Making films is inherently a dangerous job: you’re surrounded by thousands of watts of electricity, lots of wires, and in the case of many films, special effects. You’re also putting your life in the hands of strangers who might not even speak the same language as you if you’re relegated to Direct-to-DVD movies, and if you’re looking for that extra profile boost, you probably insist on doing “all” of your own stunts (but obviously not the really hard ones.)
Many actors, like Meryl Streep will probably never encounter a near-death experience on set, but if you’re a Sylvester Stallone or a Jackie Chan, maybe it’s a good idea to just be that little bit more aware of your surroundings, because there’s a good chance any number of on-set things could cause you harm. And judging by past incidences, real threats to life can and do happen.
Surprisingly, most of these occurrences seem to be in the past 20 or 30 years and not, as you would expect, the 1950s or 60s when there was less concern about health and safety restrictions. With technology improving, it seems that people might just be forgetting safety entirely or wilfully overlooking it to make more dangerous stunts in the hope of greater potential returns.
We all know the stories of actors who’ve actually died whilst making films, like Brandon Lee or Vic Morrow, but this article isn’t about that. Instead we’re looking at the actors who almost died creating memorable movie scenes, and what the consequences were. If we’re being honest, this article could be made up entirely of Jackie Chan near-death experiences, since he seems intent on almost dying, or at least injuring himself horribly on almost every film he works on….
15. Michael J. Fox – Back To The Future Part III
You know the brilliant bit in Back to the Future 3 where Marty is hanging with a noose around his neck, only to be saved by Doc? He really sold the moment, didn’t he?
There’s a good reason for that.
That scene almost killed the actor, who announced in his autobiography that the first couple of takes he stood on a box for the stunt, seeing as his whole body wasn’t going to be shown, but it just didn’t look realistic enough and he offered to do it without a box. Dangerously, this being the 7th take meant that Fox was getting tired and miscalculated the timing of his hand, which was meant to go between the noose and his neck, and as a result, he passed out for around 30 seconds.
According to Fox, “it was a full 30 seconds before anyone noticed. Thankfully Bob Zemeckis, a fan of mine though he was, realised that I wasn’t that good of an actor”.
The shooting was halted for the day and Fox was allowed to recover, presumably while seriously reconsidering his commitment to using stunt doubles.
14. Uma Thurman – Percy Jackson & The Lightning Thief
For reasons unknown to the world, Pierce Brosnan decided to participate in Percy Jackson & The Lightning Thief. And though the film wasn’t exactly brilliant, it was a good job he did, really, as he ended up saving co-star Uma Thurman’s life.
Whilst waiting around in between takes on the Vancouver set, Thurman was eating her lunch at the bottom of a large hill, whilst Brosnan was filming part of a scene at the top. Brosnan noticed that some careless person had left off the handbrake on their large van and it was now careering down the hill towards Thurman. Pierce, being the gentleman he is, tried to yell to Thurman to get out of the way, but she couldn’t hear, and apparently didn’t notice the van hurtling towards her.
Then, in a fit of what can only be described as utter bad-assery, Brosnan remembered that he was James Bond, chased down the van, jumped in and slammed on the breaks. The man is 56 and managed to chase down a van going at the speed of gravity, which is an incredible achievement, and in some way makes up for his singing in Mama Mia.
13. Roger Moore’s Stuntman – The Spy Who Loved Me
This is definitely one of the most iconic scenes in movie history. As Alan Partridge said, “he goes over a cliff and he’s falling and you think, oh God, James Bond’s going to die! He’s going to die! But then at the last minute…” he pulls a ripcord and a parachute with a Union Jack pops out, and British hearts swell and burst with pride.
A brilliant scene, brilliantly executed. Except, if you watch the scene you’ll notice just after the stuntman’s parachute opens, one of the skis comes close to grazing the parachute and the stuntman himself.
According to Rick Sylvester, who was paid the princely sum of $30,000 for the stunt (and a bonus for, you know, not dying) the ski was millimeters away from ripping open his parachute, which would’ve sent him spiraling to his death. And then (you don’t see this bit on film) Sylvester also bashed into some of the jagged rocks, causing lacerations to his suit and legs, before he managed to pull of a relatively safe landing.
The kicker? Of the 10 cameras filming the stunt, only one actually caught it on film. So if it hadn’t been for the operating skills of the cameraman, Sylvester would’ve had to risk his life again.
12. Meryl Streep – The River Wild
You know how we said Meryl Streep would never experience almost getting killed on a movie set? We lied.
For in 1994's The River Wild, the good lady Streep almost drowned. After an 18 hour day of filming rafting scenes, Streep was ready to collapse into her hotel bed and rest for a while, but in a classic case of directors not really having any sense of what’s going on around them, Curtis Hanson asked for one more shot of her in the raft.
Streep protested saying she really didn’t feel up to it – and let’s be honest, who could blame her – but Hanson pressured her into doing it, and she did. Unfortunately however, she was thrown from the raft and almost drowned – saved only by her life jacket and Kevin Bacon, her co-star pulling her out of the freezing cold water and back into the raft.
Streep, showing a sign of her inner bad-ass calmly climbed out of the raft, walked over to the director and softly said: “Next time I say I can’t do something, I think we should believe me, don’t you?”
11. Eli Roth – Inglourious Basterds
One of the better scenes in Tarantino’s wartime actioner, this one involves many Nazis burning to death, and it almost involved the cast receiving the same fate too. You see, for reasons unknown to the world, Tarantino thinks the best way to show a theater on fire is to actually set one on fire and then put your lead actors, like Eli Roth, in the middle of it for authenticity.
The flames were never supposed to be closer than 25 feet to the actors, but we know fire is unpredictable and within half a minute, the flames were licking the actors perilously. However, as we know from previous items in this list, money is always the undermining factor in these decisions, and since Eli Roth knew they only had one set to burn down, he carried on with the scene.
As you can see in the film, the fire got incredibly close to the actors and according to Roth, the platform they were on was seconds away from collapse. Luckily for him though, Tarantino let him have the next day off to recover. What a nice guy.
10. Bruce Campbell – The Evil Dead
Apparently, Sam Raimi really likes torturing his actors: in any scene in his films that involves items being thrown, he’s the one throwing them. However, his fetish went one step further in the original Evil Dead, where he almost killed his best friend and leading actor, Bruce Campbell.
The scene in question is near the end of the classic horror film, where the evil unseen force hurtles towards future-legend Ashley J Williams, causing him to scream. The shot was filmed by having Sam Raimi ride a motorbike one handed whilst holding the camera. To anyone not in this situation, it sounds like a terrible idea, and,you have to suspect that if they’d actually sat down to think about it, they probably wouldn’t have done it.
But Raimi and Campbell were not in the business of doing things by half, and went on with the planned shot full steam ahead.
Coming as a surprise to nobody, Raimi rammed full-on into Campbell, throwing him to the floor and causing the genuine scream you see in the film. A few inches either way and Campbell’s skull could’ve been crushed under the wheel. I like to think his chin saved him.
9. Jackie Chan – Police Story
Jackie Chan is a certified nutter. Every stunt in his films is completely authentic and, at one point or another, he has broken pretty much every bone in his body – several of them twice – as a result of that commitment to authenticity. With that in mind, it should come as no surprise that in 1985's Police Story, he was electrocuted when filming the famous scene where he slides down a metal pole covered in lights in a shopping centre.
This accident caused 3rd degree burns to his hands and face, and weeks of recovery, but apparently didn’t so much as cause a stutter in Chan’s agenda to be real.
Jackie only has himself to blame here to be fair, as the stunt was conceived as just being the metal pole and, indeed, it was filmed that way several times before Chan decided it just didn’t look good enough on screen. For a bit more colour, he asked his crew to cover the pole in lights, which would look spectacular on screen when he crashed through them. Despite the protests of his crew and anyone with even a basic understanding of how electricity works, Chan’s response was “the audience will love it”.
A little insight into Jackie Chan’s heavily damaged brain there.
8. Eli Wallach – The Good, The Bad And The Ugly
Italy in the 1960s was a very bad place to make a film: safety laws were almost non-existent, and on the low budget films like spaghetti westerns there was even more disregard for the safety of the actors involved.
Which is precisely why Eli Wallach was almost beheaded when filming the famous scene where he breaks his handcuffs using the wheels of a train. That’s a real train, and there’s no stunt double either. Wallach really had to put his hands in the path of a running train, and keep as low to the floor as possible. In an astonishing display of safety on one of these films, the stunt co-ordinators actually calculated how long Wallach had to stay on the floor before jumping up to exit the shot. However, what they didn’t count is the jagged metal steps jutting out from the carriages on the train, which would’ve beheaded Wallach if he’d raised his head at the correct time.
For some reason, Wallach had the instinct to stay on the floor until the entire train had passed, which is why he’s still alive today. This wasn’t the only accident for him though – he also drank acid which had been put in his prop bottle by accident, but had the good sense to spit it out as soon as he realised. The man just likes to cheat death.
7. Isla Fisher – Now You See Me
2013's Now You See Me was a pretty low-key affair that somehow managed to make a lot of money. If you’ve seen it, you’ll remember a scene where Isla Fisher is in a box full of water in a pair of handcuffs as part of a trick. When filming this, she was stuck underwater for almost 4 minutes when part of her costume got stuck on one of the chains.
Commenting after the fact on this, she said, “I couldn’t get up, everyone thought I was acting fabulously when really I was drowning.”
Luckily, the producers had the sense to install a quick release safety mechanism, which aided Fisher in her escape when she remembered it, with a nearby stuntman also helping.
Apparently, the shot also remains in the final film, which is more than a little grim, when you think about it.
6. Halle Berry – Die Another Day
First, let’s be glad the insanely beautiful Halle Berry didn’t die making this film, and second, the death was in the scene when she was making love to Pierce Brosnan, so it’s hard not to find it kind of funny.
You see, in the scene she ‘erotically’ eats a piece of fruit after cutting it with her bowie knife, but Berry got so caught up in the scene and presumably lost in Brosnan’s beautiful eyes that she began to choke on the piece of fruit for several seconds before anyone realised what was going on.
She said later that “there I was trying to be sexy and seduce Pierce, when I suddenly start coughing my guts up and choking on a piece of fig”. It was thanks to Pierce Brosnan’s quick thinking in applying the Heimlich maneuver that she didn’t pass out or worse. So that’s two lives saved by James Bond’s second hunkiest alumni – that’s almost enough to make him a meme.
Berry was also injured when a piece of dust dislodged by a helicopter flew into her eye and scratched her cornea, and when making 2013's The Call, she slipped and smashed her head on a concrete floor. We’re starting to think Halle Berry has a lot of bad luck.
5. Margaret Hamilton – The Wizard Of Oz
Remember that scene where the Wicked Witch Of The West says something evil and then disappears in a puff of smoke? Well, it almost killed the actress who played her, movie legend Margaret Hamilton.
Because the director wanted to see Hamilton for a brief second in the puff of smoke to give the illusion better, the trap door was delayed to open a few seconds after the explosive sparks showed on screen. Unfortunately, the sparks had a bad reaction with the petroleum-based make-up on Hamilton’s face, causing 3rd degree burns to her hands and 2nd degree burns to her face, which required 6 weeks of recuperation at home and hospital.
Amazingly, Hamilton didn’t sue, saying: “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!”
You’ve got to admire her ballsyness really, she went on to have a wonderful career and didn’t really seem to hold any ill will, thankfully.
4. Sylvester Stallone – The Expendables
The highlight of 2010's The Expendables has got to be the scene where Sylvester Stallone takes on the man mountain of wrestling, Stone Cold Steve Austin. As you’ll probably gather, neither of the men were going to use a stunt double for this awesome display of machismo and action.
Unfortunately, this decision ended rather badly for 64 year-old Sylvester Stallone. In a shot where Austin throws Stallone to the floor, the force of the impact was so great that it dislodged two vertebrae in Stallone’s spine and fractured his neck. Amazingly, Stallone didn’t feel the injuries until a week later when he made a routine visit to the on-set doctor.
According to Stallone, if he’d have waited any longer he would’ve been dead due to fluid building up around the breaks. Even worse, he could’ve been paralysed for life even if he had survived the fluid build-up.
As with Isla Fisher’s near-drowning, this shot remains in the finished film, and it does actually look awesome.
3. Ed Harris – The Abyss
The Abyss is probably the most underrated film on James Cameron’s CV – it’s a brilliant, tense thriller that will really get you thinking and has no bones about throwing its characters into danger in the ocean. The CGI is brilliant for the time period and features many of the techniques Jim Cameron would hone in Terminator 2: Judgement Day.
Due to the insane amount of water involved, the actors were soaking wet for about 90% of their time making the film. In the film, Ed Harris runs out of oxygen when scuba diving and promptly begins suffocating. When filming it, Harris assumed this would be faked and felt relatively certain that he had plenty of oxygen in his tank, but he was wrong and he didn’t. James Cameron made sure that the oxygen did actually run out and Harris began to suffocate for real, ensuring that Cameron got the realistic performance he wanted.
Does this not just prove how unbelievably insane Jim Cameron is? Drowning lead actors, employing Kate Winslet, building a full sized Titanic replica interior and filling it with freezing cold water: all I’m saying is it might be a good idea to sleep with one eye open if you get hired to be in one of his films, you know?
When Harris found out, he apparently floored James Cameron, going on record and saying he’ll never work with him again. So far, he hasn’t.
2. Gunnar Hansen – The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a very odd, vile little film, but it’s arresting viewing, it has to be said (though the many spin-offs and sequels have definitely followed the trend of diminishing returns.) The original was low budget, around $300,000, which meant that safety on-set suffered, which lead to things like the scene at the beginning where the nutter slashes himself with a razor actually happening. That blood is completely real, since the film-makers just couldn’t afford fake blood after spending so much money on the farmhouse and actors.
However, the most insane fact is probably the fact they used a real running chainsaw in all the scenes involving one. Yes, including the bit where it is being held by the actor who cannot see through his mask centimeters away from the lead actress’s face. The real mishap came at the end of the film where Leatherface is running with the chainsaw. Gunnar Hansen, the actor playing Leatherface, slipped in the mud and sent the chainsaw flying into the air. Jensen fell to the floor, the still-running chainsaw landing insanely close to his face.
It’s hard to believe that the making of a movie could actually be more violent than the film itself, but the Texas Chainsaw Massacre has proved us all wrong.
1. Sylvester Stallone – Rocky IV
Yes, Sylvester Stallone is the only actor to appear on the list twice. That tells you how nuts he is. This story happened during the making of Rocky IV – arguably the best Rocky film. It’s the first time you actually feel as though Rocky can’t win against the brutal Drago. That’s because the real-life actor, Dolph Lundgren outmatches Stallone in every department, including strength.
After several movie-style matches where none of the punches thrown were real, Stallone decided it just looked terrible on camera and he and Lundgren agreed they would engage in legitimate sparring, which in their minds was the only way to get a realistic looking fight. Lots of real punches were thrown and, you have to admit, they do look pretty damn bad-ass, just like a real life boxing match. However, for the climactic punch Stallone told Lundgren to hit him as hard as possible. Lundgren, having no bearing on reality, threw a punch that caused Stallone’s heart to swell and sent him straight to intensive care for 8 days in Santa Monica.
Stallone later said that he believed Dolph could fight in the real heavyweight leagues and that he was stupid to take a real punch from him. Gee, ya think?