On October 22, the world awoke to tragic news from Hollywood that a fatal accident had taken place on the set of the upcoming movie “Rust,” starring veteran actor Alec Baldwin. The production had been filming near Santa Fe, New Mexico. According to The New York Times, a prop gun that Alec Baldwin had been using on camera discharged, killing the movie’s cinematographer, 42-year-old Halyna Hutchins, and injuring the director, 48-year-old Joel Souza, who was later released from hospital (via Deadline). “We’re trying to determine right now how and what type of projectile was used in the firearm,” claimed Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Juan Rios (per The New York Times).
Though rare, such accidents on movie sets are, sadly, nothing new. In 2016, Associated Press (AP) shared a shocking report that since 1990, more than 43 people had died on sets in the U.S., while more than 150 more had suffered “life-altering injuries.” Since then, the number has continued to rise among both actors and crew members. “I think it’s always been something that’s been swept under the rug,” Stephen Farber told AP.
In the immediate aftermath of the death of Halyna Hutchins, many commentators pointed to a tragic incident that occured 28 years earlier: the death of Brandon Lee, the son of martial arts icon Bruce Lee. Brandon died on the set of the gothic superhero classic “The Crow” on March 31, 1993. He was just 28.
Like Hutchins, Lee was shot and killed by a prop gun that a fellow actor believed contained blanks. According to Independent, Lee’s autopsy revealed that he had been killed by a “fragment of a dummy shell” that had been previously fired but which had lodged in the gun’s barrel unknown to the production team. Though a lawsuit filed by Lee’s family alleged that “crew members ran out of dummy bullets and improperly manufactured their own from live ammunition,” no charges were ever filed, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Following the death of Hutchins, the family of Brandon Lee took to Twitter to share their condolences and to decry the circumstances that could let such a horrific accident happen once again: “Our hearts go out to the family of Halyna Hutchins and to Joel Souza and all involved in the incident on ‘Rust.’ No one should ever be killed by a gun on a film set. Period.”
But the tragic death of Brandon Lee wasn’t the first movie set death to occur as the result of a firearm. In 1984, 26-year-old actor Jon-Erik Hexum lost his life as a result of what Entertainment Weekly described as a “fatal joke.”
Up-and-coming Hexum was at the time engaged in the filming of the CBS adventure series “Cover Up,” playing a model and ex-Green Beret named Mac Harper. Production had run into numerous delays, leaving Hexum bored on set. After discovering a .44 magnum prop gun, the actor jokingly made his exasperation know to the cast and crew by holding the gun to his head and declaring, “Can you believe this crap?” before pulling the trigger (via Entertainment Weekly). Though the weapon only contained blanks, the force of the blast at point-blank range fractured Hexum’s skull and causing a fatal brain hemorrhage. He died after falling into a coma following five hours of emergency surgery at Beverly Hills Medical Center.
Daniel Oates, former police chief of Miami Beach and Aurora, Colorado, told CNN how even prop guns have the potential to be fatal: “They all contain a charge, a powder that creates the noise and the explosive, the visual blast, and usually it’s some kind of wire or something that explodes out of the weapon when it’s fired … These weapons can be very, very dangerous.”
Hollywood had a tradition going back to the days of silent movies of offering up incredible stunts to wow cinema audiences. Like many of his contemporaries, the silent comic Buster Keaton was known for doing his own stunts, which included clearing planks from railway tracks while sitting on the front of a movie train, and standing stock-still as the wall of a house collapses on top of him (via YouTube).
No safety regulations existed at the time, but as the years have passed, Hollywood stunts have become far safer. “It is much safer today than when I was doing stunts eons ago,” stunt performer Hal Needham told Independent in 2011. “Stunt men today are more talented, more experienced and in better shape. The equipment they have today is much better.” However, tragic accidents still happen.
In 2017, the respected stunt motorcycle rider Joi Harris, 40, was killed on the set of “Deadpool 2,” according to Deadline, a tragic incident for which the movie’s production company, TCF Vancouver Productions Ltd., was later held responsible and fined $300,000, after “Instructing the stunt performer not to wear safety headgear while operating the motorcycle.” According to The Hollywood Reporter, the studio, 20th Century Fox, later arranged a settlement with Harris’ family out of court. “Her death was senseless and could have been avoided,” claimed Harris’ colleague Melissa Stubbs.
Vic Morrow, Renee Shinn Chen, and My-ca Dinh Lee
In 1982, the set of “Twilight Zone: The Movie” saw tragedy when veteran actor Vic Morrow, 53, who had made his name during the 1960s as the star of the World War II TV series “Combat!”, was killed in a tragic helicopter accident along with two child actors he was working with: Renee Chinn Chen, 6, and My-ca Dinh Lee, 7, according to a contemporary report from the Lodi New-Sentinel (per Google News). Morrow was carrying the two children on a set depicting a battle during the Vietnam War when a chartered helicopter was affected by the pyrotechnics. The pilot lost control of the helicopter, striking the three actors with the spinning rotor blades and killing them instantly.
According to History, John Landis, who was co-directing the film, was charged with involuntary manslaughter alongside four other crew members, including the helicopter pilot and the special-effects coordinator. All five defendants would be acquitted following a highly publicized trial which cast light on the dangers of Hollywood film sets at the time.
Slate reports that, following the tragic deaths that occurred on the set of “Twilight Zone,” health and safety regulations in Hollywood were subject to such an overhaul that insurance companies were willing to insure film sets for the first time.
It turns out that tragedy lies behind a number of our most loved Hollywood movies, including “Top Gun,” the 1986 classic starring Tom Cruise, which saw the death of acclaimed stunt pilot Art Scholl.
Schol, 53, had enjoyed a distinguished career as a Hollywood stunt pilot, with the movies “Blue Thunder” and “The Right Stuff” among his many credits. According to the Los Angeles Times, he was considered among the best in the field of aeronautics, having been brought into movie stunt work by Paul Mantz and Frank Tallman, legendary Hollywood stunt pilots who also lost their lives in accidents while filming.
Scholl was in San Diego County piloting an aerobatic biplane equipped with cameras to capture his audacious stunts when he suddenly lost control of the vehicle at an altitude of 4,000 feet, radioing the stunt team that he was experiencing “a problem,” reported the Times. His plane plunged into the sea, with debris from the wreckage washing up hours later. Scholl’s body was never recovered.
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