Film production deaths

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Yes, I’m going to write about celebrity deaths. Something about 2016 that has just got me thinking about famous people that have died for some reason…

Films and TV shows are an amazing piece of entertainment, they can make us laugh, cry, excited and so on. We get passionate about films/shows in various ways. We can hold in depth discussions on our own personal interpretations of characters and plots. Yet no matter how passionate we get over everything, they are just entertainment, little wastes of time we watch to amuse ourselves with.

Yet people have lost their lives while making films/shows and that is what I’m going to take a look at here. Things are going to get a little morbid as I look at some instances where people have died just trying to keep us entertained for a few minutes. From horrific accidents to negligence to plain old stupidity. These are people that are no longer with us due to their deaths during production.

I’ll start off with a little known name and face.

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Jon-Erik Hexum: Hexum was a multi talented young man, he played the violin in his school orchestra and could also play the piano. He attended both Case Western Reserve University and Michigan State University studying bio-medical engineering and then switching over to philosophy later. When he wasn’t busy studying, he used to DJ at several local radio stations in the late 70s/early 80s and it was around this time when he was discovered by Bob LeMond, the manager of then box office gold; John Travolta.

LeMond convinced Hexum to move to Los Angeles to start auditioning for movie roles. Hexum’s early career was a slow one as he lost several parts to other actors. Eventually, he landed a role in a pilot called; Voyager from the Unknown (1982) which was then turned into a TV series called; Voyagers! (1982-1983) where Hexum played a time traveller; Phineas Bogg. The series was short lived and only lasted one season, but Jon-Erik Hexum’s good looks made an impression and he was cast in the TV movie; Making of a Male Model (1983).

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He would then land a role in the TV series; Hotel (1984) and even got his first major role in a film when he was cast in; The Bear (1984) a biopic telling the real life story of college football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant. By 1984, Hexum was slowly emerging as a talent worth investing in and started to get more and more offers. He decided to take on the role of Mac Harper in the TV series; Cover Up (1984-1985). Mac Harper (Jon-Erik Hexum) was an undercover CIA operative posing as a male model.

On 12th October 1984, they were filming the seventh episode of the show at the 20th Century Fox lot. A scene for this episode required Hexum’s character to load a .44 Magnum handgun and he was given a working gun with some blank cartridges to practise his scene during breaks in filming. Under the supervision of a prop master who instructed Hexum on the correct way to hold and load the gun. After several attempts at loading and unloading the gun, Hexum decided to lighten to mood on the film set and play a little joke. He unloaded all but one of the blanks from the gun and pretended to play Russian roulette. At 5:15 PM, Hexum held the gun to his temple and reportedly said: “Oh well, what the Hell!” and pulled the trigger.

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While there are no bullets in blanks, wadding is used in the cartridges to seal in a small amount of gunpowder to still give the effect of a real gunshot. The close range of the shot meant the distance was short enough to still create damage, even from a blank. The wadding from the blank cartridge hit Hexum’s temple, shattered his skull and the shattered pieces of his skull penetrated his brain causing massive haemorrhaging. Jon-Erik Hexum was rushed to Beverly Hills Medical Center and underwent five hours of surgery to repair his wounds. His injuries proved too severe and six days later on 18th October, Hexum was declared brain dead.

The episode of Cover Up that Hexum had been working on aired two weeks after his death. The show carried on without Hexum’s character and on the 24th November 1984, it was written into the show that Mac Harper (Jon-Erik Hexum) had died while on an assignment.
The episode ended with a memoriam written by (producer) Glen Larson: “They say when a star dies, its light continues to shine across the universe for millenniums. Jon-Erik Hexum died in October of this year, but his light will continue to brighten our lives forever…and ever.

Jon-Erik Hexum death was ruled accidental and died aged 26.

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Jon-Erik Hexum:One of my strongest traits is confidence; at times I’m amazed at my confidence, even when it doesn’t make sense that I should be.

Next up is one of the most famous film production deaths and one with some similarities to Jon-Erik Hexum.

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Brandon Bruce Lee: The son of legendary martial artist and charismatic film star, Bruce Lee. At the age of 18 Brandon attended Emerson College in Boston where he majored in theatre. A year later, he moved to New York City where he took acting lessons at the famed Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute. Brandon always refused to live in the shadow of his globally famous father and wanted to carve his own career his own way. Lee got his first credited acting role in; Kung Fu: The Movie (1986) which was a made for TV movie sequel to the famous 1970s TV series Kung Fu.

Legacy of Rage (1986) was Lee’s first role as a lead. This was the only film Brandon would make in Hong Kong. He would also return to the Kung Fu franchise when he starred in the TV pilot; Kung Fu: The Next Generation (1987). Slowly starting to emerge as a movie star, Lee began taking on more and more roles. He also starred in low budget action film; Laser Mission (1989).

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As the 90s came around, Brandon started to get noticed and appeared in several notable action films. Showdown in Little Tokyo (1991) marked Lee’s first American film début where he stared alongside Dolph Lundgren. 1991 was also when Brandon signed a three picture deal with 20th Century Fox with his first film for the studio being; Rapid Fire (1992). Also in 1992, Lee signed on to star in his big breakthrough film; The Crow.

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The Crow was a supernatural/action/thriller based on the James O’ Barr graphic novel of the same name. Lee played Eric Draven, a musician brought back from the dead by a mysterious crow to extract revenge after he and his fiancée are attacked and murdered in their home the day before they are set to be married. One scene in the film had Eric (Brandon Lee) return home to find his fiancée being raped. Draven interrupts the intrusion but is overpowered by the gang of attackers and is shot. It was during this scene when Brandon received the injury that would lead to his death.

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The scene was shot near the end of production on 31st March, 1993. As Eric returns home to find his fiancée being raped, one of the gang members, Funboy (Michael Massee) points a .44 Magnum at Eric and fires. A previously filmed scene required using the same gun loaded with dummy cartridges fitted with real bullets but no powder or primer, to be loaded in the revolver for a close-up shot to show the gun was actually loaded. The gun was not checked properly for the scene where Eric is shot and at some point during production, one of the bullets became lodged in the barrel of the gun. The gun was reloaded with blanks for the shooting scene with a live powder charge and primer, but no actual bullet. As Michael Massee fired the gun at Brandon Lee, the blank cartridge exploded with force similar to firing a real bullet and as a bullet was lodged in the barrel of the gun, this caused the .44 Magnum to work as a fully operational and loaded gun. The previously lodged bullet hit Lee in the abdomen and he fell backwards as the cast and crew believed he was acting and were unaware he was shot for real. When the crew realised there had been a problem, Brandon was rushed to the New Hanover Regional Medical Center in Wilmington and underwent 6 hours of surgery and he was pronounced dead at 1:03 P.M on April 1st.

Most of The Crow had been completed when Brandon died as the film was in the final week of production. However, director, Alex Proyas felt he didn’t want to continue with the movie and it sat on the self for several months. It was Lee’s fiancée, Eliza Hutton and his mother, Linda Lee Cadwell who urged Proyas to finish the film. As doubles, clever CGI and editing were employed to finish up the last few shots of the film and The Crow was finally released in 1994.

Brandon Lee’s death was ruled an accident after a lengthy investigation and died he aged 28.

Now here, I’d like to point out some strange coincidences/connections related to Brandon’s death…

The same make of gun was used in both of the Jon-Erik Hexum and Brandon Lee deaths, a .44 Magnum. The two deaths were also caused via the use of blank cartridges.

Part of the plot of The Crow is a couple who’s lives are ended just before they are due to be married. Brandon and his fiancée Eliza we set to be married on April 17 1993, a little over two weeks after Brandon died.

Brandon Lee plays a character who is shot and killed in The Crow and Brandon himself died via a gunshot received on a film set. In the re-edited version of his father, Bruce Lee’s film; Game of Death (1978). Bruce’s character is shot and believed to be killed while on a film set.

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Brandon Lee:Because we do not know when we will die, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. And yet everything happens only a certain number of times, and a very small number really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, an afternoon that is so deeply a part of your being that you cannot conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four, or five times more? Perhaps not even that. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.

I have saved the worst for last as I look at the deaths of three people killed at the same time during one of the most infamous and horrific on set tragedies ever.

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Vic Morrow, Myca Dinh Le and Renee Shin-Yi Chen: This really is a tough one to write about as it involves the death of not only a respected film actor, but also the death of two very innocent children. All while including some major names working in films during the 80s.

Vic Morrow’s acting carer began with the film; Blackboard Jungle (1955) and he even appeared alongside Elvis Presley in the movie King Creole (1958). By the late 50s/early 60s, Vic had moved into TV and had roles in shows like; The Restless Gun (1957-1959), The Lawless Years (1959-1961), The Outlaws (1960-1962) as well as other popular TV shows of the time. It was Morrow being cast in the lead role of Sergeant “Chip” Saunders in the World War II drama TV series; Combat! (1962-1967) that put him on the map, he even directed a few episodes of the show himself.

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As the 70s rolled around, Morrow had established himself as a worthy actor and director, plying his skills as a writer and director with the Spaghetti Western; A Man Called Sledge (1970). He also made a very memorable appearance as the local sheriff in the classic road movie; Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry (1974). In; The Bad News Bears (1976), Morrow showed his more comedic talent. While now making movies, Vic never forgot his TV roots and still made appearances in various shows through the 70s including; Hawaii Five-O, The Streets of San Francisco, McCloud, Charlie’s Angels and Sarge. In 1982, Vic Morrow was cast in; Twilight Zone: The Movie, an anthology movie based off the classic TV series of the same name.

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Twilight Zone: The Movie used four stories inspired by episodes of TV series and updated them for the 80s. Each of the four stories were helmed by famous movie directors of the time, John Landis (Time Out), Steven Spielberg (Kick the Can), Joe Dante (It’s a Good Life), George Miller (Nightmare at 20,000 Feet). Bill Connor (Vic Morrow) was a racist, bigot in the first segment of the film; Time Out. Bill becomes enraged when he is passed over for a promotion at work for a Jewish co-worker and while at a bar drinking with a few friends, he becomes outspoken and beings a tirade of racial slurs against various races. As he leaves the bar, the supernatural tone of the story begins as Bill finds himself in various time lines and locales including; World War II where he is believed to be a Jewish man being pursued by Nazi SS officers, rural South during the 1940s where he is seen as a black man by a group of Ku Klux Klansmen and finally, he finds himself in a jungle during the Vietnam War. It was during filming this section of the story where the tragedy that lead to the three deaths occurred.

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On 23rd July, 1982 in Valencia, Santa Clarita they were filming a very dangerous stunt where Bill Connor (Vic Morrow) had to try to save two Vietnamese children (7-year-old Myca Dinh Le and 6-year-old Renee Shin-Yi Chen) from American troops and a low hovering helicopter that was terrorising the village they were trapped in. The stunt required Morrow to run trough a river and underneath the low hovering helicopter with the two children under his arms, all during a 2 o’ clock in the morning shoot. It has been reported that Morrow, while holding two children and waiting for the start of filming said; “How did I let them talk me into doing this scene? I should have asked for a stunt double” Everything was set up for the tricky stunt and camera began to roll, Vic’s direction was to run under the helicopter, through the river to the other side all while there was gunfire and explosions going on near by. Morrow held both Myca Dinh Le and Renee Shin-Yi under his arms and began the dangerous stunt. As he ran under the helicopter through the river, director John Landis kept ordering the the helicopter the hover lower and lower to get a more exciting shot. Just as Vic was directly under the helicopter, a large mortar effect was ordered to explode but the effect was detonated while the helicopter’s tail was directly above it. This caused the tail rotor of the helicopter to fail and the helicopter began to fall. At the same time, Morrow had accidentally dropped one of the children, Renee Shin-Yi Chen, Morrow tried to reach out to grab Chen as the helicopter fell to the ground. Vic Morrow and Myca Dinh Le were decapitated and mutilated by the helicopter’s top rotor blades while Shin-Yi Chen was crushed to death by one of the helicopter’s skids.

To be honest, there is a hell of a lot to cover with this whole accident, there was civil and criminal action against the film-makers that lasted almost 10 years, the two children were hired illegally, there was massive fallout from the accident and it changed the way films were made forever. Too much to cover here, but I may do a more in-depth look at the accident later. But anyway, it was a terrible, horrific accident that resulted in the unnecessary death of three people.

The three deaths were ruled as an accident. Vic Morrow was 53, Myca Dinh Le was 7 and Renee Shin-Yi Chen was 6.

There is a little addition to this story I’d like to point out though. Just going back to the Brandon Lee accident for a second. The scene in which Brandon was shot was actually caught on film, however the footage was destroyed after the investigation into his death. I bring this up as the the scene of this accident was also filmed, but unlike the Brandon Lee footage…it was never destroyed. In fact, the video is all too easy to find via a simple internet search. I did find the clip myself just to see how easy it was to get hold of. Though I decided not to watch the clip, I was just curious how easy it was to find…no, I’m not posting it here.

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Vic Morrow:Sure, the reviews were great…but you would’ve thought they’d picked me up out of an ashtray, and made me a star. Hell, I’d already done Shakespeare and Chekhov and all those other cats.

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2 thoughts on “Film production deaths

    1. Steve Perrin Post author

      Yeah, there have been too many accidents during filming where people have died.

      I may cover some others at a later date. It is a morbid but interesting subject.

      In think the Vic Morrow/Twilight Zone one is the worst that I know of.

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      Reply

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