March 27 2006 — , 2006 -- Will Ferrell is not 36 years old, he's not a graduate of the University of California, and he's not dead. After a press release riddled with mistakes reported his death two weeks ago, the only ones grieving are the ones who sent flowers.
In the latest celebrity death hoax, the 38-year-old comic reportedly died in a paragliding accident. The March 14 report, posted on the iNewswire Web site, was quickly withdrawn, but not before creating a small tremor in the Hollywood media.
"Not much to say other than we heard and read about it this morning and reacted accordingly," says Matthew Labov, Ferrell's publicist, who reported that Ferrell is in Canada shooting a movie. "There was no point in trying to track [the source] down as it was obviously a hoax."
It's unlikely we'll ever know who is responsible. INewswire says the story was posted by someone using a Web address that can't be traced. And Airtek Paragliding -- the company Ferrell reportedly hired for a thrill ride -- also claims it was punk'd.
"I have no knowledge of Will Ferrell paragliding," says Airtek president Josh Meyers.
And so, one more celebrity death rumor is put to rest, only until the next one comes along.
You can blame the media, you can blame the Internet, and you can blame a society that is hopelessly obsessed with its stars. But the twisted tradition of death hoaxing has a long history.
And even when a star is actually dead, the details are so often twisted to make the story more dramatic.
Jerry Mathers -- the cute kid on "Leave It To Beaver" -- didn't die in Vietnam as many believe. Mathers, now 57, did serve in the Air Force National Guard during the war and in his 1998 biography, he says someone with his name did die in combat, and he's been explaining that in interviews ever since. If you need living proof, Mathers even makes an appearance in the new film "Larry the Cable Guy: Health Inspector."
Likewise, it was easy for the public to believe that 250-pound singer "Mama" Cass Elliot of the Mamas and the Papas died after choking on a ham sandwich. She actually suffered a heart attack.
The news media is often blamed when death rumors get started, and that's often the case. But often, these rumors take on an unstoppable life of their own.
"People magazine mentioned in passing that Abe Vigoda was dead, and 25 years later, he's 85 and still laughing about it," says Laurie Mann, who runs the Internet's Dead People Server, which includes a database of celebrities who've been erroneously reported dead.
Mann's list includes such luminaries as James Earl Jones. When a Pittsburgh sports announcer heard that James Earl Ray had died, he immediately confused him with the man best known as the voice of Darth Vader. Nevertheless, Jones is 75, and the force is still strong with him.
Such mistakes are not uncommon. Tom Bosley, the TV actor known to many as Mr. Cunningham on "Happy Days" has been confused with David Doyle, who played Bosley on "Charlie's Angels." Bosley is a robust 78, but the man who played "Bosley" died in 1997.
Perhaps the most famous media gaffe came in 1998, when several news organizations reported briefly that Bob Hope was dead. Before it could be corrected, the erroneous report reached Congress, and Rep. Bob Stump of Arizona made the announcement on the House floor, with the proceedings broadcast across the country via CSPAN.
Hope, who was 95 at the time, was eating breakfast when he heard the news and had a good laugh about it. He would live to celebrate his 100th birthday before passing away.
"The media is very focused on celebrities. They typically begin preparing obits before a star passes away, and these advanced obits sometimes reach the public before they are intended to be released," Mann says.
"But in these days of blogging, it's very easy for a baseless rumor to run wild. In the old days, people would start speculating that a celebrity was dead simply because they'd been involved in controversy or weren't looking well. Now, with the Internet, you can tell 20,000 people or more in a single flash. Whitney Houston has been reported dead many times."
The report of Ferrell's death -- a clear hoax -- represents a different matter. It was a deliberate attempt to deceive the public with a false press release. As devious as it was, however, it wasn't unprecedented.
Last January John Basedow, famous for his "Fitness Made Simple" infomercials, had reportedly died in Thailand, where he was vacationing during the tsunami. The story, published on PRWeb, was quickly retracted, and he's still pumping iron.
The annals of dead wrong death rumors are indeed thick, but here are a few of the strangest:
1. Paul McCartney -- Conspiracy theorists ran wild in the late 1960s, chasing rumors that Paul McCartney had died and the surviving Beatles were covering it up to keep the band together. According to one rumor, John Lennon is whispering, "I buried Paul," at the end of "Strawberry Fields Forever." To others, it sounded as if Lennon was saying "I'm very bored," although Lennon later claimed it might have been "cranberry sauce."
The Paul is Dead rumor led many fans to play the song, "Revolution #9" backward. Some claimed they could hear a mysterious chilling voice muttering, "Turn me on, dead man." Others simply damaged their record players.
McCartney finally felt compelled to let people know he was alive. "Rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated," he told Life magazine in November 1969, paraphrasing Mark Twain. "However, if I was dead, I'm sure I'd be the last to know."
2. Bobby McFerrin -- If you haven't heard a lot of the man who sang "Don't Worry, Be Happy," it isn't because he committed suicide. According to rumors spread by e-mail in the early '90s, the one-hit wonder took his own life. Perhaps it was all started by people who just assumed that no one could really be that happy.
3. Scott Baio -- The headline could have been "Joanie Mourns Chachi," but thankfully, the Internet rumor never got that far. But it wasn't so funny in 1999 when a misleading e-mail reached his family. "My parents called me, crying," Baio told The New York Times Magazine. "They heard it from my brother, who heard it on the radio. And they're crying, and I'm thinking, 'Someone died in my family!' Little did I know it was me."
4. Jared Fogel -- The former 425-pounder who shot to fame in 1998 with the "subway diet" was rumored to have turned into a cocaine fiend. Jared Fogel subsequently poked fun of the swirling controversy on a 2002 episode of "South Park" called "Jared has AIDS"
5. William Hung -- The "American Idol" reject became a novelty song sensation with his cringe-inducing version of "She Bangs." But just as his career was built on a national joke, rumors of his death were created in jest.
A satirical report on the Broken Newz Web site reported that Hung had overdosed on heroin. While Broken Newz clearly states "stories listed on this site are not real," Hung was forced to issue a denial. In any event, it had to be less painful than listening to "O Come All Ye Faithful" on his Christmas album.
6. Taco Bell Chihuahua --- With all apologies to Paris Hilton's Tinkerbell, Ginger, the Taco Bell spokes-pooch might be the world's most famous Chihuahua. In 2000, when the 8-pound star suddenly disappeared after three years of heavy rotation on TV, rumor spread that little Ginger had died at the hand of a veterinarian who was careless with a needle.
Rest assured, 9-year-old Ginger is retired and living off residuals and probably lapping up caviar for her years of barking out "Yo Quiero Taco Bell!"
Buck Wolf is entertainment producer at ABCNEWS.com. "The Wolf Files" is published Tuesdays.