Day 630: Medic On The Set

originally published September 21, 2013

I respect the fact that a number of Jackie Chan films finish up with a blooper montage featuring a cavalcade of missed maneuvers and on-set accidents. The guy is so well-known for doing his own stunts (and shattering his own person-parts in the process) that every so often it’s announced that he died on set, and people believe it until someone they know does a little fact-checking.

What makes this rumor semi-credible is not only the fact that Jackie Chan likes to do physically absurd things to his body in films, but also the handful of gruesome film accidents on official record. It haunted the front page when Brandon Lee was shot by a gun that was supposed to be loaded with blanks on the set of The Crow. But did you hear about Conway Wickliffe, the cameraman who was killed when the pickup he was shooting from hit a tree during the making of The Dark Knight?

I was surprised by how many of these names have scrolled past us in the credits of forgotten history without getting the attention they deserve. These are folks who either died or gave up a significant chunk of their physical being for a piece of art.

Ormer Locklear was one of those crazy bastards who walked on the wing of his plane while it was in flight in an effort to solicit oohs, ahhs, gasps and faints from airshow and circus crowds. He also translated that skill into a movie career, albeit a brief one. He was in the process of shooting The Skywayman, his second feature film, when things went wrong.

The scene called for Locklear and Milton ‘Skeets’ Elliott to make it look like they were veering into some oil derricks in a night-time shot. Whoever was in charge of the lights missed their cue, and the scene wound up more realistic than it should have been. The plane crashed and both men were killed. The art, however, persevered – the shot was included in the final version of the film.

You can’t have a movie about Noah’s ark without recreating the Great Flood. In 1928, director Michael Curtiz (who later made Casablanca, a film that doesn’t make this list of horrific accidents) didn’t quite know how to pull it off. Several hundred extras were brought in, including a young and unknown John Wayne.

There weren’t a lot of safety regulations for the film industry back then (in fact, there probably weren’t any), so when things got wild with the water, the people in charge were more concerned about nailing the shot than keeping the extras safe. A number of people were injured, three died and one man lost a leg during the flood.

The good news? Well, they got the shot.

Someone upstairs really had it in for the Wicked Witch of the West. Stunt double Betty Danko was sitting on a smoking pipe meant to look like a broomstick when the thing exploded, permanently scarring her legs and plopping her in a hospital bed for eleven weeks. Actress Margaret Hamilton, whose chill-inducing cackle stands out as one of the finest moments of the film, also suffered severe burns on her face and hands when the trap door that was supposed to whisk her away from the witch’s pyrotechnic exit from Munchkinland was late in opening.

Then there’s poor Buddy Ebsen. He had to deal with a horrendous allergic reaction to the makeup in his Tin Man costume, so bad that his lung collapsed and he spent the rest of his days suffering from respiratory issues. That said, “the rest of his days” lasted until age 95, so I guess he managed to power through this one.

Of all the film set accidents, this one might be the worst. In one of the segments of The Twilight Zone: The Movie, a character played by actor Vic Morrow was supposed to travel back in time to Vietnam where he’d meet two orphaned kids. All three of them were to be shot at by a US Army helicopter. You can see where the ham-fisted moral is being driven like a semi through this particular scene.

Something went horribly wrong, and the helicopter wound up crashing onto the three actors; Morrow and one of the kids were decapitated and the other kid crushed. Then when criminal and civil action was taken against the filmmakers (including Animal House director John Landis), it was discovered that the kids were being paid under the table to get around California child-labor laws. This one hung around the courts for a number of years and kept Hollywood from using helicopter stunts until CGI caught up and made them a little safer.

This one is kind of funny. Sylvester Stallone wanted a bit of realism when Rocky fought Ivan Drago in Rocky IV, so he thought it’d be a good idea for he and Dolph Lundgren to slap on the gloves and spar a little. Probably not a great idea.

Lundgren delivered a blow to Stallone’s chest, causing Sly’s heart to swell and his blood pressure to shoot up over 200. He was airlifted from Canada to St. John’s hospital in Santa Monica and spent eight days in intensive care from the punch.

Remember this scene? “You are dog now! No more table! Where are you going, PAL? Next time you have a chance to kill someone, don’t hesitate.” BANG! (x16) Goddammit, Die Hard is one of the greatest films ever made. Anyway, this isn’t an incidental interjection to comment on the astute badassery of John McClane. That scene actually had some serious ramifications.

Bruce Willis, as I’m sure you recall, was underneath the table taking Marco the Terrorist’s advice and unloading a clip of blanks into the table and general groin area of the bad guy on top of it. But he wasn’t wearing ear plugs and those blanks, particularly in an enclosed space like that, are damn loud. Bruce wound up losing two thirds of the hearing in his left ear as a result.

There is no moral to this story, in fact there’s a massive list of names I didn’t have time to get to, like David Holmes, the stunt double for Daniel Radcliffe in Harry Potter & The Deathly Hallows who was permanently paralyzed in one scene. Stunt work – even just movie work – can be a dangerous gig. Next time you watch a movie with a little action in it, take a moment when the credits roll past the speaking parts to tip your hat to those brave-ass souls who risked it all just so you could have something to do with your eyes and ears while you snarfed some overpriced popcorn.

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