We all know that being a stuntman is dangerous, but sometimes we forget just how ridiculous their jobs can get. When they’re not jumping off buildings or being dragged behind horses, they’re being being thrown around by explosions or set on fire. Inevitably stunts go wrong, leading to injury, paralysis or, in these tragic cases, death.
10. Kun Liu in The Expendables 2
One of the calling cards of the popular Expendables movies is their lack of reliance on computer-generated effects. They’re tributes to the old days of action movies, populated with real stunts and providing a welcome retreat from the modern influx of CGI. Though extraordinary to watch, the lack of computer fakery also increases the risk of injury and death for performers. In October 2011, a explosion scene on a rubber boat being shot for Expendables 2 in Bulgaria went horribly wrong. Two stunt people were seriously injured, Nuo Sun and Kun Liu, with the former able to recover but the latter dying in hospital from his wounds. Filming continued, while the actors publicly expressed their sympathies. The film is dedicated to Kun Liu’s memory.
9. Lu Yanqing in Red Cliff
After enjoying great success in his native Hong Kong, director John Woo moved to Hollywood to direct major films such as Face/Off and Mission: Impossible II. Though he enjoyed an initial burst of wild success, as the years went on the commercial viability and critical success of his films decreased. 2009’s Red Cliff represented a change of tack, a return to his native Hong Kong to mount the most expensive Asian-financed production in history. But something went wrong on set when a second unit crew was shooting a scene in which a small boat collided with an ancient warship, starting an uncontrollable fire and injuring several crew members. Trapped in the blaze, the 23 year old Lu Yanqing quickly burned to death. The film went onto gross a huge amount of money and was a major critical success, but the experience was soured for all by this tragic accident.
8. Jose Marco in Shark
Though the movie has been long forgotten, the unfortunate death of stuntman Jose Marco is remembered for its gruesomeness. While shooting an underwater sequence, a shark managed to break through the protective netting that separated Marco from the animal and maul him to death. The film was directed by cult icon Samuel Fuller, who disowned it when the tragedy was used by the promoters to advertise. It didn’t turn out to be a successful strategy, as the movie was quickly hurried out of theaters and doomed to a lifetime of cable obscurity.
7. Jack Tyree in The Sword and the Sorcerer
Other cast members had reputedly warned Jack Tyree about the 80 foot fall from a cliff he performed for The Sword and the Sorcerer, but the 10 year veteran stuntman did it all the same. He had previously performed in Escape from New York, Alligator, Planet of the Apes, Kojak and The Rockford Files, so perhaps his experience prevented others from completely dissuading him. Tragically, he landed just short of the airbag and was killed on impact. Though the jump is included in the finished film, the impact is not.
6. Chris Lamon in Exit Wounds
In terms of Steven Seagal’s career trajectory, 2001’s Exit Wounds came after the inexplicable success of movies like Hard to Kill and Above the Law, but before the glut of low-budget, direct-to-DVD fare that would follow. It was one of a handful of films that attempted to bridge the gap between Eastern martial arts and mainstream hip-hop, such as Cradle 2 the Grave and Romeo Must Die, a gap that few would think needed bridging. The surprise hit was also the cause of the sad tragic death of stunt performer Chris Lamon, who slipped when jumping from the back of a moving van. Two people were involved in the accident and both collided headfirst with the pavement, though the other performer survived with a concussion.
5. Paolo Rigon in For Your Eyes Only
Considering the amount of death-defying stunts in every James Bond film, in some ways it’s lucky that tragedy hadn’t struck any earlier. It was the last day of shooting a bobsled chase for the film when the sled flipped and 23 year old Paolo Rignon was pinned under it, killing him instantly. For Your Eyes Only may not be considered among the best of the Bonds, but it’s often singled out for praise because of its impressive stunts.
4. Joseph Leonard Svec in The Right Stuff
The Right Stuff is an engrossing movie that tracks the history of aviation and space travel through the eyes of a few brave men. Based on real events, a tragedy occurred when filming a scene recreating a real life incident involving famous test pilot Chuck Yeager. In 1963 Yeager was flying an NF-104 fighter plane when it began to stall and fill the cockpit with smoke. Yeager was able to survive by ejecting, but Joseph Leonard Svec, the stuntman recreating the scene, was not. A smoke canister simulating the smoke from the failing vehicle filled Svec’s helmet, knocking him unconscious before he could eject. The plane then hit the ground, killing him on impact.
3. A.J. Bakunas in Steel
In a rare case where the stunt has become more famous than the movie itself, stuntman A.J. Bakunas attempted a record breaking jump from the 22nd floor of a construction site, a height of 96 meters. He had committed to the decision after his previous world record had been shattered by fellow thrill-seeker Dar Robinson. It was an act of spectacular bravery that would quickly turn deadly.
As a young man, Bakunas quit his job as a gym teacher to become a stuntman. Since his first performance in Dog Day Afternoon he had earned a wide reputation for the quality of his falls. His father and a crowd of over a thousand others watched as Bakunas attempted the amazing jump. He performed it perfectly, but the airbag split on impact and he died the next day from his injuries.
2. Harry L. O’Connor in XxX
XxX, perhaps most notable among its young male audience for introducing them to the curves of Asia Argento, was a massive financial success that grossed $277 million and earned a sequel three years later. Unknown to many, however, the production was also marked with a tragic death. Stuntman Harry L. O’Connor was killed when filming a para-sailing scene when he accidentally smashed into a bridge at an extremely high speed. Director Rob Cohen chose to include the footage from the deadly take in the finished film, cutting away before the final impact.
1. Sonja Davis in Vampire in Brooklyn
A notable turkey in the career of horror icon Wes Craven, the critical reputation of Vampire in Brooklyn couldn’t have been helped by the death of one its stunt performers, Sonja Davis. While every accident on this list was undeniably tragic, her unfortunate demise seems especially needless.
The stunt was a 45 foot backwards drop, the impact of which should have been cushioned by the airbag she was provided. Because of its poor positioning, however, she instead bounced off it, colliding with the building she had fallen from before smashing into the ground. Reports from afterwards indicated that the airbag had been placed in a different position than she had anticipated, and the bag itself was not equipped to deal with such a large fall. Worst of all, three of Davis’ children were present on set to watch her perform the stunt.
No emergency staff were available after the injury, so the crew were forced to wait an agonizing 15 minutes for an ambulance to arrive. Davis was then taken to the hospital, where she spent 13 days in a coma before passing away. Davis had been enjoying an extraordinary career as a stunt performer, serving as a double for Angela Bassett, Janet Jackson and Whoopi Goldberg, and appearing in movies like Timecop and Deep Cover. Around the time of her death, friend and industry professional Bob Minor called her the top black stuntwoman in the business.