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Carrie Fisher dies at 60, leaving behind a legacy of performance, writing, and advocacy

The actress and writer became famous for Star Wars, then used her fame to speak up about mental illness.

Wizard World Comic Con Chicago 2016 - Day 4
Carrie Fisher speaks at Wizard World Comic Con Chicago in August.
Photo by Daniel Boczarski/Getty Images for Wizard World
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Carrie Fisher, best known for originating the role of Leia in the Star Wars films but also a tremendous writer and character actress, has died after suffering a massive heart attack while on a flight from London to Los Angeles on December 23. She was 60.

A statement released to People magazine on behalf of Fisher’s daughter, Billie Lourd, confirmed Fisher’s death this morning:

“It is with a very deep sadness that Billie Lourd confirms that her beloved mother Carrie Fisher passed away at 8:55 this morning,” reads the statement. “She was loved by the world and she will be missed profoundly. Our entire family thanks you for your thoughts and prayers.”

Carrie Fisher had two immensely successful careers — actor and writer

Fisher lived the sort of humorous, anecdote-filled life that often seems to follow natural storytellers around.

After making her film debut in Hal Ashby’s classic 1975 satire Shampoo, she burst into fame alongside Mark Hamill and Harrison Ford as part of the trio of stars at the heart of 1977’s Star Wars. But although she returned for both The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, in 1980 and 1983 respectively, she followed her creative muse in directions away from the mega-stardom she briefly flirted with.

Nevertheless, Fisher continued to make frequent appearances in film and TV — usually as the long-suffering, quip-delivering best friend, a role she played to perfection in 1989’s When Harry Met Sally. In recent years, she’s returned to the Star Wars universe in The Force Awakens and played memorable guest parts on TV shows as diverse as British comedy Catastrophe and Family Guy. Yet her writing career also took off in the ‘80s and ‘90s, especially when she was writing about herself.

Fisher was unusually open and forthcoming about her struggles with mental illness and drug addiction, and her terrific semi-autobiographical novel Postcards from the Edge later turned into a Mike Nichols film starring Meryl Streep, for which Fisher wrote the screenplay — dug into both a dark period when she nearly died from a drug overdose and her relationship with her famous mother, actress Debbie Reynolds. (Fisher’s father was singer and occasional actor Eddie Fisher, though her parents separated when she was very young.)

At a time when the profession was heavily dominated by men, she worked as a script doctor for films ranging from Lethal Weapon 3 to The Wedding Singer, often brought in to punch up dialogue for a film’s female characters.

Fisher also had a memorable personal life, which included romantic relationships with everyone from Dan Aykroyd to Paul Simon, to whom she was very briefly married. Earlier in 2016, she made headlines for revealing that she and Ford had had an affair during the filming of the original Star Wars. Their characters would later become romantically involved on screen in the Star Wars sequels.

Carrie Fisher, Star Wars
Carrie Fisher joins her Star Wars costars Mark Hamill and Harrison Ford to talk about the film in June 1977, shortly after its release.
Steve Larson/Getty Images

No matter what else she was doing, Star Wars always loomed heavily in Fisher’s life, and she had the sort of affectionate relationship to it you might have with a hugely popular older sibling — she loved the films (and was reportedly one of the few actors in the original to think it would be a hit), but also seemed amused by how often she was asked questions about them — though that was perhaps an offshoot of how perfect Fisher was with a well-placed quip. She was self-deprecating about the experience, as if she knew that Leia was a very different person from Carrie Fisher.

“I'd like to wear my old [cinnamon buns] hairstyle again — but with white hair,” she told TV Guide when talking about the then-upcoming Force Awakens in 2014. “I think that would be funny.”

She returned to the franchise that made her famous with Episode VIII, to be released in December 2017.

Fisher was also a leading advocate for mental health and fighting drug addiction

Fisher was open about her diagnosis with bipolar disorder, and how that condition dovetailed with her addictions to cocaine and prescription medications. Much of her writing about herself, in particular her 2008 memoir Wishful Drinking (later made into a one-woman show, which was filmed for HBO) and her 2016 memoir The Princess Diarist, focused on how her struggles with both had shaped her as a person.

In 2000, Fisher openly spoke with ABC’s Diane Sawyer about her bipolar diagnosis and how it informed her drug addiction. “I thought they told me I was manic depressive to make me feel better about being a drug addict,” she said. “If you could just control yourself, you had an indulged childhood, you were a child of privilege — I don’t know, that’s what I thought. You’re just a drug addict.”

She explained the two sides of her bipolar disorder to Sawyer as two different personalities: Roy and Pam. “One is Roy, rollicking Roy, the wild ride of a mood. And Pam, sediment Pam, who stands on the shore and sobs. Sometimes the tide is in, sometimes it’s out.”

In 2013, she spoke with People magazine about what it felt like to be in the throes of a manic bipolar episode, which she entered while a featured performer on board a cruise:

I wasn’t sleeping. I was writing on everything. I was writing in books; I would have written on walls. I literally would bend over and be writing on the ground and [my assistant] would try to talk to me, and I would be unable to respond. That was what I spent my teenage years doing: handwrite, handwrite, handwrite to the point where I’m running out of ink. I can’t wait to see what I wrote. I don’t know what the hell it says. I do know this – and it was really bizarre – I was trapped in a metaphor. Everything I looked at had a meaning. Everything was a warning or a sign.

In 2016, she received a Lifetime Achievement in Cultural Humanism from the Harvard Humanist Hub. The organization remarked: “Ms. Fisher's work humanizes a popular culture obsessed with celebrity, and helps readers laugh at the absurdity of contemporary society and relationships. Her forthright activism and outspokenness about addiction, mental illness and agnosticism have advanced public discourse on these issues with creativity and empathy.”

Watch: A look back at 2016