Hollywood has come a long way since the days when directors would cavalierly put extras and animal actors in life-threatening situations, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t still accidents. Despite Hollywood’s expansive modern protections of crew members, actors, and extras, we still hear the occasional story of a filming sequence gone wrong. Sometimes, this is due to complicated technology malfunctioning, while other times this is due to obsessive, boundary-pushing directors, but it always manages to scare the actors — and us — into imagining what our world would look like if that particular accident had ended in disaster. Lead actors can’t die, right? (It turns out: Yes, they actually can.)
Often times, Hollywood tries to cover up its biggest mistakes — like when it fabricated an entire “true story” in the Oscar-winning “documentary” White Wilderness — but there are always whistleblowers who are willing to hold producers accountable. We’ve assembled a list of the accidents and shocking decisions that Hollywood couldn’t quite cover up, whether due to very public court cases or high-profile actor deaths and injuries. We’ve made sure to include accidents involving everyone from major celebrities to helpless little lemmings. (And some of these are purely accidents.)
There are some runners-up that didn’t make this list (did you know Jason Statham almost died filming The Transporter?), but we’ve made sure to pick out the most shocking, disgusting, and heartbreaking examples of Hollywood films gone wrong. Please proceed at your own risk!
15 Jim Caviezel Bore Real Injuries During Passion of the Christ
There’s Method, and then there’s Jim Caviezel in The Passion of the Christ. In order to play Jesus Christ being lashed and mounted on a cross for Mel Gibson’s box office-breaking religious nightmare about Jesus’s final days, Caviezel had to literally be lashed and mounted half-naked from a cross. In addition to being exposed, semi-nude and suspended in the air, to freezing cold winds, Caviezel was also struck by lightning during a staging of the Sermon on the Mount. Oh, and he dislocated his shoulder carrying the cross. Oh, and he caught pneumonia and a lung infection from the icy temperatures during filming. Oh, and an actor accidentally left a 14-inch gash in his back during a staged lashing scene. Oh, and he didn’t actually ask for any of this. But it was worth it, right?? Nope. He hasn’t had a starring role in any major film since. Ouch.
14 Twilight Zone: The Movie Killed Three Actors
Despite a dictatorial director and tricky filming conditions, the July 23, 1982 shoot for Twilight Zone: The Movie was just like any other. There was a stunt helicopter and there were some explosions, yes, but everyone on set seemed to know what they were doing. Unfortunately, once filming began, the explosions triggered by director John Landis went off too soon, damaging the stunt helicopter and causing it to land in a river. Crisis averted, right? Nope. The helicopter had landed right on top of star Vic Morrow and two child actors, killing all three of them. Morrow, a well-known veteran actor, was decapitated by the helicopter blade, while the two children — one seven, one six — were crushed to death. Morrow, who was somehow cleared of any criminal charges later on, had reportedly shrugged off his crew’s concerns about the stunt, saying: “We may lose the helicopter.” The incident forced Hollywood to drastically improve its on-set safety standards for years to come.
13 Syriana Led George Clooney To Contemplate Suicide
It turns out that George Clooney’s Supporting Actor Oscar for Syriana came at a heavy price. During a torture scene in which Clooney — performing his own stunt — was supposed to fall into a chair, he accidentally hit his back and suffered a severe spinal injury. Clooney later told reporters that he was in so much pain — even blowing spinal fluid out of his nose — that he seriously considered ending his own life. "I was at a point where I thought, 'I can't exist like this. I can't actually live,'" the actor told Rolling Stone. "I was lying in a hospital bed with an IV in my arm, unable to move, having these headaches where it feels like you're having a stroke, and for a short three-week period, I started to think, 'I may have to do something drastic about this.'" He then reportedly started planning his own suicide and weighing the pros and cons of every available method of killing himself.
12 Rocky IV Almost Ended In Accidental Manslaughter
Sylvester Stallone hasn’t hesitated to tell the world about all the manly stunts he pulled off while filming the Rocky series. However, his penchant for getting physical on set almost cost him his life during the filming of Rocky IV. After telling on-screen sparring partner Dolph Lundgren to “really go at it” like “a real boxer” for the sake of authenticity, Stallone ended up with a burning in his chest from Lundgren’s powerful blows. Later that night, when he had trouble breathing, his crew members knew something was up and whisked him away to the emergency room. Apparently, Lundgren had struck him so hard that his heart had slammed against his breastbone and begun to swell. Without medical attention, his heartbeats would have gotten so labored that his heart would have quickly stopped. This story definitely beats all those other “woe is me” stories that actors tell when they’re trying to win Oscars after particularly tough shoots!
11 Michael Bay Endangered Lives On Transformers For The Sake Of Blowing Things Up
Michael Bay is no stranger to blowing up things. The blockbuster director has actually blown up so many things on screen that his movies can pretty much be identified due to their loud, relentless explosions. However, Bay might have gone a little too far on the set of Transformers. For the scene in which one Evil Transformer (that’s what they’re called, right?) bursts out of the sand on the heels of the soldiers, Bay achieved this effect by detonating a cord of explosives under the sand. However, he achieved the effect of “pure terror on his actors’ faces” by not telling them he was going to do this. Effectively, he endangered their lives by surprising them with a giant round of explosions just feet away from them. At least he told them beforehand “to run and keep running no matter what.” Doesn’t he realize that’s basically what Scar told Simba before knowingly setting hyenas on him?
10 Everyone Was Miserable On The Set Of Apocalypse Now
Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now is infamous for its troubled production process. Filming was delayed over and over due to Marlon Brando’s bad behavior — actual dead bodies were being used for props, and the movie was shot in an actual war zone. Add to that the fact that Dennis Hopper was high on cocaine for most of filming— and Martin Sheen was drunk and depressed and suffering from the occasional heart attack— and you have a typical recipe for disaster. Somehow, Coppola was able to push through and make this masterpiece anyway — although he had to cut some ethical corners. For a climactic scene where an indigenous tribe kills a water buffalo as part of a ritual sacrifice, Coppola had his indigenous actors actually kill the animal on screen. The spurting blood we see and the cries we hear are 100% real. His justification? The animal was going to die one day anyway.
9 Harry Potter Paralyzed Daniel Radcliffe's Stunt Double
Battle scenes in the Harry Potter movies are pretty intense, especially during the final movie’s Battle for Hogwarts sequence. What we as audience members don’t realize, however, is that there were actual stuntmen flying around on those broomsticks and actual people running from those real explosions. For every Harry Potter, there was a Harry Potter stunt double risking his life for the sake of cinema. In fact, Daniel Radcliffe had a longtime stunt double, David Holmes, who had been performing death-defying stunts for Radcliffe ever since the very first movie came out. The two had grown up together, so it only made sense for them to work together on the final movie as well. Sadly, Holmes was severely injured during a flying stunt in the aforementioned Hogwarts scene in which he was accidentally thrown into a wall. The incident broke his neck, leaving him paralyzed and unable to walk to this day. Radcliffe later held a charity auction and dinner to raise money for Holmes’s recovery, and the two remain close.
8 The Wizard of Oz Wasn't Wonderful For Anyone
The Wizard of Oz is such a charming, beloved movie that it’s easy to forget that it was filmed during a time when ethics and safety regulations in Hollywood were barely existent. In fact, the shoot was so unregulated that half of the cast was either injured or nearly died while filming. You may have heard about Margaret Hamilton, who played the Wicked Witch of the West, nearly burning to death in an explosion gone wrong. There was also the incident when the actors playing the flying monkeys all crashed to the ground from midair during the “Haunted Forest” scene. (That’s what happens when you hang humans from piano wire.) No one died, but there were several severe injuries.
Most famously, Buddy Ebsen, who originally played the Tin Man, had to drop out of production because he was allergic to the silver power used in his makeup. It coated his lungs and forced him to stay in the hospital for eight weeks.
7 The Torture In A Clockwork Orange Was Real
A Clockwork Orange is one of the most effed up movies of all time, so it kind of makes sense that the movie’s production process featured some effed up behavior behind-the-scenes. For the scene in which Alex was forced to watch horrific footage as a form of aversion therapy, director Stanley Kubrick kept actor Malcolm McDowell’s eyes open with antique lid locks normally reserved for delicate eye surgery. Because of the nature of the device, Kubrick eventually had to bring an actual doctor from Moorfields Eye Hospital on set to administer eye drops and prevent McDowell’s eyes from drying up. Ultimately, the doctor made his way into the movie itself because he had to administer the drops so frequently. However, despite this precaution — and despite being anesthetized — McDowell found himself enduring excruciating pain. The incident actually sliced his cornea and forced Kubrick, a legendary perfectionist, to cut the scene short.
6 No One Could See That Isla Fisher Was Drowning In Now You See Me
If you saw Now You See Me, then you may recall a scene in which Isla Fisher’s character uses her magic trickery to escape from a tank of water. What audiences don’t realize is that this scene didn’t require acting at all: Fisher was actually drowning during the filming of this take. After an equipment malfunction, Fisher was forced underwater for over three minutes before a crew member realized what was happening and saved her with a quick-release switch. She later told Chelsea Handler on Chelsea Lately:
“My chain got stuck. I had to really swim to the bottom; I couldn’t get up. Everyone thought I was acting fabulously. I was actually drowning. ... No one realized I was actually struggling,” Fisher said.
It’s too bad Now You See Me wasn’t a better movie. That’s the kind of story that would play fabulously on an Oscar campaign trail!
5 The Villain In Superman Really Did Have It Out for Christopher Reeve
Jack O’Halloran, who played the mute villain Non in the first two Superman movies with Christopher Reeve, isn’t shy these days about his former connections to the mafia. Back in the day, however, when he was in the thick of it, he wasn’t so quick to announce his connections from the rooftops. That’s why, when Christopher Reeve gossiped to the press about O’Halloran’s mafia dalliances, O’Halloran literally took matters into his own hands. As he has since mentioned in interviews:
“I grabbed him, I picked him up by the throat, I had him put up against the wall…[I said] ‘If I ever hear you mention my name outside of this studio without saying ‘Mister’ first, I’m going to rip your head off, and piss down your throat, and if I ever hear you talk about my family or anything from my past, you won’t finish this picture.”
Good news: Reeve finished the picture and managed to come out of the scandal looking like a hero instead of an a$$.
4 Mad Max: Fury Road Destroyed The African Desert
What better place to film a movie filled with giant lumbering tanks and death-defying explosions than an 80 million year old African desert that happens to be the home of rare cacti and endangered reptiles? This was Mad Max: Fury Road director George Miller’s thought process when nailing down a shooting location for Fury Road’s exploding truck scenes. The obvious problem was that Namib Desert got less than half an inch of rain per year, which meant that its plants and animals were dependent mostly on fog for moisture. The trucks’ tire tracks, which can take decades to disappear, immediately began affecting this delicate dispersal of water within the air. Not to mention the part when crew members dug up local vegetation while trying to remove the tire tracks with giant nets. Buh bye, vegetation! No one needed you anyway! (Except for all those endangered reptiles and — oh yeah — the environment.)
3 The Oscar-Winning Documentary White Wilderness Murdered Lemmings
You know how lemmings commit mass suicide all the time by jumping off cliffs together? Yeah … They don’t actually do that. That pervasive myth was actually immortalized by a 1958 Disney documentary called White Wilderness, which staged a mass on-screen lemming suicide for cinematic effect. The movie won an Oscar for Best Documentary at the time, but a 1982 Canadian expose later uncovered the truth behind the famous scene: It was entirely fake. First, The White Wilderness filmmakers completely fabricated the fact that lemmings “migrate” — even placing them on a conveyor belt to simulate herding. Next, they decided the only way to achieve a “mass suicide” effect was to literally throw a bunch of lemmings from a cliff into the water, where the lemmings — not knowing how to swim, natch, since they weren’t suicidal and had actually never attempted to enter the water — obviously drowned. Remember that this was an era before Hollywood safety standards, the American Humane Association, and PETA.
2 Last Tango in Paris Featured An On-Screen Assault
Last Tango in Paris’s infamous physical assault scene has remained controversial to this day, with Marlon Brando’s middle-aged character forcing himself upon the youthful Jeanne (Maria Schneider) using a stick of butter as lubricant. The scene is shocking today, but imagine how it must have played when the movie, directed by Bernardo Bertolucci, opened in 1972. In 2007, Schneider even told The Daily Mail that she had felt a little violated by Brando during the filming of the scene. Well, it turns out that she was violated. In a 2013 interview, after Schneider’s 2011 death from cancer, director Bertolucci revealed that he and Brando had conspired to surprise Schneider with the sexual assault scene. Although Schneider had known that the scene would be slightly violent, she had no idea that Brando would be so forceful or that he would pull out a stick of butter. Suddenly, her words in the Daily Mail interview seemed even more chilling:
“Marlon said to me: ‘Maria, don’t worry, it’s just a movie,’ but during the scene, even though what Marlon was doing wasn’t real, I was crying real tears. I felt humiliated … both by Marlon and by Bertolucci. After the scene, Marlon didn’t console me or apologize. Thankfully, there was just one take.”
1 Rose, Not Jack, Almost Froze To Death In Titanic
One of the greatest disaster movies ever filmed almost ended in real-life fiasco. James Cameron’s beloved, history-making Titanic turned Leo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet into stars, but it definitely put them through the ringer before they could get that far. Due to her refusal to wear a wet suit under her costumes, Winslet suffered major bouts of pneumonia and influenza during filming. She also nearly drowned on several occasions, thanks to the very real water that was pouring onto Winslet and DiCaprio during the filming of the movie’s iconic lower level scenes. (Cameron was very committed to featuring practical effects.) What we want to know is: Where was Leo during all of this? What magical filming conditions prevented him from having to deal with all these issues? How come Winslet was the only one who wanted to quit all the time? Perhaps this was due to Cameron’s negligence of his female actors, or perhaps this was due to bad luck —but we’re certainly glad that Kate Winslet survived the Titanic disaster, both onscreen and off.