We all love the movies. They make us laugh, cry, scream, and think. Hollywood stars become famous, wealthy, and the modern equivalent of Greek and Roman gods walking amongst us.
A big budget film is an event. Thousands work on it, both in front and behind the cameras. Movie magic has the power to take us to the past, forward to the future, make us believe that dinosaurs have returned from extinction, or that witches and wizards are real. Between physical effects and CGI, nothing is impossible anymore...at least on film.
But it’s not all sunshine. Movie sets can be (and frequently are) dangerous places. There’s a lot of big, heavy equipment and vehicles. Lots of people milling around. Actors and stunt performers are asked to do risky things for the audience’s enjoyment. Accidents happen. Sometimes minor, sometimes major, and occasionally fatal.
Brandon Lee and Vic Morrow are two modern examples of stars that have been killed while working on set. Lee, the son of kung fu legend Bruce Lee, was accidentally shot by a prop gun while filming 1993’s The Crow. He died in hospital from his injuries. Morrow had been a staple of both television and film for decades when he began work on Twilight Zone: The Movie in 1982. He was killed instantly - decapitated - along with two child actors when a helicopter crashed down on them while filming an action sequence.
For every actor or stunt person actually killed, there are numerous examples of performers that were injured or threatened by their craft. Movies can be a demanding and treacherous profession. These iconic scenes very nearly killed their stars.
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1. Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now
Apocalypse Now (1979) is widely considered one of the greatest films - war or otherwise - ever made, but it had a hard time getting there. The shoot went over budget and well past its initial schedule. By several YEARS. Director Francis Ford Coppola managed to create a masterpiece, but the production was plagued by problems, setbacks, and concerns from people both on and off set.
But perhaps none were as big as the issues with star Martin Sheen. He was playing the lead role of Captain Benjamin Willard, a man sent to Cambodia to assassinate a rogue colonel played by legendary star Marlon Brando. It had all the ingredients for a dream film. Unfortunately, Sheen was abusing both alcohol and drugs at the time of shooting. He suffered a heart attack and had to crawl through the jungle (for about a quarter-mile, according to reports) for help. But that wasn’t his only brush with injury and death. An early scene in Willard’s hotel room featured Sheen both drunk for real and suffering a mini mental breakdown. He punched an actual mirror (an unscripted moment), slicing open his hand, began to sob uncontrollably, and tried to attack Coppola. As the cameras were rolling, they captured it all...and the entire scene ended up in the movie.
2. Margaret Hamilton in The Wizard of Oz
Is there any other movie villain as iconic or recognizable as the Wicked Witch from 1939’s The Wizard of Oz? The pointy hat, the green makeup, her threatening line “I’ll get you Dorothy, you and your little dog Toto, too!”, and the infamous cackle...everyone, regardless of age, knows it all.
The Wicked Witch had a lot of memorable moments in the film, but it was what happened off camera that Hamilton herself will never forget. Remember that scene when the witch disappears in a giant puff of smoke and fire? It was thrilling and spooky. But the physical effects nearly cost Hamilton her life. A trapdoor meant to quickly usher her away from the danger didn’t open properly, and the sparks and smoke reacted with the petroleum-based green makeup covering her hands, face, and neck.
It caught fire, and the star suffered extensive burns. It took over six weeks for her to recover from her painful injuries. But Hamilton remained chipper and upbeat throughout, even famously proclaiming “I won’t sue, because I know how this business works, and I would never work again. I will return to work on one condition — no more fireworks!”
How’s that for dedication?!
3. Michael J. Fox in Back to the Future Part III
The Back to the Future trilogy is one of the most successful and beloved in Hollywood history. The characters of Marty McFly and Doc Brown travelled to the 1950s and the year 2015 (arriving on October 21...did you remember to celebrate it?), before ending up in the old west for the third and final installment.
The movies had everything: action, adventure, humour, thrills, chills, and spills. Oh yeah...and a near-death experience for star Fox. During an early scene in Part III, Fox’s character is strung up and hung by a bunch of thugs in front of the clock tower. Doc shows up with a rifle and telescopic sight, shooting the rope from a distance and saving Marty. Pretty exciting stuff, right? A few of the early takes had Fox standing on a box while the rope was around his neck, requiring him to act his socks off and sell it.
Director Robert Zemeckis wanted more realism, and Fox agreed to work without the box. A stuntman showed him how to slip his hand between the rope and his neck at the last moment to prevent himself from actually getting hung. It worked the first few times, but a minor miscalculation for the last take resulted in Fox hanging for real. He blacked out, and it was about 30 seconds before anyone else noticed what was happening. Thankfully, he only needed a day or two to recover.
4. Sylvester Stallone in Rocky IV
The Rocky franchise is a bit long in the tooth these days, but the first few movies were damn good cinema (the first even won the Academy Award for Best Picture, believe it or not). But, by the time Rocky IV was filming, Stallone was looking for ways to pump some much needed life into the series. His solution? He instructed Dolph Lundgren - who was playing the frightening Russian boxer Drago - not to pull his punches. He told the behemoth to “hit me as hard as you can.” Lundgren was only too happy to comply and unleashed a powerful punch to Stallone’s torso during the scene. It did not tickle. Stallone’s heart swelled, he suffered numerous other injuries and ended up in hospital for several days. Note to Sly - never ask a giant Swede to hit you for real. Ever.
5. Isla Fisher in Now You See Me
This 2013 film masterfully mixed magic, illusion, and bank heists. During one scene, the troupe of illusionists are performing in front of a large audience, and Fisher’s Henley Reeves character is submerged, chained, and sealed in a giant tank of water. Something went wrong - some reports say the chain got stuck, others claim her costume got snagged on the chain - but the result was the same: Fisher was stuck underwater for much longer than she was supposed to be. If not for a quick-release mechanism, and a nearby stuntman who realized what was happening, it could have ended in tragedy. Fisher says she very nearly drowned.
See Also: Top 10 Worst Hollywood Deaths
Halle Berry choked on a piece of fruit during a love scene in Die Another Day. Eli Roth was nearly burned to a crisp during the climax of Inglourious Basterds. Bruce Campbell was almost crushed by director Sam Raimi on a motorcycle in The Evil Dead. There are a lot more examples. Never let it be said that actors are soft and that acting is easy. They’re not, and it ain’t.
Any other stories of on set near death experiences that you’ve read about? Leave them in the comments below...