Death of Vancouver-raised model-actor Godfrey Gao sparks outpouring of grief

Fans and fellow artists are remembering Taiwanese-Canadian model-actor Godfrey Gao as a gentle soul whose charm and strong work ethic earned him a devoted following around the world.

Gao died after suffering an apparent heart attack while filming a sports reality show in the eastern Chinese city of Ningbo on Wednesday. His agency, JetStar Entertainment, confirmed his death on its official Facebook page.

The 35-year-old was filming “Chase Me,” a Chinese variety series, when he reportedly fell while running. He was rushed to a hospital where he was pronounced dead, according to his agency.

Born in Taiwan’s capital of Taipei, Gao moved to Vancouver as a child and went on to study at Capilano University.

His career took off when he returned to Taiwan, where he appeared in TV shows, films, fashion ads and magazine covers.

He rose to international prominence in 2011 when he became the first Asian male model for the luxury brand Louis Vuitton.

In 2013, Gao starred in the big-budget fantasy flick “The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones,” based on the series of young-adult novels.

Its Toronto-based producer Don Carmody remembers fans of the books “went crazy” when Gao was cast as cat-eyed warlock Magnus Bane.

“You needed somebody who was a bit androgynous but really good-looking,” Carmody said by phone Wednesday.

“(The fans) were really, really for it … He’d been in their imaginations apparently for quite a while.”

Carmody described Gao — who went by the nickname “G” on set — as a charmer, recalling that Gao often indulged autograph requests from starry-eyed extras.

Despite his gentle demeanour, Gao was “willing to do anything” for the sake of a scene, said Carmody. When the director made a last-minute decision that Gao should go pantsless onscreen, the actor stripped down to his boxers without complaint.

Paul Eberhardt, who was Gao’s basketball coach at Capilano University in 2004 and 2005, said the one-time aspiring athlete was always a team player.

Gao left for Taiwan with plans to pursue a basketball career, said Eberhardt, but ended up surprising his teammates when he found his stride in front of the camera.

“When he would come back, they’d tease him about it … because it was so unexpected,” Eberhardt said by phone. “He was a very big name with what he accomplished.”

The coach said it’s been hard for him to square how Gao could die so young.

“It’s very shocking,” Eberhardt said. “I just don’t expect that, tremendous athlete that he is, that at 35 years of age, something like this would happen.”

News of Gao’s death sparked waves of grief across social media.

“My heart is absolutely shattered,” tweeted Chinese-Canadian actor Simu Liu, who’s been cast as Marvel’s first big-screen Asian-American superhero. “Godfrey left us far too soon and in far too tragic of a way.”

Kevin Zegers, Gao’s Canadian co-star in “The Mortal Instruments,” tweeted the actor was the “kindest guy I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with.”

Actor and dancer Harry Shum Jr., who starred on ”The Mortal Instruments” TV series “Shadowhunters,” paid tribute to his predecessor in the role of Magnus Bane on Twitter.

“(Gao) was a pioneer in the Asian community that stretched our imaginations on what was possible in the industry,” wrote Shum, who also co-starred on the musical TV series “Glee.”

“To the original Magnus Bane who left us too soon, I hope you know that you made an impression on the world that will last forever.”

Australian actor Remy Hii, who acted in the hit rom-com “Crazy Rich Asians,” tweeted that he was “beyond devastated” by Gao’s death.

“This is a loss to us as a community, as Asian artists.”

Gao’s body will be transported to Taipei on Wednesday.

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