Fatal film set accidents: from Brandon Lee to Alec Baldwin

As a new tragedy unfolds in Hollywood, a look at other catastrophic behind-the-scenes incidents

Never mind movie magic. Film and TV sets can be dangerous places.

Thursday's fatal incident in New Mexico on the set of the coming Western Rust shows that accidents can – and invariably will – happen. At Bonanza Creek Ranch outside Santa Fe, Oscar-nominated actor-producer Alec Baldwin discharged a prop firearm, killing the film’s cinematographer, Halyna Hutchins, 42, and injuring its director, Joel Souza, 48.

Production has halted, while counselling services are being offered to the cast and crew. “My greatest fear is that someone will be fatally hurt on one of my sets. I pray this will never happen,” wrote Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn on Twitter, as he expressed his condolences to Hutchins’ family.

The very idea that someone might lose their life this way – in the service of making entertainment – is an unbearable thought. The moment news of Hutchins’ death began circulating, actress Shannon Lee tweeted: “No one should ever be killed by a gun on a film set. Period.”

The daughter of famed actor and martial artist Bruce Lee, Shannon was making a pointed reference to the death of her older brother, Brandon Lee.

In March 1993, Brandon was filming The Crow, the film that was set to be his breakthrough movie. During a scene in which his character walks into an apartment and is killed by assailants, Brandon was accidentally shot in the abdomen and died several hours later.

At the time, the investigation into the incident revealed that a lead tip from a real bullet had accidentally become lodged in the firearm being used for the scene. Earlier in the film shoot, live ammunition had been converted into a dummy round for a close-up of the gun’s chamber. Two weeks later, when it came to Brandon filming his scene at the apartment, a blank was loaded into the same gun and fired. But unbeknownst to the crew, the lead tip was still inside the weapon, fatally wounding Brandon.

It left his family devastated, a feeling shared by Michael Massee, the actor playing the thug who pulled the trigger in the scene. “What happened to Brandon was a tragic accident … I don’t think you ever get over something like that,” he later commented. Brandon’s death was ruled as an accident due to negligence, after a two-month investigation and no criminal charges were pressed. It was, in the end, a tragic chain of events that led to his death.

On any movie set, safety procedures are rigorous. A licensed armourer, or firearms expert, is on hand to oversee the safe handling of all replica weapons present. Risk-assessments – industry standard briefings that detail any potential hazard – are produced daily. Many armourers even take the extra precaution of making their own blanks by purchasing their own cartridges and using the minimum amount of propellant required to operate the weapon.

As careful as these step-by-step safety guidelines are, there is no accounting for freak incidents. In 1984, actor Jon-Erik Hexum was on set, on the 20th Century Fox lot in Los Angeles, filming television series Cover Up when he shot himself in the head with a prop gun blank and died.

The actor, tragically, was fooling around with the weapon, pretending to play Russian roulette. When he put the gun to his temple and pulled the trigger, the blank cartridge caused a small explosion, driving a bone fragment into his brain and causing severe hemorrhaging.

Firearms are not the only cause of deaths on movie sets. In 1988, British actor Roy Kinnear fell from a horse while filming The Return of the Musketeers. Although he was rushed to hospital and treated for a broken pelvis, he suffered a fatal heart attack the next day. During the filming of music biopic Midnight Rider in 2014, camera assistant Sarah Jones died on a railway track in Wayne County, Georgia. A train struck a hospital bed placed across the track. Hit by debris from the bed, Jones was knocked into the train’s path and killed instantly. The film, which starred William Hurt, was never finished.

In 1982, actor Vic Morrow and two young children died during the making of Twilight Zone: The Movie, when a helicopter pilot lost control of the low-flying craft during a scene involving pyrotechnic explosions. It spun out of control, crashing into the ground below, killing Morrow and the youngsters instantly. The tragedy led, ultimately, to the creation of the Injury and Illness Prevention Programme, a series of safety guidelines used across the film and television industry.

Sadly, it’s often the case that only with a new incident do safety procedures get tightened. When stuntman Dar Robinson died performing a motorbike stunt during 1987’s Million Dollar Mystery, it became mandatory for ambulances to be present on movie sets. What lessons will be learnt from the tragedy on the set of Rust remains to be seen. For the moment, the industry, along with her friends and family, are left mourning the sad loss of Halyna Hutchins.

Updated: October 24th 2021, 5:41 AM