Death Becomes Them: Dead Celebs Cash In

Kicking the bucket can be like hitting the jackpot in Hollywood -- celebrities are getting fat paychecks from the grave.

For example, Tupac Shakur's latest album, Better Dayz, helped the rapper rake in over $7 million in profits last year -- pretty good for a guy who's been dead almost seven years.

And Tupac isn't alone among celebs -- or their heirs -- who've profited from death. Tupac, who's No. 10 on Forbes' list of the richest dead celebrities, joins the ranks of No. 1 Elvis Presley ($37 million), No. 3 John Lennon ($20 million) and No. 9 Jimi Hendrix ($8 million).

The Internet has fueled the cult-like followings of dead stars, with people looking for fan sites, biographies and even autopsy photos of their favorite celebs, according to Aaron Schatz, writer of's "The Lycos 50."

"Certain stars, when they pass away, achieve this status as an evergreen celebrity in the eyes of the public," he said.

Web sites like get about 800,000 hits a day, "Tupac" is consistently one of's 50 most-queried terms and people are buzzing about recently deceased singer June Carter Cash's soon-to-be-released album, Wildwood Flower.

Although household names like Lennon and Presley have banked big bucks for years, lesser-known personalities are also finding postmortem success. Some even produce more after death than in life. Tupac, who was killed in a drive-by shooting in Las Vegas in 1996, released four albums before his death and 16 after it.

Death can also even help launch a career. When virtuoso vocalist Eva Cassidy's album Songbird landed on top of the Billboard's pop catalog chart for nine consecutive weeks in 2001, fans and critics wanted more. But there wasn't much more: Cassidy had died in 1996 of melanoma at age 33, leaving behind only a small body of recording.

Bill Straw, founder of Blix Street Records, which discovered Cassidy's music just before her death, said that although her passing isn't the only reason she's famous, however, interest in her life and death helped pave the way for larger commercial success.

"The fact that she died certainly adds poignancy to the music, but if the music wasn't there in the first place it wouldn't matter," Straw said.

He estimated that Cassidy sold 20,000 albums while she was alive and more than 5,000,000 since her death.

Once a celebrity passes away, control over his or her intellectual property, which includes artistic works, images and likeness, goes to the heirs or guardians of his or her estate. The property can be used at their discretion, according to Owen Sloane, of Berger Khan law offices who represents deceased musician Frank Zappa's estate.

"The right of publicity generally dies with the person. At that stage, it is really the decision of the guardian whether they want to license it or not," Sloane said. "If the guardian doesn't care then there's nobody to complain."

A combination of new laws protecting dead celebrity's intellectual property rights and technologies like computer-generated imagery have made marketing dead celebs big business, said Mark Roesler, founder of the talent representation agency CMG Worldwide.

Indeed, many dead celebs can be seen hawking products they never used, like the 1997 vacuum cleaner commercial in which Fred Astaire dances with a Dirt Devil or the 1991 digitization of Humphrey Bogart into a Diet Coke ad.

And Roesler said advertisers often prefer dead celebs to living ones.

"Living celebrities can be very risky to use because you're at the mercy of the whim of what the public's feeling on them is," Roesler said. "If there's some public controversy, it can ruin a campaign."

Roesler's agency represents 300 clients, two-thirds of whom are deceased including Marilyn Monroe, James Dean and Babe Ruth. And many of his clients regularly pull in seven-figure-a-year salaries, rivaling endorsement contracts for the living.

However, just because technology exists to create an original movie with a digital Monroe, talent agencies aren't out to become grave robbers, Roesler said.

"We want to market a celebrity the way they would have wanted to be marketed when they were alive," he said.