Dying to be in the movies – the sad history of on-set fatalities
– by Robin Bougie
Accidents are all part of the risky nature of the film biz, and they only seem to intensify and multiply as you climb down the budgetary ladder. Time constraints and financial pressures cause the goofs in charge to cut corners and lose lives. Sure, most action scenes are pulled off without a hitch 99 times out of 100, but some poor bastard has to be #100, doesn’t he?
Movie Set Fatality Statistics
Stuntwork accounts for over half of all film-related injuries, and from 1980 to 1990 there were 37 deaths relating to accidents during stunts. The fact is, many directors aren’t going to get a nameless stuntman or three get in the way of that elusive perfect shot, which explains why men and women are routinely hired on to perform feats that, on paper, appear to be suicidal.
Even more expendable than stuntmen are extras, who really are the most lowly creatures on any film set. Even a pathetic whipping boy like a production assistant gets to boss these pieces of shit around. Extras will fight and claw and do whatever it takes to be immortalized on a few frames of film, and barely make any money for their trouble. They’ll stand in the pouring rain for eight straight hours, take the abuse of whoever cares to heap some upon them, and will even put themselves in the proverbial line of fire when asked. Countless pawn-like extras have been injured and killed on Hollywood chess boards, and will continue to be mowed down, blown up, drowned, burnt and crushed.
Notable On-Set Deaths
The Skywayman (1920) – It was the last evening of filming, with only one scene left to get in the can. But it was here during a night-time plane stunt that pilot Ormer Locklear and Milton “Skeets” Elliott were killed. The fatal crash was included in the released film, but today the picture is officially noted as “lost”, as no copy of it seems to exist.
The Warrens of Virginia (1924) – Promising 24-year-old beauty Martha Mansfield was signed by Fox Studios and took on this role a few months later. Nearing the completion of the film, Martha had just finished a scene and stepped away from in front of the camera when her dress caught fire from a carelessly tossed match by a crew member. Seeing his co-star engulfed in flames, actor Wilfred Lytell threw his coat around her to try and extinguish the fire, but it was too late for Martha.
Ben-Hur (1925) – The spectacular chariot race brought about the end of one unlucky stunt man, whose death was carefully edited out of the final product. Animal lovers beware, however: many horses can be seen being murdered for the sake of the movie.
Noah’s Ark (1928) – Three people drowned, one man lost a leg, and a great number were seriously injured in a scene where several hundred extras were caught in the Great Flood. The flagrant murdering of extras in this elaborate and difficult scene netted no recriminations against the filmmakers, although the introduction of film safety regulations for the industry came in the following year as a pathetic form of apology to the widows and children of the dead.
Charge of the Light Brigade (1936) – During the filming of the charge sequence, a stuntman was killed when he fell off his horse and landed on a broken sword that was lying on the field – unfortunately wedged in such a position that its blade was sticking straight up. Not only that, but thanks to the use of tripwires, three dozen horses had their legs broken and had to be shot during filming, resulting in the US Congress passing laws to protect animals used in motion pictures.
They Died With Their Boots On (1941) – Three horseman perished during the cavalry charge, one of whom was extra Jack Budlong, whose horse tripped as he rode alongside Errol Flynn. As he fell forward, he had the foresight to toss his sword ahead of him. Unfortunately, it landed handle down and stuck in place. Sound familiar, Charge Of the Light Brigade Fans? Jack was impaled on his own sword, and died in a L.A. hospital a few hours later.
Mein Leben Fur Irland (1941) – An anti-British propaganda film made by the Germans. During the epic final battle scene, several extras were killed when one of them stepped on a live land mine. The footage is said to have been included in the release prints, although I have not been able to find proof of this aside from rumour.
The Alamo (1959) – At the start of production John Wayne had a clergyman say a prayer for the movie in front of the assembled cast and crew, asking God to bless their work. A few days later between takes in Brackettsville, Texas, 27-year-old extra Lajean Etheridge and her boyfriend (also an extra) got in an argument. Unwilling to let her get the last word, he stabbed her to death in front of other horrified extras while waiting to be called to set.
The Flight of the Phoenix (1965) – Stunt pilot Paul Mantz was killed, and another stuntman seriously injured when a rickety makeshift plane failed to clear a sand dune and violently crashed into it. A posthumous biography about his life called Hollywood Pilot was published two years later.
Shark (1969) – Stuntman Jose Marco was attacked and killed on camera while working with what was supposed to be a sedated shark. When the production company ghoulishly used the death to help promote the film, director Samuel Fuller disowned the movie. Even though Fuller demanded that his name be taken off the credits, the producers refused.
The Bell From Hell (1973) – On the final day of shooting of this Spanish/French horror film, talented director Claudio Guerrin Hill fell from the creepy bell tower he named his film for. Depending on who you care to believe, he either jumped or fell accidentally. Either way, Juan Antonio Bardem came in to take care of the post production duties after Hill’s regrettable end.
Comes A Horseman (1978) – Forty-year-old Jim Sheppard was dragged to his death while doing a horse stunt for this Oscar-nominated western starring James Caan and Jane Fonda.
Steel (1979) – A.J. Bakunas died doubling for George Kennedy in a fall from the Kincaid Towers in Lexington, Kentucky. When he learned that Dar Robinson had done a publicity stunt at the CN Tower in Toronto and broken his record high fall, Bakunas performed his own fall from the top of the 300-foot structure. The stunt double performed the fall perfectly and the onlooking cast and crew cheered loudly for him, not realising that A.J. had actually travelled right through the airbag and had slammed into the ground below it.
For Your Eyes Only (1981) – On Feb. 17th, 1981, while filming a high-speed bobsled chase for this James Bond flick, the sleigh shot off the track and smashed into a tree. One of its four occupants, a 23-year-old stuntman named Paolo Rigon, was tragically killed.
Twilight Zone: The Movie (1982) – During the filming of a segment directed by John Landis on July 23, 1982, actor Vic Morrow and child actors My-Ca Dinh Le (aged 7) and Renee Shin-Yi Chen (aged 6) died in an accident involving a helicopter hovering above them. Without warning, the copter spun out of control and crashed, decapitating Morrow and one of the children with its blades. The remaining child was crushed to death. Landis, Steven Spielberg, and several other crew members were brought up on manslaughter charges, and were clearly in violation of several child labour laws. Chen’s parents also brought them up on a $200m damage suit without realising that rich famous people have awesome lawyers. Despite a long court battle, everyone charged walked away scot-free.
World War III (1983) – During filming for this made-for-TV movie, director Boris Sagal rather carelessly walked headlong into the tail rotor blade of a helicopter and was hacked apart. He is survived by his daughter Katey Sagal, who started in TV’s Married… with Children and Futurama.
Rambo: First Bood 2 (1985) – FX man Cliff Wenger Jr. was blown sky high during filming in Mexico when one of his movie explosions proved to be a lot more authentic than he’d hoped for.
Top Gun (1986) – Renowned aerobatic pilot Art Scholl died when his plane never recovered from a flat spin and plunged into the Pacific Ocean.
The Squeeze (1987) – Veteran stuntman (and close personal friend of Martin Scorsese) Victor Magnotta drowned while performing a car stunt in which he drove the vehicle off a Hoboken pier and plunged into the Hudson River. Victor was pinned in the car, and could not escape before drowning.
Million Dollar Mystery (1987) – Veteran stunt king Dar Robinson was impaled on a tree branch and killed after his motorcycle shot over an embankment during the filming of a high-speed chase.
Braddock: Missing In Action 3 (1989) – On location in the Philippines, a helicopter hired by the Cannon Film Group crashed into Manila Bay, killing four Filipino soldiers (who were working as extras) and wounding five other people on the ground. Strangely, this helicopter accident occurred the same day the “not guilty” Twilight Zone verdict was handed down in a Los Angeles Superior Court.
The Sword of Tipu Sultan (1989) – The largest number of on-set deaths in film history took place during the filming of this Indian made-for-TV movie. Brutally, 62 extras and crew members met their demise when a fire broke out, and they were trapped inside the burning film studio. Director and star Sanjay Khan suffered major burns and had to spend 13 months in hospital – undergoing 72 surgeries in that time.
Gone In 60 Seconds 2 (1989, unfinished) – The man behind the first Gone In 60 Seconds, H.B Halicki, was killed in Buffalo New york when a water tower he was planning to topple for the sequel fell prematurely, hitting a telephone pole that then struck him in the head. The sideburn-flaunting car guru was 48 at the time of his death. The film was scrapped.
Delta Force 2: The Colombian Connection (1990) – Five were killed in a helicopter crash during the shooting of this Delta Force sequel, and the footage they died shooting was actually used in the movie! The fatalities here were: Jojo Imperiale (pilot), Geoff Brewer (Actor), Gadi Danzig (cameraman), Mike Graham (key grip) and Don Marshall (gaffer).
Bikini Island (1991) – Stuntman Jay C. Currin was killed the first day of filming when a stunt-fall off a 55-foot cliff went wrong and he landed on some rocks instead of the airbag that had been placed to break his fall.
The Crow (1994) – Star Brandon Lee was killed eight days before the completion of The Crow. Prop masters working under time constraints had failed to notice that the previous firing of a cartridge had caused a bullet to lodge in one of their revolvers. When the first unit used this gun to shoot Lee’s death scene, the chamber was loaded with blanks which propelled the previous bullet into Brandon’s torso. The footage of his death was destroyed without being developed.
A Vampire In Brooklyn (1995) – Sonja Davis, a relative newcomer to the stunt industry, played a stunt double for Angela Basset. During a highly publicized four-story high fall for this unimpressive Wes Craven movie, she bounced off the airbag, and cracked her skull open. Her mother, sister and brother were all there to witness the fatal accident, and filed a lawsuit for $10m when it was discovered that the producers hadn’t bothered to have trained medical staff or an ambulance on set during the dangerous fall. An unspecified amount was settled upon.
Gone Fishin’ (1997) – During filming of this shitty Danny Glover/Joe Pesci comedy, 29-year-old stuntwoman Janet Wilder was killed, and her husband and father-in-law were seriously injured when a speedboat missed a ramp and landed in a crowd of extras.
XXX (2002) – Stuntman Harry L. O’Connor was killed in an accident when he failed to rappel fast enough down a parasailing line to land on a submarine. He hit a bridge at high speed and was killed instantly. Director Rob Cohen decided to include the footage with the final fatal moments omitted.
Troy (2004) – Bodybuilder George Camilleri (who won the title of Mr Malta in 1989) severely broke his leg during an action sequence in this Brad Pitt period piece. He was operated on the following day but suffered a heart attack thanks to a blood clot, and died soon after.
The Final Season (2007) – A Bell 206 helicopter used to film a parade scene crashed during production of this cliché baseball drama. Roland Scholtzhauer was known for his ability to get good footage while in helicopters, and was doing just that when they hit power lines and violently smashed into the ground, seriously injuring the pilot and a producer. Roland died instantly.
The Dark Knight (2008) – FX technician and father-of-two, Conway Wickliffe, 41, was on a camera truck filming an unmanned special effects car when the truck smashed into a tree, killing him instantly.
For more of Mr. Bougie’s writing, visit his site.