Movie making is a risky business. It always begins with a financial risk, and sometimes the script calls for necessary, calculated risks to take place on set or location. Stunts, pyrotechnics, firefights: these are just a few things that bring with them an inherent risk when playing big budget make believe. Throughout the history of filmmaking, there have been more than a few tragedies on set. Some have led to abysmal productions, and terrible movies, while others have served as catalyst to funerals. Here are 19 of the worst disasters on movie sets.
30. Syriana (2005)
Some actors put themselves through hell for a performance and such is the case with George Clooney in 2005’s Syriana. Clooney won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role as a CIA operative in this Stephen Gaghan-directed film, but that accolade came with a physical toll.
While filming the scene in which Clooney’s character is tied to a chair and tortured, the chair is thrown backwards to the ground. The impact caused Clooney to hit his head and hurt his back, but it was thought to be only a minor injury at the time. However, before long, the actor began suffering from crippling headaches that became so painful, Clooney briefly considered taking his own life. The situation also wasn’t helped by the fact that Clooney wasn’t in the greatest health at the time, having gained nearly 40 pounds in just one month to prepare for the role.
The actor began depending on alcohol to get through the pain, but several bouts of surgery allowed the actor to eventually recover. Still, Clooney lives with pain from the injury to this day and it’s actually prevented him from accepting certain roles, such as Napoleon Solo in The Man From U.N.C.L.E., which eventually went to Henry Cavill.
29. Maze Runner: The Death Cure (2018)
The Maze Runner series is collectively a surprisingly good YA adaptation and one of the few outside of The Hunger Games and Twilight to enjoy continued commercial success through multiple installments. Though they feature an ensemble cast, part of the reason why the Maze Runner movies work is because of Dylan O’Brien’s charismatic lead performance, which makes it all the more shocking to discover that the third movie, The Death Cure, nearly killed him. Not because it was difficult to make, mind you (though we’re sure blockbuster movies are exhausting work) but because of a stunt gone awry.
While performing a stunt that required him to move from the top of one car to another, O’Brien ended up being dragged under the vehicle he was strapped on and suffered a concussion, fractured cheekbones and orbital sockets, as well as lacerations. Production ended up having to be pushed back several weeks to allow the 24-year-old to recover, but the delay was eventually extended to nearly a full year — from a planned February 2017 release to January 2018 — when it was discovered that O’Brien’s injuries were more serious than originally believed. Fortunately, O’Brien went on to make a full recovery.
28. Live Free Or Die Hard (2007)
Having worked on nearly 100 movies and TV shows, Larry Rippenkroeger is one of the most experienced stunt performers in Hollywood and served as Bruce Willis’ stunt double on the set of Live Free or Die Hard. While performing a stunt on a fire escape, Rippenkroeger fell twenty-five feet and was knocked unconscious. His injuries were extensive and included numerous broken facial bones and ribs, fractures to both his wrists, and a deflated lung. Production was even temporarily shut down, so essential were Rippenkroeger’s contributions.
Willis, who is friends with Rippenkroeger, paid for the stuntman’s parents to stay in a hotel near the one their son was being treated at, and the star frequently visited Rippenkroeger at the hospital while he recovered. Fortunately for all involved, Rippenkroeger eventually recovered and resumed working, even serving as Willis’ stunt double again on the sequel to Live Free or Die Hard, A Good Day to Die Hard, in 2013.
27. The Avengers (2012)
A highly sought after stuntman in the comic book movie genre especially, Jeremy Fitzgerald has appeared in movies such as Spider-Man 3, Logan, as well as many of the Marvel Cinematic Universe titles. While performing a stunt on The Avengers that required him to fall thirty feet off a building, Fitzgerald got his foot caught, which resulted in his head slamming into a brick.
The impact tore off a large part of his scalp but rather than go to the hospital, Fitzgerald just slapped a bandage on the wound and went back to work. As it turns out, Fitzgerald was incredibly lucky, as he was very close to hitting an extremely sharp rain gutter that could have sliced off much more than a piece of scalp had he come into contact with it.
26. Back To The Future Part II (1989)
You may not think it, but the hover-board sequence in Back to the Future Part II required some rather dangerous stunt work — so much so that one of the performers actually bowed out. Lisa McCullough, who worked on the stunt team that chased Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) around on hover-boards, was uncomfortable performing a stunt that called for the team to crash into the clock tower after multiple failed practice attempts. McCullough’s spot was taken by Cheryl Wheeler-Dixon, who was herself nervous about the stunt but ended up doing it anyway.
Unfortunately, Wheeler-Dixon crashed into a pillar during the stunt and fell thirty feet onto concrete. She could have easily died from the fall, but luckily escaped with face and wrist injuries that were still serious enough to require reconstructive surgery. She recovered and went on to perform stunts in films such as Die Hard 2, Demolition Man, and Charlies Angels.
25. Fury (2014)
This on-set disaster is bit unique in that the identity of the stunt performer who was accidentally stabbed on the set of the World War II movie Fury has never actually been revealed. What we do know is that while practicing an action sequence, one stuntman accidentally stabbed another with the bayonet attached to the muzzle of his rifle. The 35-year-old performer was immediately rushed to the hospital but was reportedly in good spirits the entire time, talking and laughing as he left the set, acting as if nothing had happened. Stunt performers truly are made of different stuff than the rest of us!
24. Titanic (1997)
Watching Titanic, and one would presume there were more than a few issues that could result in disastrous results. James Cameron is no stranger to forging ahead through tough circumstances, and he did on Titanic to impressive box office results. Still, the film brought with it many inherent risks. On the low end of what went wrong: there was a day when the entire crew, and all the extras, were offered funky food that left many with food poisoning. On the actual production, the ship model (that was hydraulically powered) left many battered, and bruised, with several sustaining more serious injuries: fractured face, broken legs, lacerated spleen. Kate Winslet experienced hypothermia after one cold night of shooting, and almost drowned when a wall of water crushed her in a hallway. But…nobody died, and the film went on to break the billion dollar box office mark.
23. Kick-Ass 2 (2013)
It’s easy to forget that child actors also need stunt doubles sometimes and that the stunts they perform can also be incredibly dangerous. Such is the case with Chloë Grace Moretz, whose stunt double on the film Kick-Ass 2 was fellow teenager Talila Craig. During a fight sequence, Craig was thrown against a wall so hard that her head cracked open when it hit a bar. This was caused by a hydraulic system, which had pushed her a couple of inches too far off her mark. Thankfully, Craig made a full recovery and has continued with her stunt career. You can see her work in films such as Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and Justice League.
22. The Passion of The Christ (2004)
So, you wanna play Jesus, do ya? There’s a bible verse in which Jesus–post ascension–visits a man by the name of Ananias, and tells him about the notorious Christian killer, Saul, who would later become the legendary apostle, Paul. He tells Ananias to go visit the hater, and suggests, “I will show him how much he must suffer for my name’s sake.” We’re imagining something similar for Jim Caviezel on the set of The Passion of The Christ. Jim was busted up when he finished shooting The Passion… He got the legitimate method acting experience when playing Jesus. For starters, he was struck by lightning while prepping for the Sermon on The Mount scene, his body armor failed to protect his ribs while being whipped, allowing him to feel the brunt of the blow from the Roman soldiers, and he separated his shoulder while carrying the cross.
21. Wind (1992)
During the production of Wind, a movie about sailors trying to win the American Cup sailing prize starring Matthew Modine, Jennifer Grey, and the late Cliff Robertson, stunt coordinator Chris Anderson suffered a freak accident during his lunch break. Anderson decided to sit on one of the yachts while eating his meal, only for another thirty foot yacht to collide with the boat he was sitting on. Following the accident, Anderson had to have his right leg amputated below the knee. Fortunately, Anderson continued to work as a stunt coordinator following the accident and has since served on films such as King Kong (2005) and Knowing (2009).
20. The Hangover Part II (2011)
You wouldn’t think a comedy movie such as The Hangover Part II would demand much in the way of stunt work but it had a sizable stunt team that included Scott McLean, who had previously done work in films such as The Matrix and Star Wars Episode III – Revenge of the Sith. During a scene that called for Ed Helms’ character to stick his head out a taxi window, McLean filled in as Helms’ stunt double and ended up hitting his head off an oncoming taxi cab.
McLean’s injuries included having flesh torn from his skull and a large gash on the right side of his head. Arguing that the vehicle was travelling faster than it was supposed to, thus making the stunt much more dangerous than originally intended, McLean would up suing Warner Bros. The case was settled out of court for an undisclosed sum.
19. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 (2010)
David Holmes served as Daniel Radcliffe’s stunt double throughout the entire Harry Potter series and the two became close friends over the years, making what befell Holmes on the set of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 all the more personally tragic. While working on a flying scene, Holmes was knocked into a wall by a staged explosion and fell to the ground. Almost immediately, Holmes said he couldn’t feel his legs. After being taken to a hospital, Holmes learned that he had broken his neck and that the damage was irreversible. The impact of hitting a wall with such force left Holmes tetraplegic, meaning he is now paralyzed in both legs and arms.
18. The Cannonball Run (1981)
The 24-year-old Heidi Von Beltz was hired to stunt double for Farrah Fawcett in the 1981 screwball action flick, The Cannonball Run. It was a dream job for the competition skier, who was also an aspiring actress. What better way to be seen than to be rubbing shoulders with the gorgeous Farrah Fawcett. The film relied on heavy stunt work, as it was about an illegal auto race from sea to shining sea. The film starred Burt Reynolds, and went on to tremendous box office success, and even spawned a sequel, but not without tragedy. During a driving scene in which Heidi was doubling for Farrah, the car she was riding in was involved in an accident. The vehicle was mangled, and Heidi was left inside fighting for her life. The accident destroyed Heidi’s cervical spine, and she was left paralyzed.
17. Waterworld (1995)
In a lesson of Murphy’s Law on a movie set, Waterworld was a clash of the on set Kevins. The film’s star, Kevin Costner wasn’t vibing with director Kevin Reynolds. In fact, few of the crew or the rest of the cast were vibing with Kevin Costner. According to Hollywood legend and lore, Kevin Costner was enjoying $4,500 per night digs after shooting, while the crew were holed up in little Hawaiian huts. In addition to the film going over budget, and Kevin Reynolds incessant disagreements with Costner, the production endured terrible weather, numerous jellyfish stings, and stuntman/legendary big wave surfer Laird Hamilton was lost at sea after his wave runner ran out of gas, and he drifted into open water for hours. He needed to be rescued by the United States Coast Guard. Everything about this production, and the finished product, was a disaster.
16. The Conqueror (1956)
Back in the early 1950s, a group of American filmmakers led some of the biggest names in the business to the Nevada desert to shoot what was to be a biopic about the legendary Genhgis Khan. Who else would Hollywood grab to play the role of the first Mongolian Emperor other than John Wayne. Because John Wayne was the prototypical badass of the era, producers dressed him up in semi-ridiculous garb, and let him play the role. Unfortunately for John, and the rest of the cast and crew, they were shooting down wind, and on soil that had been contaminated from the nuclear tests that took place mid-century. Within 25 years of the release, 91 of the 220 cast and crew members had been diagnosed with cancer. This was injury to insult, because the film was a relative flop, and is still considered one of John Wayne’s worst.
15. The Hobbit (2012-14)
Peter Jackson’s three film, nine hour adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s tiny fantasy novel The Hobbit was largely a waste of time and resources — not just because the movies themselves were vastly inferior to Jackson’s own Lord of the Rings trilogy, but because the production needlessly claimed the lives of multiple animals.
According to an expose from The Hollywood Reporter, 27 animals died during production. While some of those deaths can be attributed to natural causes, many were a direct result of poor living conditions and treatment. For example, sinkholes created by underground streams became death traps for horses and other animals, who would fall in and drown, or break bones and asphyxiate. THR’s report notes that the fault lies primarily with Hollywood’s standards of self-regulation, which allowed the American Humane Association to avoid holding anyone accountable for the deaths because they didn’t technically occur on-set during filming. Such is the cost of making bloated fantasy trilogies, apparently.
14. Transformers: Dark of The Moon (2011)
Jumping into recent memory: Transformers: Dark of The Moon. This was the third film in the current Paramount produced franchise, and the last of the films to star Shia LaBeouf. In one of the scenes, several extras were offered $25 extra to drive their cars along a stretch of highway, opposite a stunt that was taking place. Gabriela Cedillo, who was 24 at the time of shooting, was cruising in her car when a toe cable snapped from one of the stunt vehicles, whipped through the air, then plunged through her windshield, striking her in the head. The fact she lived was miraculous, but her life is that of a permanently disabled woman. She’ll need 24/7 assisted care for the duration of her life. The production settled for $18 million in damages, but it’s discouraging to know the same stunt failed the day prior. It could have been prevented.
13. Vampire In Brooklyn (1995)
This largely forgotten horror-comedy from the mid-90s starred Eddie Murphy as a vampire looking to keep his line alive and Angela Bassett as a NYPD detective in his crossharis. Vampire in Brooklyn is certainly not among Wes Craven’s best films but what’s even more regrettable is that the film’s production resulted in the death of a stunt performer.
Bassett’s stunt double, Sonja Davis, fell forty-two feet to her death while performing a stunt. Davis’ family ended up suing Paramount Studios and Eddie Murphy Productions for $10 million, alleging that the crew failed to provide proper safety equipment. The family’s attorney died in July of 1996 in the midst of legal proceedings and it’s unclear if the case was settled out of court or if it was dropped altogether.
12. Red Heat (1988)
Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and James Belushi as two police officers from opposite sides of the Iron Curtain, Red Heat is an 80s buddy cop movie that was the first American production to be given permission to shoot scenes in Moscow’s Red Square. Stunt coordinator Beenie E. Dobbins, who had previously done stunt work for films such as E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, caught a bad case of pneumonia during filming that triggered a fatal heart attack. Dobbins was only 55 years old when he passed away and Red Heat was dedicated to him in his honor.
11. The Expendables 2 (2012)
Sylvester Stallone’s name is synonymous with machismo action and his three Expendables movies are like distillations of that narrow, though entertaining vision. As such, it’s no surprise that the films called for some wild stunt work and crazy pyrotechnics and in this regard, Stallone upped the ante considerably for The Expendables 2.
For the sequel, Stallone opted out of directing (he still wrote and starred) due to production difficulties on the original film, and seasoned action filmmaker Simon West (Con Air, The Mechanic) was brought in as a replacement. Unfortunately, even West’s seasoned oversight wasn’t enough to prevent an unexpected tragedy from occurring.
During a sequence shot by the film’s second unit team, two stuntmen got too close to an explosion set off near a rubber boat. The explosion injured Nuo Sun and killed Kun Liu. Lui’s family ended up suing the producers in a wrongful death lawsuit. After a protracted court battle lasting four years, Lui’s parents were awarded a meager $195,000 in Hong Kong dollars (approx. $270,000 USD), prompting Expendables star Jet Li to donate $800,000 USD to the family.
10. Top Gun (1986)
Most on-set disasters aren’t much of a mystery. A stunt goes wrong, someone dies — it’s tragic, but these things happen. It’s not everyday that you hear about a production tragedy that can’t be explained and even rarer when that tragedy involves a plane crash as, all things considered, flying remains the safest form of travel.
One of the most famous stunt pilots was Art Scholl, who contributed aerial photography and stuntwork to all kinds of films and television shows, including The Right Stuff and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Naturally, a film like Top Gun was a natural fit for his particular skill set but sadly, the 1986 Tom Cruise military action movie would be his last.
While flying his Pitts S-2 camera plane as part of an aerial stunt sequence, Scholl was unable to maintain altitude after performing a spin maneuver. Reportedly, his final words were, “I have a problem. I have a real problem.” Scholl’s plane crashed into the sea and was never recovered, so it remains a mystery to this day as to what went wrong.
9. The Dark Knight (2008)
Everyone knows that The Dark Knight is dedicated to the memory of star Heath Ledger, who died months before the film’s release due to a fatal cocktail of prescription drugs. What you may not have realized is that Christopher Nolan’s film is also dedicated to the memory of stuntman Conway Wickliffe, who died on set.
Wickliffe, whose resume includes the likes of Batman Begins and Casino Royale, was rehearsing the scene in which the Batmobile gets blown up by The Joker’s rocket launcher. While leaning out of a stunt car window to practice the stunt, the car’s driver botched a 90 degree turn and collided with a tree at 20 miles per hour. The driver managed to escape the accident without injury, but Conway Wickliffe was not so lucky and suffered severe head trauma. He was pronounced dead at the scene at the age of 41.
8. xXx (2002)
With its focus on extreme sports and other adrenaline junkie activities, the 2002 Vin Diesel action vehicle xXx unsurprisingly features a tonof impressive stunt work. Of course, danger kind of comes with the territory of being a stunt double for an action star like Vin Diesel and on xXx, Diesel’s double Harry O’Connor paid the ultimate price.
During a sequence involving parasailing, O’Connor completed his first take flawlessly. However, on the second attempt, the stuntman struck his head on part of Palacky Bridge in Prague and died almost instantly. Somewhat disturbingly, parts of O’Connor’s final moments made it into the finished film, which is dedicated to his memory.
7. Comes A Horseman (1978)
Comes a Horseman is a western drama starring Jane Fonda and James Caan that at one point sees Jason Robaard’s character being dragged by a horse to his death. Unfortunately, the same thing literally happened on set. Robbard’s stunt double for the scene, Jim Sheppard, hit his head on a fence post after the horse dragging him went off course, resulting in his death. Somewhat disturbingly, the scene is still in the movie and cuts right before Sheppard hits his head, which means that his final moments are on screen.
6. Gone in 60 Seconds 2 (1989)
No, there isn’t a secret sequel to Gone in 60 Seconds that you’re just finding out about now (though it does feel like a missed opportunity not putting Nic Cage behind the wheel again). Fifteen years after the release of the 1974 original, director H.B. Halicki was ready for another lap, envisioning a sequel that would be even bigger and better than the first. Production got under way but was derailed after the film’s biggest stunt ended in tragedy.
During the stunt, which called for a water tower to dramatically tumble to the ground, one of the tower’s support cables snapped, causing a nearby telephone pole to collapse right on top of Halicki. The director was killed instantly and production was halted immediately. Though the film would never be finished, a short film comprised of most of the completed footage was released on DVD.
5. Resident Evil: The Final Chapter (2017)
The conclusion to the long-running Resident Evil film franchise (well, at least until its inevitable reboot down the road) probably would have came and went with no one other than the franchise’s devoted fanbase noticing when it was released in January 2017, but Resident Evil: The Final Chapter got considerably more attention than anyone expected — not because it’s a good film, mind you, but because of a production mired in tragedy.
First, Milla Jovovich’s stunt double Olivia Jackson — who has worked on such action-packed blockbusters as Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Mad Max: Fury Road — was seriously injured while performing a motorcycle stunt. Jackson’s left arm was pulverized and eventually needed to be amputated. Fortunately, Jackson made it through this tragic event with flying colors, at least if her Instagram account is any indication.
Sadly, Jackson’s crash wasn’t the only disaster on the Resident Evil set. In a separate event, a crew member named Ricardo Cornelius was killed when an unsecured car slid off of a rotating platform and crashed into him. Cornelius was later pronounced dead at the hospital.
4. The Crow (1994)
Most are familiar with the tragic death of Brandon Lee. It occurred on the set of the 1994 action thriller, The Crow, and it was a terrible oversight by the prop crew, as well as everyone who handled the prop .44 Magnum revolver on set. The gun had been used previously, and loaded with set-made dummies–bullets with the powder emptied–as opposed to a dummy cartridge, or fake bullets that look real. Ultimately, the props crew wanted the revolver to show its bullets when photographed by the camera. At some point, one of the bullets discharged due to the initial prime. This created an effect known as a squib load. It lodged the slug in the barrel. When blanks were added to the mix in order to shoot Brandon Lee’s character, the slug was dislodged by the force of the blank, shooting Brandon in the abdomen.
3. Catch-22 (1970)
It’s more than a catchy phrase when you feel you’re between a rock and a hard place. Catch-22 was a film made in 1970, based off the 1960s novel of the same name. The award winning filmmaker, Mike Nichols, directed this wartime epic, and hired one of the most respected aerial photographers, and directors in the business, John Jordan. John was well know in the industry for developing a special camera and operator harnesses for capturing footage from helicopters. John’s issue? Familiarity. He was too comfortable in his surroundings. He refused to wear a harness while capturing footage from a B-25 Bomber over the Gulf of Mexico. You can guess what happened next. John was sucked from the plane after a passing plane created a wind shear, causing his plane to tilt. He fell thousands of feet to his death.
2. Midnight Rider: The Gregg Allman Story (2014)
In February of 2014, a small crew was attempting to shoot a dream sequence of the film, Midnight Rider: The Gregg Allman Story, starring William Hurt. The catch: the scene was taking place on a live railroad track. The producers and director were under the assumption the track was not in use, and no trains were scheduled to pass while they’re were looking to capture a few quick shots of a gurney on a train trestle. When a train approached in the distance, the crew and cast scrambled to get off the tracks. There is video of the incident, and it is soul crushing to watch. They had plenty of time to exit the track had they ditched their props. Instead, the train hit the gurney, which hit second Camera Assistant, Sarah Jones, throwing her into the path of the locomotive. She was killed instantly.
1. Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983)
Twilight Zone: The Movie was a production effort from Steven Spielberg, using multiple directors to film three short films to play as a feature. It was a wonderful idea, and the production was plugging right along until director, John Landis, pressed ahead with aerial stunts in high winds. The scene was to represent a racist man, played by actor Vic Morrow, waking in the Twilight Zone, aka, Vietnam War, where he was forced to deal with his personal shortcomings in an effort to save two innocent children. In a scene that involved plenty of pyro, firefights and a low flying helicopter, high winds and pyrotechnics forced the helicopter into the path of Vic Morrow, and two children, who were running through a small pond. The helicopter crashed, the rotor struck Vic, and one child, killing them instantly. The other child was crushed by the skids.