors have honored her legacy with the Adrienne Shelly Foundation, a non-profit organization that supports women filmmakers.