"Death stalks the movie set! Actors and crew members fall victim to spooky, cruelly ironic fate!"
That may sound like a hyped-up promotional line for a movie, but the onscreen illusions of danger can become all too real for the people making the movies. Throughout its brief but rich history, moviemaking has caused a number of deaths.
Like any profession, working in film presents its own unique risks. Film is a highly visual medium, and filmmakers have long courted disaster to create a dramatic scene. In 1928, for example, Buster Keaton allowed a 2-ton (1.8 metric tons) house frame built of solid lumber to crash down around him while standing in the one safe spot, the window frame, for "Steamboat Bill, Jr."[source: DeMain]. Fortunately, technology is increasingly reducing or eliminating the need to stage such too-close-for-comfort calculation. The sequence in "Forrest Gump," for instance, in which Forrest flees the strafing of enemy choppers in Vietnam, was digitally created at a fraction of the cost and risk to human life [source: Bernstein].
Human nature being what it is, however, poor planning, cost-cutting and ego sometimes trump reason — and probably always will, as this list illustrates. Its oldest incidents took place in the early days of Hollywood, while its most recent ones you probably remember. So without further ado, let's dim the lights and raise the curtain – we'll be starting back in the 1920s and ending up in present day.
His name may conjure images of a nerdy librarian, but Ormer Locklear was a true daredevil, a stunt-flying pioneer. Trained in the United States Army Air Service (the forerunner of today's Air Force) during World War I, he later toured the country as a newly popular type of entertainer: a barnstormer. Performing death-defying aerial feats netted him up to $3,000 a show [source: Onkst]. According to legend, Locklear pioneered the act of wing walking when he needed to screw the cap on his plane's radiator while in flight [source: University of Texas]. He's also credited with inventing the mid-air transfer — hopping from his own plane to another — and may have originated the feat of boarding a moving plane from a racing automobile [source: Onkst].
Locklear's celebrity quickly led to stardom in another burgeoning entertainment field: motion pictures. He headlined "The Great Air Robbery" in 1919, and began work on "The Skywayman" in 1920. On the night of Aug. 2, in the last stunt planned for that film's shooting schedule, Locklear performed a tailspin aptly named a "suicide dive" [source: Golden]. Searchlights, needed for filming in the dark, should have been turned off so that Locklear would be able to see and safely pull out of the dive. They were not. Either blinded or having lost his bearings, Locklear crashed and was killed on impact. He was 28 years old.
It was Thanksgiving Day 1923 on location in San Antonio, Texas, and Martha Mansfield (born Martha Erlich, also known as Martha Early) had a lot to be thankful for [source: Golden]. The 24-year-old actress was a rising star in the Hollywood scene. From appearing in a series of comedic shorts six years before, she had performed in the Ziegfeld Follies, an elite ensemble of beautiful and talented ingenues, and then was cast opposite the legendary John Barrymore in 1920's "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" [source: Martin].
She sat in a car with fellow actors, having just finished the day's shooting for her latest movie, a Civil War love story called "The Warrens of Virginia." Mansfield was still in costume, the ruffled finery befitting a Southern belle, when someone in the car struck a match. Mansfield's clothing was immediately set ablaze. Her co-star managed to contain the flames using his overcoat, and the chauffeur tore the dress from Mansfield's body, burning himself in the process. Her injuries were too severe, however, and she succumbed the next morning: Nov. 30, 1923. As small consolation, the men's actions had saved her face and neck from being burned [source: Domel].
The studio heads, dry-eyed, noted that Mansfield had mostly wrapped up her work on the film, saving them the trouble of recasting her role [source: Domel]. Her scenes were pared down, another actress promoted as the star, and the show went on.
The story of Jack Budlong stands as a cautionary tale for anyone who watches a professional at work and thinks, "That doesn't look so hard — bet I could do that." In this case, the pro to be emulated was an actor; the "that" was riding a horse at breakneck speed for a movie. Budlong was a skilled horseman and polo-playing buddy of the screen star Errol Flynn. Out of friendship, Flynn got Budlong a role as an extra in his latest film, a fictionalized biopic of George Custer called "They Died With Their Boots On"[source: Gagliasso]. Budlong would appear in the climactic scene recreating the Battle of Little Bighorn. The filming's scheduled start, June 25, 1941, marked the 65th anniversary of the real event popularly known as Custer's Last Stand. For Budlong, that proved a bad omen.
For some reason – an amateur's enthusiasm? — Budlong decided to brandish a real saber, rather than a wooden prop other professional stuntmen used, while riding into the battle scene. When his horse spooked and reared, perhaps startled by an explosive, Budlong had the presence of mind to toss the saber away before the horse threw him. Unfortunately, the sword landed with the blade facing upward. Budlong landed on it, impaling himself. He was taken to the hospital where he died a few days later of peritonitis, an inflammation of the abdominal wall [source: Gagliasso].
Tyrone Power was born and bred an actor. His grandfather was a well-known Irish comedian; his father, a respected performer of both stage and screen. The younger Power followed in the old man's footsteps — tragically, you might say. He traveled with his dad to Hollywood, and was at his side when Tyrone Power Sr. died from a heart attack he suffered after a day's filming.
A versatile talent, Power racked up a passel of screen successes [source: Biography.com]. His roles ranged from the infamous outlaw in "Jesse James" to the troubled hero in a 1957 adaptation of Hemingway's "The Sun Also Rises," and to the calculating accused murderer in Agatha Christie's "Witness for the Prosecution." Power wanted to build a reputation as a dramatic actor on these "serious" films. But the studio, eager to exploit his matinee-idol looks, cast him as a series of swashbuckling swordsman in titles like 1940's "The Mark of Zorro" and 1947's "Captain From Castile" [source: King].
Ironically, Power died almost literally with a sword in his hand. It was Nov. 11, 1958. After the eighth take of a fight scene in "Solomon and Sheba," he began to tremble, complaining of aches and chills. He quickly collapsed and died of a heart attack — just as his father had 27 years before [source: Vinciguerra].
Mitr Chaibancha first found fame as a champ of Thai boxing. Strikingly tall, as well as dark and handsome, he landed his first role in his early 20s. Movie magic quickly ensued. In the 14 years between 1957 and 1970, Chaibancha appeared in 266 released films, typically working on multiple projects at a time [source: ThaiWorldView.com].
Although he appeared in romances and musicals, it was as an action-adventure hero that he became a Thai household name, and a national treasure. Even the Queen of Thailand declared herself a fan [source: ThaiWorldView.com].
Chaibancha stayed in boxing shape, and took pride in performing his own stunts. On Oct. 8, 1970, while shooting the finale of what became his final movie, Chaibancha caught a rope ladder dangling from a helicopter, intending to ride off into the sky. For reasons unknown (some speculate his grueling schedule had caught up with him) the actor lost his grip as the chopper ascended. Chaibancha, 36 years old at the time, fell some 300 feet (91 meters) to his death. Final cuts of the movie "Insee Thong," ("Golden Eagle" in English) preserved the accident caught on film upon its release in 1974, though later versions removed the incident. Tens of thousands of fans lined the Bangkok streets for Chaibancha's cremation ceremony [source: ThaiWorldView.com].
Today, a shrine near the spot where Chaibancha died honors his memory. The same can't be said of recording technology. Only about 95 of his films remain, many in poor quality. They were shot using 16 mm film, with no negatives saved; copies must now be made from increasingly worn originals [source: ThaiWorldView.com].
Despite his life's work as an actor, Vic Morrow's greatest contribution may have been his death. Morrow was a veteran actor of both TV and film. His credits include the hit World War II series "Combat!" and the groundbreaking film "Blackboard Jungle" and TV miniseries "Roots." But by 1982 it had been some years since his last big role, and appearing in "Twilight Zone: The Movie" could have marked his comeback.
In the movie, Morrow's racist character experiences a Scrooge-like change of heart through time travel. In the climactic scene, he rescues two Vietnamese children from helicopter fire during the Vietnam War. But the helicopter flying into an exploding charge was not part of the script. The accident blinded the pilot, the chopper crashed to earth, crushing the girl, 6-year-old Renee Chen, and decapitating Morrow and the 7-year-old boy, Myca Dinh Le [source: Weintraub].
The grisly, graphic death and celebrity of the film's director, John Landis, finally brought much-needed attention to the issue of safety on the Hollywood movie set [source: Weintraub]. As a direct result, studio heads and workers' unions hammered out a codified set of safety standards. What's more, both Landis and the Warner Bros. studio were charged with involuntary manslaughter. Although acquitted, they settled civil suits with substantial payments to Morrow's children and the families of the child actors, who also had been illegally hired [source: Longwell].
Actor Roy Kinnear hadn't expected to perform the strenuous stunt of riding a galloping horse across the Alcantara Bridge in Toledo, Spain, for the 1989 film "The Return of the Musketeers." Kinnear had a long, lauded career, including roles in the Beatles cult film "Help!" and the classic "Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory." But by late 1988 when the movie was filming, Kinnear was now 54 years old and weighed in at more than 200 pounds (91 kilograms), and a horseman he was not [source: Cooper]. Still, he accepted the challenge.
It was a fateful decision. Kinnear was thrown from his horse and fractured his pelvis. Though not life-threatening, the injury was complicated by internal bleeding. Kinnear died in the hospital one day later.
Like Vic Morrow's death six years earlier, the accident shone a spotlight on the darker side of moviemaking. Kinnear's family sued the production company, and witnesses' testimony revealed the pressure actors and crew members felt to cut corners and keep quiet regarding safety on the set. As with the Morrow case, the producers didn't accept guilt, but settled with a payment of 650,000 pounds (about $1 million) [source: Cooper].
Brandon Lee was just 8 years old when his father, the martial artist and actor Bruce Lee, died at the age of 32. Lee grew up to be an actor but, like his father, died young. The real-life story behind his death while filming 1993's "The Crow" reads like skillfully plotted fiction: a chain of minor lapses in judgment ends in the death of an innocent victim.
It began when the prop crew, untrained in firearms, made homemade "dummies": harmless, disarmed bullets used for close-up shots of a loaded gun. The crew bought conventional cartridges as well as the entire ammunition assembly: bullets, gunpowder and a primer, the small charge that triggers the gunpowder [source: Ferguson]. They removed the bullets, emptied the gunpowder and then placed the now-empty bullets back in. That same gun was used to shoot blanks in the scene where Lee's character is murdered [source: Wilkins]. Blanks are cartridges with the gunpowder and primer but without bullets. Blanks provide the flash, bang and smoke used to show a gun being fired [source: Ferguson].
On the fateful day, the firearms expert had left the set because the "dangerous" scenes had already been shot [source: Harris]. If he'd been there, he might have checked the gun and seen that one bullet from the dummies was left in the barrel. He would have known that the blanks could expel that bullet with lethal force — and that's just what happened. Fired from 15 feet (4.6 meters) away, the bullet tore into Lee's abdomen and through his vital organs, coming to rest at his spine [source: Wilkins]. Despite hours of surgery and 60 pints (28 liters) of blood transfusions, Lee died of massive internal bleeding [source: Harris]. He was 28 years old.
Skydiving takes equal parts daring and attention to detail. Harry O'Connor possessed both in abundance and turned his fascination for parachuting from airplanes into a career. His credits as stuntman and aerial coordinator ranged from the '90s films "The Perfect Storm" to "Charlie's Angels" and "Tomorrow Never Dies [source: IMBd.com].
In 2002, his expertise brought him to Prague, Czech Republic, for the Vin Diesel film "xXx." One stunt was particularly exacting: O'Connor would parasail along the Vltava River, pulled by a speedboat toward the Palacky Bridge. He would pass under the bridge with inches to spare, then drop onto a submarine while the parachute, for dramatic effect, crashed against the bridge railing. O'Connor filmed the stunt several times, performing it to a tee. Yet, he felt one more attempt could be better. He was wrong. On his last take, O'Connor's judgment was slightly off, and he slammed into one of the bridge's stone pillars [source: Oldenburg]. He was 45 years old.
If Brandon Lee died from tragic incompetence, the death of Sarah Jones was a criminal affair. Jones was a 27-year-old camera assistant working on "Midnight Rider," a biopic of the musician Gregg Allman. On the morning of Feb. 20, 2014, the crew was setting up a scene on a railroad bridge that spanned a river in rural Georgia. The main prop, a bed frame and mattress, was set on the tracks.
The crew had been assured that only two trains used that bridge, and both had already passed. When an unexpected third train loomed into view, the crew scrambled for safety. Jones and some others made it to the narrow walkway that bordered the tracks, clinging to the girders that rose up outside it [source: Johnson].
In their haste to escape, the bed was left behind. The train hit at around 60 miles (97 kilometers) per hour, sending metal bars flying. By the time the train had passed, six crew members were seriously injured. Jones lay dead on the tracks, killed after being struck by either the mangled metal frame or the train itself [source: Johnson].
Later investigations would suggest that no one had been given permission to use the bridge, that the director was accustomed to flouting laws and common-sense precautions, and the producers had been less than honest about the dangers the crew faced [source: Yamato].
The case against the producers went to trial one year later. In exchange for guilty pleas, most of the defendants received lighter sentences, primarily fines and probation; director Randall Miller received a two-year sentence [source: Yamato].
The HowStuffWorks podcast The Soundtrack Show looks at the movie life of the 13th century Latin hymn 'Dies Irae.'
Author's Note: 10 Horrific Deaths That Happened While Filming a Movie
I'm not generally drawn to the morbid, but researching this article fascinated me. With death, as with movies, it's not always the cut-and-dried facts that interest us, but the stories surrounding them. If the stories are compelling, even if only by their bizarre, what-are-the-chances nature, we'll overlook the ghastly details. Art imitates life indeed.
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