SNL cast members you didn't know were dead

Nearly 200 SNL cast members have taken the stage at 30 Rock over the past 40-something years, delivering satirical comedy and memorable characters. Some of those players leave the show and go on to major stardom as movie or TV stars. Others? Not so much. Maybe they enjoy either smaller careers as character actors or move out of show biz completely. As such, they fade from the public eye, and the deaths of these stars of a comedy institution go largely unnoticed. Here are some SNL cast members who may have died without making the news.

Charles Rocket

In other time or under other circumstances, Rocket could have been a huge SNL star. But he joined the cast for the 1980 season — the one without Lorne Michaels, which successor Jean Doumanian mismanaged. Rocket provided some of that season's few notable moments, such as his amusing "The Rocket Report," a series of "man-on-the-street" segments. Oh, and he also said the F-word live on the air. The February 21, 1981, episode of SNL was hosted by Dallas star Charlene Tilton, and the show parodied her show's huge "Who Shot J.R.?" plot line by having an unknown gunman take a shot at Rocket. (They called it "Who Shot C.R.?" Get it?) At the end of the episode, during the part when the cast waves goodnight from the stage, Rocket sat in a wheelchair. Tilton asked Rocket how it felt to be shot, and he replied, "Ah, man. It's the first time I've ever been shot in my life. I'd like to know who f–king did it." 

Dropping the F bomb on network TV is a huge violation of FCC rules; Rocket quickly lost his job. He went on to a decent career specializing in playing jerks, cads, and villains in comedies. He's great in Earth Girls are Easy and in Dumb and Dumber. Not so funny: in 2005, the 56-year-old's body was found near his home in Connecticut, in a death that a medical examiner's office ruled a suicide.

Tony Rosato

In 1981, NBC fired Jean Doumanian and tasked Dick Ebersol with saving SNL. His plan of action: to fire almost all of Doumanian's cast and bring in new performers. So he tried to poach people from SNL's competition and Canadian counterpart, Second City Television, or SCTV. While Ebersol couldn't persuade Catherine O'Hara to switch teams, he did land Robin Duke and Tony Rosato. But once Rosato got to SNL, he couldn't garner much screen time — he was physically and stylistically similar to one of the show's big stars, Joe Piscopo. While Rosato managed to get a few recurring characters on the air, like his radio show host Vic Salukin, he was fired at the end of the 1981-82 season. 

He worked steadily on Canadian TV (and provided the voice of Luigi on a couple of animated shows based on Super Mario Bros.), but then mental illness took a tragic toll. In 2005, Rosato called police to report that imposters had replaced his wife and baby. The cops didn't believe him, of course, and instead arrested Rosato on charges of criminal harassment, for which the comedian spent four years in custody — two in maximum security prison, and two in a psychiatric facility. Not long after his release and rehabilitation, Rosato passed away from a heart attack at age 62 in January 2017.

Jan Hooks

In the late '80s and early '90s, SNL cast members called Phil Hartman "the glue" because he was a versatile utility player who kept the show together and made everything better. But who was his frequent and most memorable scene partner? The equally glue-ish Jan Hooks. The Georgia-born actress was a scene-stealer in recurring bits like the Sweeney Sisters nightclub act and delivered pointed and fierce celebrity impressions, such as a laser-focused Hillary Clinton, a smarmy Diane Sawyer, and a phony Tammy Faye Bakker (opposite Hartman's televangelist Jim Bakker). Hooks left SNL for primetime in 1991, joining the cast of CBS's hit Designing Women. She popped up on TV and in the movies, mostly in parts way too small for someone of her stature, but who else but Hooks could've played Jenna's sleazy mother on 30 Rock or Manjula Nahasapeemapetilon on The Simpsons? In 2014, 57-year-old Hooks died from throat cancer. Shortly after her death, SNL paid tribute with the re-airing of the poignant 1988 short film "Love is a Dream," which starred Hooks and Hartman. (The same sketch aired after Hartman died in 1998.)

George Coe

Among Saturday Night Live's original cast of young, relatively unknown performers — billed as the "Not Ready for Primetime Players" — was a show biz veteran named George Coe. He'd performed in Broadway shows and on TV and earned an Academy Award nomination for his 1968 short film "The Dove." Then 46, and the oldest cast member on the show by far, Coe was credited by name on only the first episode of SNL in 1975, but appeared in supporting roles throughout that inaugural season. After Coe left the series, he continued to rack up credits and is probably best known to modern audiences as the voice of put-upon butler Woodhouse on Archer. He died at age 85 in 2015 — on a Saturday.

Tom Davis

As a writer for the show for nearly 30 years, off and on, Davis created (or helped create) classic bits like Bill Murray's "Nick the Lounge Singer," the Coneheads, and guest host Christopher Walken's "The Continental." But he did show up on screen quite a bit in the early years of the show. With writing partner Al Franken, he was the Davis part of the "Franken & Davis "comedy duo. Another highlight: in the sketch "Ask President Carter," the president (Dan Aykroyd) takes phone calls from Americans in need. In one, he talks down a young man from a bad acid trip; the kid freaking out was voiced by Davis. Sadly, throat and neck cancer killed Davis, or as he wryly put it, "deanimated" him, in 2012.

Danitra Vance

Vance was part of the cast of SNL cast for just the 1985 to 1986 season, but she's in the show's history books for a few reasons. She was the first African-American woman to be a full-time or "repertory" cast member, as well as the first lesbian cast member. She also struggled with dyslexia; writer/producer/cast member Al Franken said in Live from New York: The Complete Uncensored History of Saturday Night that Vance's learning disability manifested in an inability to read cue cards during live broadcasts. However, Vance had a background in theater and performance art, which gave her the tools to ad-lib her way through sketches. A lot of her stuff on SNL was solo, theater-ish stuff, like "Shakespeare in the Slums" and teenage mother Cabrini Green Harlem Watts Jackson. Just a few years after her brief stint on SNL, Vance was diagnosed with breast cancer. Despite a mastectomy, Vance passed away on August 21, 1994.

Michael O'Donoghue

SNL's occasional bursts of edgy darkness are the legacy of its first head writer — and occasional performer — Michael O'Donoghue. O'Donoghue appeared in the very first sketch on the very first episode of SNL, portraying an English teacher who makes his student (John Belushi) repeat nonsensical phrases; O'Donoghue's character keels over from a heart attack, and the student dutifully copies. He also played "Mr. Mike" (a vaguely unsettling figure who read inappropriate children's stories like "The Little Train That Died"), and a nightclub performer who did impressions of what cheesy celebrities like Tony Orlando and Mike Douglas would sound like if they shoved needles into their eyes. O'Donoghue was an incredibly influential voice in comedy from his time on SNL, but he didn't stop when he left SNL. He also wrote and directed the cult classics Mr. Mike's Mondo Video and Scrooged, to cite two examples. In 1994, O'Donoghue died of a cerebral hemorrhage at age 54.

Now that we've covered all the SNL stars whose deaths slipped by you (and made you sad), here are some SNL legends whose tragic deaths dominated the headlines (and made you sad).

Gilda Radner

Radner was a frenetic force of nature who played a wide and wild variety of characters on SNL in the '70s, including nerdy Lisa Loopner, a kooky Barbara Walters derivative named "Baba Wawa, and abrasive "Weekend Update" contributor Roseanne Roseannadanna. Radner departed SNL in 1980, the same year a filmed version of her Broadway show Gilda Live hit movie theaters. Radner never really got a chance to pursue the big-screen success that seemed inevitable. Aside from appearing in a couple of forgettable movies like Haunted Honeymoon and The Woman in Red (both with husband Gene Wilder), Radner spent most of the '80s fighting ovarian cancer. (Wilder told People that Radner would direct her Roseanne Roseannadanna character at the cancer cells, quipping, "Hey, what are you trying to do here? Make me sick?") 

Alas, Radner succumbed to the disease in May 1989. Just a few hours after Radner died, SNL aired its Season 14 finale, hosted by Steve Martin, a frequent guest on the show back in Radner's era. Instead of a monologue, Martin addressed the news with a replay of "Dancing in the Dark," a sweet sketch from 1978 where he and Radner danced all over the SNL stage.

John Belushi

Belushi was the first member of the original SNL cast to pass away. His highlight reel is a highlight reel of the first few years of SNL itself. He played a samurai trying out unlikely professions, a world-class athlete fueled by "Little Chocolate Donuts," a Greek diner worker ("Cheeseburger! Cheeseburger!"), a singing bee, Beethoven, a Joe Cocker dead ringer, a Blues Brother, and so many others. He also starred in the show's sad-in-retrospect short film "Don't Look Back in Anger." Set in the distant future, an old-age makeup-wearing Belushi visited the graves of his SNL costars, bragging that he outlived them all because he's "a dancer!" That's the only old Belushi the world got to see — the comedian had major substance abuse problems, and the 33-year-old Animal House star was found dead in his bungalow at Hollywood's Chateau Marmont in 1983. Cause of death: an injected combination of cocaine and heroin.

Chris Farley

Farley's life — and death — mirrored that of his idol, John Belushi. Both came up in the Chicago comedy scene, both dominated SNL, and both died at age 33. Among Farley's greatest hits: pathetic motivational speaker Matt Foley (he lived in a van down by the river), star-struck host of "The Chris Farley Show," and a would-be Chippendale's dancer. After moving on from SNL in 1995, Farley's movie career took off with roles in Billy Madison, Tommy Boy, and Black Sheep. Through it all, Farley struggled with his demons — he tried very hard to get sober, reportedly enrolling in rehab programs 17 times. Just a few weeks after hosting SNL in October 1997, the comic dynamo fatally overdosed on a combination of cocaine and morphine.

Phil Hartman

Hartman was a crucial cast member on probably the two most important comedy shows ever: The Simpsons and Saturday Night Live. He voiced Troy McClure and Lionel Hutz on the former, and played more characters on the latter than we can count. Some favorites: Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer, the Anal-Retentive Chef, Frankenstein's monster, a verbally abusive Frank Sinatra, a secretly conniving President Reagan, and a smug Bill Clinton. Unsurprisingly, other cast members adored Hartman. In Live from New York, Mike Myers called Hartman "one of the best character-based comedians ever" and said he was "extremely supportive and hilarious. He never gave up on a sketch and his work ethic was amazing." Hartman was clearly a nice guy, and audiences could surely tell, even when he played narcissistic jerks like Bill McNeal, his character on NewsRadio, his SNL follow-up series. That's just a small part of why Hartman's death was so shocking and sad. In May 1998, Hartman's wife, Brynn, struggling with mental health issues, shot Hartman before turning the gun on herself. The SNL legend was just 49.