Big-budget blockbusters rule at the box office, and your favorite TV show is awaiting a binge-watch at home. But for the people who make those TV shows and movies, sometimes there's a price to pay. And in rare cases, that can be the ultimate price. Stunts go wrong, corners can get cut and plain old human error can lead to a gory array of on-set accidents and deaths.
In the early days of Hollywood, the tragedies were especially nasty. Take the 1925 production of Ben-Hur, in Rome, which led to the deaths of at least one stuntman and several horses.
“During one take, we went around the curve and the wheel broke on the other fellow’s chariot,” Francis X. Bushman, who played Ben-Hur’s rival charioteer Messala, once recalled. “The hub hit the ground and the guy shot up in the air about 30 feet …
"It was like a slow-motion film. He fell on a pile of lumber and died of internal injuries.”
Other extras on that same shoot simply disappeared. During a water scene involving a Roman ship fire, extras went under. Some were rescued later, but some, reportedly, may never have come up; their fate is uncertain to this day. Even now, no one can really say for sure just how many humans and animals were lost just so people could be entertained for 143 minutes.
Movie-making has come a long way since those rickety sets and dangerous locations. Regulations save lives every day. And yet, just as the movie industry is always coming up with a new stunt or piece of tech, accidents still happen. Here, we're digging into Hollywood's dark side by exploring some of its most tragic deaths. How far has the industry come since the tragedy of Ben-Hur? Pretty far. And also, not far enough.
Blood in the Water
You'd think that the death of a crew member would be a cause for mourning -- maybe some self-reflection. But not for one group of Hollywood producers in the late 1960s.
One of the most violent tragedies on this list comes from the 1969 treasure-hunting movie, Shark!. The film was originally titled Caine after Burt Reynolds' gun-runner character. But then things took a sick and weird turn in the production.
The underwater scenes were shot off the coast of Manzanillo, Mexico. Reynolds' stunt double, Jose Marco, had a lot to do. During an underwater shoot for the flick in June 1968, Marco fell victim to a real-life shark attack. A bull shark made it past protective netting and disemboweled the 32-year-old stuntman to death.
Incredibly, the cameras continued to roll and captured the whole thing on film. Even after the attack was long over, and the reality of what had happened sunk in, producers still saw Marco's mauling as a marketing opportunity. Sensationalizing his death to get people in the seats? That's an unsettling low, even for Hollywood's standards. Disgusted with the choice, director Samuel Fuller demanded that his name be removed from the credits. It wasn’t.
The Deaths That Should Have Changed Everything
By the early 1980s, Hollywood had learned that capitalizing off of the death of a crew member was may-y-y-y-be not so great of an idea. But there were other lessons still to be learned.
In 1982, Twilight Zone fans were eagerly awaiting a big-screen version of the TV classic, and Warner Bros. was set to deliver. The flick was to be an anthology, just like the TV show.
In July 1982, director John Landis was tapped to helm one of the stories, titled "Time Out." He'd oversee the tale of a racist named Bill Connor (veteran actor Vic Morrow) who ends up learning the error of his ways by time traveling to violent conflicts throughout history.
A Vietnam War scene was to be shot at Indian Dunes film ranch in Valencia, California. Morrow was to carry two child actors -- seven-year-old Myca Dinh Le and six-year-old Shin Yi Chen -- through a river, as a helicopter hovered above them. But then things began to fall apart.
Landis allegedly demanded for the copter to drift dangerously low. This, combined with a live mortar effect, caused the vessel to spin out of control. It decapitated Morrow and Le before crushing Chen to death.
Authorites slapped Landis and his crew with civil and criminal allegations, including violating child labor laws, and manslaughter. It was the first time a film director faced criminal charges stemming from a movie project.
After 11 months of investigations, Los Angeles County handed down a five-count indictment to John Landis and his crew in connection with the three deaths. Landis was the only one arraigned on all counts.
It took nearly four years for the trial to begin. During the wait, Landis saw no need to put his career on ice. He directed the Chevy Chase and Dan Aykroyd comedy Spies Like Us.
The trial lasted 10 months. During that time, Landis and others revealed more of exactly what happened on that ill-fated Twilight Zone shoot... and it was shocking to hear.
Child actors Dinh Le and Yi Chen were paid under the table. Landis said he didn't try to acquire work permits for the kids. He said he knew the state commissioner's office wouldn't grant a permit to allow children to work on the late-night shoot.
"We decided to break the law," Landis said on the stand. "We decided wrongly to violate the labor code.”
It got worse. Two days before the deaths, witnesses said, Landis used live shotgun rounds on set because they were more realistic than special-effects simulations. For their part, Landis and his colleagues argued that the tragedy was an accident, not a crime; one crew member simply hadn't been paying enough attention to the chopper when he lit the fatal explosives.
On May 29, 1987, Landis and his crew were acquitted of all charges.
Some good came from the tragedy, though. Safety protocols were put in place at Warner Bros., the studio where the movie was shot. Standards for every aspect of filmmaking emerged, from gunfire to fixed-wing aircraft to smoke and pyrotechnics. There was also an uptick in the employment of risk management specialists, safety monitors who are supposed to ensure everyone's health.
"There are 100 people on a set who have always believed the director is God," producer Martin Bregman told The LA Times. "Now they realize there's a higher god—a district attorney."
Have You Seen This Plane?
On the ground, Hollywood was learning to be more careful. But in the sky, things could still turn tragic... and they did.
One of the things that made 1986's Top Gun amazing to watch was all the aerial stunts. The pilots who worked that flick had their tasks cut out for them. But on September 16, 1985, a stunt went wrong, leading to a mysterious plane crash.
Before pivoting to Hollywood, stuntman Art Scholl dazzled audiences with his trick-filled air shows. From 1963 to 1972, he was part of a five-man team, flying competition aerobatics. He won the US National Aerobatic Championship, taught aviation for 18 years, and even owned his own Art Scholl Aviation School in Rialto, California.
When Hollywood called, he answered. He began his work as a movie stunt pilot in 1973. His credits included projects like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, The Amazing Howard Hughes, Blue Thunder and ABC Wide World of Sports.
For Top Gun, Scholl went to Edwards Airforce Base, in southern California, to perform "plate shots." These were aerial action sequences that would later appear in the background behind Maverick (Tom Cruise) and Goose (Anthony Edwards) as they flew their planes.
The trick he needed to perform was an inverted flat spin, a low-risk trick that required the airplane to spin without gaining any lift. (Coincidentally, it was the same maneuver that killed Goose in the film.)
A camera was put in Scholl's plane.
"It was shooting outwards - sort of the pilot's-point-of-view shot," Scholl's wife Judy, later explained. "He went out, and was doing several sequences of these flat spins, but in the first sequence, he caught the observer airplane, which was flying behind him, in the shot," she continued. "So he told them to back off a couple of miles because it would spoil the shot."
The observer plane backed off, and Scholl announced on the radio he'd begun the trick.
"Part way down, he radioed again saying, 'I have a problem'," Judy recalled. "After three seconds, he repeated, "I have a real problem."
With no observer plane tracking Scholl, there were no eyes on him to offer support. The plane went down, and there was no one there to help.
Some debris was later found in the Pacific Ocean, five miles out from Carlsbad, California. Art's body and airplane were never recovered. The Coast Guard concluded he didn't survive the crash.
To this day, no one knows what caused the accident. Was it a control failure? Did the camera jam the flight controls? Or was it spacial disorientation?
"It's a puzzle," Judy said. "[...] without the airplane we'll never know."
The Haunting History of Gone in 60 Seconds
Even when the stunt people wer hardened experts, and even after Hollywood had adopted a ton of safety regulations, horrific accidents were still happening on sets in the late 1980s. Here's a story about one of them.
Thanks to the original Gone in 60 Seconds (1974), actor/director/stuntman H.B. Halicki had built up quite a cult following by the 1980s. That movie, which came long before the Nic Cage version, featured a cavalcade of vehicle collisions. Because of his work, Halicki earned nicknames like "The Car Crash King" and "Junkman." Of course, Halicki was no stranger to injury. During the production of The Junkman, in 1982, he was involved in a head-on collision with an airplane, which led to 80 stitches in his head.
But that didn't stop him from making a car crash-heavy sequel to Gone in 60 Seconds.
The year was 1989, and the director wanted, bigger, better, more. He reportedly bought more than 400 vehicles just so he could destroy them for the film. Plus, director had a big stunt in mind, to be filmed in the town of Tonawanda, outside of Buffalo, New York. He found a 141-foot water tower in the midst of an abandoned industrial park. He wanted to knock it over. On film.
Halicki fought with local officials for two months to get permission to proceed with the stunt. He only got approval after obtaining $8 million worth of insurance.
Days before the shoot, Halicki explained to a news reporter how the sequence would work: "When I lose the tractor-trailer, which is what I'm supposed to be driving, I hit the tower with it. It comes down, I do the helicopter lift-off where I'm hanging from a helicopter. And he drops me on top of a building."
But everything went wrong.
Workers on the shoot began to weaken the tower's supports so that it would fall properly -- but then, according to witnesses, the structure began to creak. A nearby cable broke, knocking over a telephone pole. It landed on top of Halicki, crushing the 48-year-old filmmaker. At a nearby hospital, he was pronounced dead on arrival.
When Blanks Kill
Even in the 1990s, there weren't enough safety regulations and paid monitors to keep sets safe. In fact, during that era, the death of actor Brandon Lee became synonymous with the dark side of movie-making. The son of late martial arts icon Bruce Lee, Brandon Lee was a star on the rise in 1993, when he reported to the North Carolina set of The Crow, a big-screen production of James O'Barr's graphic novel.
All went well until there were just eight days of production left. The scene planned for that day -- March 31, 1993 -- was to depict the killing of of Brandon Lee's character, Eric Draven. In the story, Draven is supposed to be shot to death, and then come back from the dead to avenge his own murder.
Co-star Michael Massee, who played a thug named Funboy, was the one who pulled the trigger. He shot a gun from 15 feet away. But the scene took a dark and bloody turn when the Magnum .44-caliber revolver malfunctioned. It was loaded with a harmless blank but, unbeknownst to the cast and crew, a piece of a dummy bullet was already lodged in the chamber. That dummy, used in an earlier scene, still had primer in the back of the cartridge.
When Massee pulled the trigger, the dummy bullet flew out at Lee, and the squib the actor had on him exploded with fake blood. It wasn't until they cut that everyone realized Lee also was bleeding from a very real wound in his abdomen.
Lee was in surgery for five hours. The actor suffered intense blood loss and was transfused with 60 pints of blood.
"It absolutely wasn't supposed to happen," Massee later said. "I wasn't even supposed to be handling the gun in the scene, but they changed it.
"I don't think you ever get over something like that."
The medical efforts couldn't save Lee. An investigation discovered the dummy bullet was the cause of Brandon Lee's death.
The 28-year-old actor's mother, Linda Lee Cadwell, filed a negligence lawsuit against Crowvision Inc. and its parent company. The company that provided the blanks and ammunition, J.B. Jones Inc., was included in the suit along with the film's producers and director Alex Proyas.
Her Family Saw the Whole Thing
Lee's wasn't the only death that Hollywood saw in the 1990s. During the production of Wes Craven's Vampire in Brooklyn, tragedy struck.
Sonja Davis, 32, was Angela Bassett's stunt double on the film. For one scene, a stunt required Davis to fall backward from a 42-foot-tall building on the Paramount Studios lot in Hollywood. The day was November 3, 1994.
According to cinematographer Mark Irwin, there was no ambulance on set that day.
"The space between the buildings was twelve feet across and the airbag was twelve feet," he explained. The ambulance wasn't there "because this airbag was so big."
What happened next would be witnessed not only by cast and crew, but also Wanda Sapp, Davis' mother, and Davis's siblings, who also were on set. For some reason, that airbag, the one that was "so big" that an ambulance couldn't get near it, failed to work properly.
Sapp later told The LA Times that, instead of cushioning Davis's fall, the airbag reacted like a huge balloon. The young woman wasn't cradled; she was bounced. She slammed into the building before falling to the ground. After a coma lasting two weeks, she died.
"The last words I heard my baby say was when she yelled down to the stunt coordinator, 'Are you sure?'," Sapp said. "I could feel Sonja wasn't comfortable with the stunt."
And yet, according to one of her friends, Davis did it anyway because she feared that her reputation would suffer otherwise. During an earlier project, Strange Days, also released in 1995, Davis had been replaced on set after producers declared dissatisfaction with one of her driving stunts.
Being replaced “hurt her pride,” said Davis' friend Denise Roberts, a stuntwoman herself. “She said, ‘No one else will ever do that to me.’ ”
Davis' family hired attorney Melvin Belli and sued Paramount Pictures, Wes Craven and Eddie Murphy for $10 million. The studio was fined $29,000.
Belli was best known for representing Jack Ruby during the murder trial of Lee Harvey Oswald. Belli died on July 9, 1996, right in the middle of the legal proceedings. A judgment was eventually reached, but the exact details remain unclear.
A Cruel Twist of Fate
Not every show-business death can be traced to sloppy props practices or less-than-safe on-set stunts.
Steve Irwin, aka "The Crocodile Hunter," was filming a documentary off of Queensland, Australia on September 4, 2006. It was called Ocean's Deadliest, and it was to air on Animal Planet and the Discovery Channel. During that day's ocean shoot, it began to rain, pausing the production.
While Irwin and crew waited for the sun to return, the 44-year-old TV personality and his cameraman, Justin Lyons, decided to explore some chest-deep sea water. If they could maybe get some footage for Irwin's daughter Bindi's children's program, Bindi the Jungle Girl, the day wouldn't have been a waste.
The duo came across a short-tail stingray, about six and a half feet long. Short-tails are the largest stingrays in the world, and they have a tail that can delivery a fatal, venomous sting, but their diet is mostly fish, and they're considered largely harmless to humans unless provoked. Irwin had swum with rays before, so he decided to go for a snorkel behind this one, and they began filming.
The goal was to film the stingray as it swam away. But then everything went wrong.
"He came over the top of a stingray," friend and manager John Stainton said, "and the stingray's barb went up and went into his chest and put a hole into his heart."
Lyons later added to Australia's Channel 10 that the "extraordinarily large" stingray probably went into self-defense mode when it attacked Steve. Some experts have suggested that the ray thought it was being tailed by a tiger shark.
The piercing of Irwin's chest caused him to bleed to death, and the beloved TV personality was declared dead soon after.
When Reality TV Gets Too Real
August 4, 2014 was just another day around town for audio technician Bryce Dion, an audio technician for the reality show Cops. Sure, Dion had been tasked with documenting raids, car chases, arrests and other dangerous cop activity. But the show had been around since 1989, and the crew had yet to lose a member to gunfire or other violence.
That night, the cops that Dion was embedded with -- the Omaha, Nebraska police -- got word of a possible robbery at a nearby Wendy's. At the scene, the police pursued the suspect, Cortez Washington, with the Cops crew close by. At some point, according to police, Cortez had wielded and fired an Airsoft, a pistol that doesn't fire bullets but that does produce a muzzle flash.
What happened next, no one could have predicted: Washington reportedly exited the Wendy's through an east exit as police gave chase... and then Dion appeared in that same exit doorway. The police fired.
Dion had been wearing body armor, but it didn't matter.
A bullet “came in under his left arm and slipped in between the vest, where there is an open area," Omaha Police Air Soft GunChief Todd Schmaderer later told the media. Local reporters said that police fired up to 30 bullets in the mayhem.
The incident raised questions about safety regulations in reality TV. The answers were disturbing: The Dion incident was far from unheard-of, but thanks to non-disclosure agreements and fears of blacklisting, the tragedies simply went unreported. It also didn't help that many of these shows were non-union.
Once again, Hollywood get busy with new recommendations for safety training, including filming crimes from a larger distance away. Extra ballistic vest training was provided, and risk-based incentives that had encouraged workers to capture attention-grabbing, action-packed footage were nixed.
And yet, the entertainment business still hadn't learned everything...
"An Unsettling Feeling"
By the late 2010s, you'd think Hollywood would have learned enough about safety measures in filmmaking. It hadn't. In 2014, the movie business was hit with a death that was as stunning as it was avoidable.
That year, William Hurt was set to play Southern rock singer Gregg Allman, and founding member of the Allman Brothers Band. The name of the flick: Midnight Rider.
The first day of filming was February 20, 2014. The cast and crew set up a shot at the Doctortown Train Trestle, above a river outside of Jesup, Georgia. The scene was supposed to depict a dream sequence; William Hurt, as Allman, would lie on a metal hospital bed on the railroad trestle. A bed was positioned on the train tracks for Hurt to lay in.
"I just had an unsettled feeling from the very time I got there," Hurt later told The Canadian Press. "I stopped everything and I said in front of everybody, I said, ‘Stop.’ And I asked (assistant director) Hillary (Schwartz) in front of the whole crowd, ‘Are we safe?’ Because it’s her job as the first AD to tell us that. She said, ‘Yes'.”
If a train came, all the crew needed, Hurt was told, was 60 seconds to get out of its way. But as Hurt pointed out, "Sixty seconds is not enough time to get these people and this equipment off this bridge."
Further complicating matters: The crew had gotten permission to film on the property surrounding the railroad... but not on the trestle itself.
And trains still used those tracks all the time. In fact, a train came right as the crew was working on the trestle, moving at 58 miles per hour. The train slammed into the metal bed, sending fragments hurtling toward some of the crew. Camera assistant Sarah Jones, 27, died at the scene, and seven others were injured.
Film producers wanted to keep going with the project, but Hurt dropped out, and other crew members loudly protested the plan.
The movie's director, Randall Miller, eventually pled guilty to involuntary manslaughter and did a year in prison.
Jones' parents filed a lawsuit against the production company. A Georgia court decided they should receive $2 million for pain and suffering and $9.2 million for economic losses.
That first day of filming was also the last. The movie never saw the light of day.
To remember late camera operator, there's a new term signifying first shot of the day: "The Jonesy."
A Brush With Death
In the mid-2010s, Olivia Jackson was huge in the stunt world. She worked on big-budget movies like Mad Max: Fury Road, Guardians of the Galaxy and Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens. In 2015, she signed on to be Milla Jovovich's stunt double for the final installment to the Resident Evil franchise. It would also be the last movie she ever worked on.
On September 6, 2015, she was to film a fight scene, but because of rain, Jackson was asked to double Jovovich for a motorcycle chase scene, instead. The shot required Jackson to ride the bike at full speed toward a camera which was mounted on a Mercedes SUV. The SUV would be driving straight at her -- also at full speed.
Jackson was not wearing protective gear or a helmet for the scene. The arm the camera was attached to didn't move as planned. Instead, as the cameras roll, it slammed into Jackson's upper body.
The accident put Jackson in a coma, where she remained for 17 days. She sustained a gruesome list of injuries that included "a twisted spine, a permanently dislocated shoulder, a severed thumb, punctured lungs and broken ribs." Her left arm was permanently lost. Her career as a stuntwoman was obliterated.
She has filed a $2.75 million lawsuit against the Road Accident Fund, a service that exists to protect road users within the borders of South Africa, and other lawsuits against the camera crane operator, the driver of the SUV, the film's producers and Paul W.S. Anderson, the film's director. At least one of trials is set to start this year.
Meanwhile, Resident Evil: The Final Chapter has grossed more than $300 million internationally.
Was He Pushed Or Did He Fall?
Stuntman John Bernecker reported to a Senoia, Georgia studio set on July 12, 2017. His duty that day: filming a fight sequence for the Walking Dead's eighth season. Bernecker was to shoot the scene with actor Austin Amelio, who plays Dwight. Bernecker was supposed to fall from a balcony and land on padding below. But instead, during a rehearsal for the sequence, Bernecker missed the mat and landed head-first on a concrete floor.
What happened next is a mix of mysteries and inexplicable pieces in a sad puzzle.
Some photos of the scene reportedly showed no padding below what was supposedly the balcony in question. It took 17 minutes for an ambulance to reach the stuntman. A fire engine managed to get there in seven minutes, but a helicopter, which also arrived at some point, somehow didn't air-lift Bernecker away from the scene until about a half-hour after the accident.
Doctors declared him dead that night, but he remained on life support for several days afterward.
Bernecker's mother, Susan, filed a lawsuit against the network in January 2018, alleging cutting corners on safety precautions. She claims the network didn't provide proper padding under the 22-foot balcony.
"We take the safety of our employees on all of our sets extremely seriously, and meet or exceed industry safety standards," AMC said in a statement. "Out of respect for the family, we will have no further comment on this litigation."
According to the suit, Amelio was to shoot Bernecker and "push" him off the balcony. However, the actor was not supposed to actually touch the stunt man. The suit calls Amelio untrained and inexperienced and claims he not only pushed Bernecker but that he also grabbed the back of his clothing, which altered the trajectory of his fall.
The complaint states the scene wasn't thoroughly rehearsed and there was no ambulance on set.
The Walking Dead's production company, Stalwart Films LLC, was later fined $12,675, which is the maximum amount allowed by the U.S government's safety watchdogs.
"This was a tragic and terrible accident," Stalwart Films said in a statement. "...We disagree with the issuance of this citation and are considering our response."
The Bernecker family lawsuit is ongoing. The damages the family seeks in the civil action are unspecified.
A Mountain of Danger
You may remember the Tom Cruise movie American Made, the story of Barry Seal (Cruise), a pilot who worked for the CIA and ran drugs for the Medellín cartels. Like Top Gun, this movie also saw a horrific, deadly accident.
Some of the shooting was to happen in the Colombian Andes mountains. Three pilots were recruited for transport work, and on September 11, 2015, a twin-engine Aerostar took off from Santa Fe de Antioquia, heading for Medellín. But something happened on the return trip, including, but perhaps not limited to, bad weather. And the worst happened.
“An aircraft carrying crew members crashed while returning to Enrique Olaya Herrera Airport in Medellin following production wrap on the film [American Made] resulting in two fatalities,” a spokesperson for the film’s distributor, Universal, said in a statement at the time.
Alan Purwin, Carlos Berl and Jimmy Lee Garland were the three pilots on board. Garland survived. But his injuries -- including a shattered vertebra; collapsed lung; broken teeth, ribs, and jawbone; a cracked skull and a dislodged eye socket -- were the stuff of nightmares. His first memory after the accident? Waking up in a hospital, trying to wrest a respirator out of his throat.
"It took me about a month to gather my wits," he later told the Hollywood Reporter.
So what exactly happened? Well, lawsuits, of course.
The Purwin and Berl estates separately sued the film's producers in April 2016, alleging wrongful death and damages. In their suit, the Berl family said the fatal flight had been “conducted in a rushed and unscheduled manner.”
The producers filed a counterclaim against Purwin's estate in August 2018. They alleged that Purwin supplied a faulty plane for the shoot. They also claimed he overstated his qualifications to get the job. An undisclosed settlement was reached on April 22, 2019, resolving all the lawsuits.