How Hollywood seems to be embracing use of ‘ghost actors’ – Alastair Stewart

Robin Williams was so concerned about the use of his likeness after his death that he put protections in place to stop this happening, writes Alastair Stewart.

Robin Williams put protections in place to stop the use of his likeness after his death (Picture: Peter Kramer/Getty Images)
Robin Williams put protections in place to stop the use of his likeness after his death (Picture: Peter Kramer/Getty Images)

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker might be getting mixed reviews, but most people were undoubtedly thrilled to see Carrie Fisher back on the big screen, one last time. The Princess Leia actress died in 2016, but thanks to the magic of movies, is back one final time.

Using unused footage for actors isn’t a new trick – Oliver Reed was famously resurrected with CGI to complete his role in Gladiator after he died mid-production. Nearly 20 years after that feet, it seems we’re edging closer to the genuine possibility that actors just might be immortal.

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Martin Scorsese’s gangster epic ‘The Irishman’ ushers in a new era of technical brilliance in how it digitally ages and de-ages its cast across 30 years. Both the Terminator franchise has used body doubles and computer effects to make Arnold Schwarzenegger resemble his 1990s self for years, and Marlon Brandon returned from the dead in Superman Returns.

Seeing which way the wind was blowing, Robin Williams put protections in place to ensure his likeness could never be used after his death, including as a hologram. Peter Cushing was entirely resurrected with his superimposed digital image on a similar-looking actor for Star Wars: Rogue One. With a new dialogue, he was essentially resurrected with uncanny accuracy, wholly justifying Williams’ concerns.

Fisher used to joke that George Lucas owned her likeness. In her own words, “the mistake was I signed away my likeness for free” at the age of 19. In Cushing’s case, permission was sought from his estate. Death, in many respects with the advent of advanced CGI and digital technology, is temporary.

It will not be long before a new, avant-garde wave of cinema shifts us into the surreal world of seeing Humphrey Bogart and Paul Newman in their latest films.

An over-reliance on CGI has been a bugbear for filmgoers for some time now. The ditching of the practical stunt and the suspension of your imagination remains part of the fun. Christopher Nolan, in particular, is a master at making cinema as real as possible for the sake of the experience. The James Bond franchise was nearly crippled in 2002 when ‘Die Another Day’ put invisible cars and green screens ahead of traditionally stunted action.

There’s a place for both, but it’s going in the direction when eventually the likeness of stars, not in flashback vignettes, can be replicated and reused without actually requiring the original actor. Everything seems to be closer to that 80s nostalgia cafe in ‘Back to the Future’. It will eventually happen, and the next stage of cinema will star its golden ghosts.

The philosopher Roger Scruton makes the point that one of the differences between “high culture” and “popular culture” is the level of originality and studious innovation in the former. If we start bringing actors back from the dead who will be charged with interpreting their craft; who will – as Scruton points out – have the gall to replicate the talent behind the name for the sake of a popular trope?

“All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players,” said Shakespeare. We should take a smidgen of confidence he meant living people when he uttered these words.

Alastair Stewart is a freelance writer and public affairs consultant. He regularly writes about politics and history with a particular interest in nationalism, and the life of Sir Winston Churchill. Read more from Alastair at and follow him on Twitter @agjstewart