Ten Worst Hollywood Movie Set Disasters

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Infamous Hollywood movie set disasters include Twilight Zone: The Movie, Such Men Are Dangerous, The Crow, The Conqueror, Catch-22, Cover Up, The Flight of the Phoenix, High Jungle, Steel and Hell's Angels.

History tells us that Hollywood can be a very dangerous place to work, from its early, formative years to the present day. From 1925 to 1930, some 10,794 people were injured in Hollywood movie production. Included in that total were 55 people killed, most of whom were stunt personnel. In 1929 alone, a total of 16 people lost their lives in moviemaking activities.

Here are the ten worst Hollywood movie set disasters in history. They are in no particular order, as no premium can be placed on the value of a human life.

Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983) -Helicopter Disaster at Indian Dunes

It is the early morning hours of July 23, 1982. The location is Indian Dunes, California, where selected cast and crew are filming the $10 million big screen version of Rod Serling's TV classic The Twilight Zone. Director John Landis calls for "action," with actors Vic Morrow (53), Myca Dinh Le (7) and Renee Shin-Yi Chen (6) making their way across a simulated Vietnamese rice paddy. As per script, a village blows up in the background while an American helicopter searches for Morrow.

The special effects explosion, however, knocks the low-flying chopper out of the sky and into the path of Morrow and his two young charges. Both Morrow and Myca Dinh Le are decapitated by the Huey's main rotor blade, while Renee Chen is crushed to death under the helicopter's weight. Rushing to the scene is John Landis, who picks up Morrow's severed torso, thinking it's a rubber dummy which had fallen out of the downed chopper. He then spies the head of the actor resting a few feet away, now realizing that an unspeakable tragedy has occurred during dangerous night filming. Landis, along with four associates, are later acquitted in a California court of involuntary manslaughter.

Vic Morrow as Bill Connor in Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983) - Warner Bros. Pictures

Such Men Are Dangerous (1930) - Midair Collision

Tragedy strikes the production of Fox's Such Men Are Dangerous, starring Warner Baxter and Catherine Dale Owen, when two planes en route to filming meet in a horrific midair collision near Santa Monica, California, on January 2, 1930. Killed in the crash are ten crew members along with the film's director, 31-year-old Kenneth Hawks, the brother of famed Hollywood producer-director Howard Hawks.

The Crow (1994) - Brandon Lee's Shooting Star

On March 31, 1993, while making the action thriller The Crow in North Carolina, 28-year-old Brandon Lee, the son of the legendary actor/martial arts expert Bruce Lee, is hit in the stomach with a bullet fired from an improperly loaded prop pistol. Lee falls to the floor, with director Alex Proyas yelling "Cut!" When Lee fails to get up, cast and crew come to his aid, discovering to their horror that he has been seriously wounded, with the slug lodged in the actor's spine. Lee is rushed to Wilmington's New Hanover Regional Medical Center where he dies six hours later following emergency surgery.

Brandon Lee as Eric Draven in The Crow (1994) - Miramax Films

The Conqueror (1956) - An RKO Radioactive Picture

Howard Hughes' $6 million epic The Conqueror, starring John Wayne as Temujin a.k.a. Genghis Khan, remains one of the most controversial shoots in Hollywood history. The movie was filmed on location in the Escalante Desert near St. George, Utah, approximately 137 miles from the U.S. government's Nevada Test Site, where in 1953 extensive above-ground nuclear testing took place under the auspices of Operation Upshot-Knothole.

Cast and crew spent June through August 1954 in Utah, with Hughes later footing the bill for the transportation of 60 tons of dirt back to Hollywood for the purpose of filming retakes. Cast members John Wayne (1907-1979), Susan Hayward (1917-1975), Agnes Moorehead (1900-1974) and John Hoyt (1905-1991) all later died of cancer, along with director Dick Powell (1904-1963).

Also stricken with the disease was actor Pedro Armendariz (1912-1963), who committed suicide upon learning that his lymphatic cancer was terminal. Of the 220 cast and crew members, 91 of them had developed some form of cancer by 1980, with 46 dying of the disease. In addition, the residents of St. George experienced an extraordinarily high incidence of cancer as well. There are those who rightfully point out that some of the cancer-stricken Wayne and Moorehead, for example were heavy smokers. Still, one can't deny the startling statistics, which "could qualify as an epidemic," according to Dr. Robert C. Pendleton, director of radiological health at the University of Utah, as quoted by People magazine in 1980.

Window card: John Wayne and Susan Hayward in The Conqueror (1956) - Heritage Auction Galleries

Catch-22 (1970) - Tragedy in the Air

On May 16, 1969, second unit director John Jordan is filming the screen version of Joseph Heller's classic World War II novel Catch-22. Refusing to wear a safety harness, the 44-year-old Jordan is sucked out of an airplane's open doorway when another aircraft passes by, plummeting to his death 2,000 feet below into the Gulf of Mexico. It wasn't Jordan's first brush with death, for during the filming of the James Bond flick You Only Live Twice (1967) Jordan's leg was so mangled by a helicopter blade that it had to be amputated.

Cover Up (1984) - Jon-Erik Hexum's Tragic Farewell 

The date is October 12, 1984, where model-turned-actor Jon-Erik Hexum is filming the TV series Cover Up. Jokingly pointing a prop .44 Magnum revolver to his temple, Hexum announces to cast and crew that he is "ending it all." He pulls the trigger, with the paper wadding from the gun's blank cartridge penetrating his skull. Doctors later declare that Hexum's brain damage is irreversible, and one week later on October 18, 1984, the 26-year-old Hexum is taken off life support and pronounced dead. At least five people, however, later receive organ transplants from Hexum, who carried a California Organ Donor's card.

Jon-Erik Hexum and Jennifer O'Neill in Cover Up (1984) - CBS-TV

The Flight of the Phoenix (1965) - Paul Mantz's Final Flight

It's the morning of July 8, 1965, in Buttercup Valley, Arizona, where veteran stunt pilot Paul Mantz is doubling for James Stewart in The Flight of the Phoenix. Mantz and co-pilot Bobby Rose complete a difficult scene in which they simulate the movie's hybrid plane as it attempts to become airborne. The first take is adequate, but director Robert Aldrich calls for an "insurance take," with Mantz and Rose duly complying. During this second attempt, one of the plane's landing skids catches a rough patch, with the aircraft breaking apart and crashing to the ground.

The 61-year-old Mantz, a seasoned pilot with over 25,000 flying hours, is pinned beneath the wreckage and dies instantly while Rose is thrown free and suffers a broken pelvis and left shoulder. The Federal Aviation Administration later rules that the experimental plane's airframe had failed due to overload stresses and that alcohol consumption by Mantz prior to the flight had impaired his "efficiency and judgment."

Off to See the Wizard - High Jungle (1966, never completed) - Eric Fleming's Last Roundup

On September 28, 1966, Eric Fleming trail boss Gil Favor of CBS-TV's Rawhide fame is filming a scene for MGM Television's two-part "High Jungle," which will air on ABC's Off to See the Wizard anthology series. The crew is filming on Peru's Huallaga River when Fleming's 35-foot dugout canoe hits dangerous rapids, quickly taking on water.

Fleming dives from the craft, with fellow actor Nico Minardos eventually swimming to safety. Two Peruvian crew members manage to reach the unconscious Fleming, but are unable to hold on to him, with the rapids playing havoc with their canoe. Three days later Fleming's body is recovered some 15 miles downriver. The 41-year-old Fleming, a veteran of the Merchant Marine and the U.S. Navy, had been set to marry longtime companion Lynne Garber within two days of his passing. One half of "High Jungle" had been completed at the time of Fleming's untimely death. As per his will, Eric Fleming's body was donated to the University of San Marcos in Lima, Peru, for medical research.

Eric Fleming, left, with Clint Eastwood of TV's Rawhide - CBS-TV

Steel (1979) - High Tower Death

On September 21, 1978, 26-year-old A.J. Bakunas, a stuntman who specializes in high falls, plunges to his death after a 323-foot leap from the partially constructed Kincaid Towers in Lexington, Kentucky, while doubling for George Kennedy in World Northal's Steel, starring Lee Majors and Jennifer O'Neill. Bakunas correctly hits the airbag below, but it ruptures on impact, killing him instantly. Witnessing the horrific event is Bakunas' father.

Ironically, the scene had already been filmed previously, with Bakunas successfully jumping from a ninth floor window. But when rival Dar Robinson topped Bakunas' previously-held record for a high fall, a feat the latter had attained while doubling for Burt Reynolds in Hooper (1978), Bakunas returned to Kentucky for the second, fateful leap. Upon completion, the Kincaid Towers became home to a life insurance company which subsequently went bankrupt.

Hell's Angels (1930) - Hell in the Air

Howard Hughes' $3.8 million World War I spectacular proved to be "hell" to make. Hughes, an aviation buff, used more than 70 stunt pilots and World War I veterans in his movie in order to expertly film the harrowing aerial combat scenes. Three pilots lost their lives during production: Al Johnson, Clement.K. Phillips and Australian aviator Rupert Syme Macalister. Also killed was mechanic Phil Jones, who was unable to follow the lead of the pilot, daredevil Al Wilson, who successfully bailed out of a German Gotha bomber before it crashed to the ground.

As dictated by Hughes, Wilson, who was paid a substantial bonus for the stunt, was to put the plane in a tail spin while Jones, huddled in the rear of the fuselage, set off a series of smoke bombs to simulate machine gun hits. Both men were then to bail out if necessary, but in the end only Wilson was able to do so. Producer-director Hughes almost became a casualty himself when he took to the skies in an obsolete Thomas Morse scout plane in order to demonstrate an aerial maneuver. Hughes lost control and the plane went into a spin. Hughes was pulled unconscious from the wreckage and later underwent surgery to repair a crushed cheekbone. Hughes would later be involved in subsequent air crashes, living through all of them.

Howard Hughes on the set of Hell's Angels (1930) - United Artists

Fifteen More Hollywood Movie Set Disasters and Mishaps

  • Top Gun (1986). Acrobatic pilot Art Scholl (53) crashes his Pitts S-2 camera plane into the Pacific Ocean on September 16, 1985. Neither Scholl or his plane are ever recovered.
  • Ben-Hur (1925). A stuntman is killed while shooting the famous chariot scene. During the filming of a mock sea battle in Italy, several extras, laden down with heavy prop armor, dive overboard when a staged fire gets out of control and plummet to their deaths.
  • (2002). Harry O'Connor (44), Vin Diesel's stunt double, is killed on the second take when he hits the Palacky Bridge in Prague, Czech Republic, during a parasailing scene.
  • Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985). Cliff Wenger Jr. is killed in Acapulco, Mexico, on November 27, 1984, while engineering an explosives stunt which goes awry.
  • The Eiger Sanction (1975). British mountain climber David Knowles (26) is killed by a falling boulder on Mount Eiger, Switzerland, on August 13, 1974, during the second day of filming. Star Clint Eastwood had been standing in the same spot just minutes before the accident.
  • The Return of the Musketeers (1989). Actor Roy Kinnear (54) is thrown from a horse in Toledo, Spain, breaking his pelvis. He dies the next day in a Madrid hospital on September 20, 1988.
  • Jumper (2008). Set dresser David Ritchie is killed in Toronto on January 25, 2007, while dismantling an outdoor set. Frozen debris had become unstuck, subsequently falling and crushing Ritchie to death.
  • The Final Season (2007). Cinematographer Roland Schlotzhauer (50) is killed on June 30, 2006, when his Bell 206 helicopter hits power lines while filming near Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The chopper goes down in a field, killing Schlotzhauer and injuring the pilot and a producer on board.
  • The Wizard of Oz (1939). Margaret Hamilton, playing the Wicked Witch of the West, suffers second and third degree burns on her face and hands when she is engulfed by a special effects fireball. Hamilton contemplates a lawsuit, but is afraid of being blackballed by the film industry.
  • How the West Was Won (1962). Stuntman Bob Morgan, the husband of actress Yvonne De Carlo, loses a leg and several vertebrae during the famous train wreck sequence in which he was doubling for George Peppard. It takes him five years to recover from his injuries.
  • The Cannonball Run (1981). Stuntwoman Heidi Von Beltz is paralyzed from the neck down when a poorly-staged car crash scene goes awry. She later wins a $4 million personal injury lawsuit.
  • Manpower (1941). Actor George Raft falls 30 feet to the ground after his safety harness breaks, suffering three broken ribs and an injury to his abdomen.
  • The Platinum Triangle (1989). Actor Troy Donahue grabs a prop gun, which he mistakenly believes is unloaded, places the barrel between his eyes and jokingly pulls the trigger. Although loaded with blanks, the ensuing blast opens an ugly wound in Donahue's forehead requiring eight stitches to close. Blindness or even death could have resulted.
  • City Heat (1984). Actor Burt Reynolds is hit over the head during the first scene of the movie. But instead of using the prop chair made of soft balsa wood, the man, not a professional stuntman mistakenly uses a wrought-iron chair. The blow staggers Reynolds, breaking his jaw and shattering his temporomandibular joint. The result in the years after is an excruciating odyssey of pain for Reynolds as he searches for a doctor who can relieve his suffering. Finally, Reynolds' problem is accurately diagnosed by one physician who rebuilds the damaged joint.
  • They Came to Cordura (1959). Actor Dick York suffers a back injury when a railroad handcar falls on him during filming. York never fully recovers, developing a dependence on painkillers. He is later forced to leave his starring role of Darin Stevens on ABC-TV's Bewitched in 1969 because of recurring health problems.

Margaret Hamilton, left, with Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz (1939) - MGM

Top Image

  • Title lobby card: Hell's Angels (1930) - Heritage Auction Galleries

Copyright © 2012 William J. Felchner. All rights reserved.


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