On July 13th, 2017, tragedy befell the production of The Walking Dead’s eighth season when a freak accident claimed the life of one of the show’s stuntmen, John Bernecker. After gaining close to 90 film and television credits to his name, Bernecker died in hospital after a stunt on the set went horribly awry. The next day, AMC released a public press statement to confirm the man’s death, send condolences to his family, and announce that production on The Walking Dead’s eighth season had been halted for the time being. It’s believed that Bernecker’s death actually marks the first time in nearly 17 years that a stuntman died during the production of a film or a television series in the United States.
While injuries more commonly take place on a movie or a show set during stunt work than deaths, this whole situation with Bernecker’s death sheds some light on the dangers regarding stunt work, as well as its history. Whether the accident occurs in the United States or someplace outside of the country, the stunt business has a long and gratuitous history of stuntmen and women who have died on the job during production — a history that often goes overlooked until a stunt worker happens to die. In order to spread some awareness on the risks and dangers that stuntmen run into on a regular basis, here are 15 cases where a stuntman died on the set of a movie or a television series.
15. Harry O’Connor – XXX
Prior to his death, a large bulk of Harry O’Connor’s filmography included his stunt work on a plethora of Hollywood films like Charlie’s Angels, Soldier, K-PAX, and The Perfect Storm. His final stunt performance saw him work on the set of the big-budget Vin Diesel vehicle, XXX. One stunt saw O’Connor pulled by a paraglider that accidentally hit the pillar of a bridge, killing him. Despite the financial success of the film, much of the film’s identity was marred by the on-set tragedy. The film inspired more controversy when director Rob Cohen decided to include the footage captured of O’Connor’s death into the final cut of the film, although Cohen did allow the scene to cut immediately away before audiences could see the killing blow.
14. Lu Yan Qing – Red Cliff
Red Cliff is a movie that was released in two parts between 2008 and 2009. It was directed by John Woo, best known for his flurry of action blockbusters in the United States, like Face/Off and Mission Impossible 2. Red Cliff not only managed to be nominated for several awards but also grossed much more money worldwide than anyone imagined, having taken in $248.3 million. Despite these accolades, the film has long since been forgotten or seemingly ignored due to the awful tragedy that occurred during production. While filming a scene on June 9th, 2008 where a boat collides with a warship, a massive fire ignited that injured several crew members. One stuntman, Lu Yan Qing, died instantly from his fatal burns.
13. Kun Liu – The Expendables 2
The franchise of The Expendables always prided itself on being a throwback to action films of old. To stick to this old-school mentality regarding such films, the first sequel decided to keep the majority of its effects practical without relying on CGI. While such a tribute is commendable, it also increases the risks of harm among its cast and crew. That risk felt no more real than it did on October 27th, 2011. While filming a boat-explosion scene for the movie in Bulgaria, the stunt went terribly wrong and managed to seriously hurt two of the stuntmen involved. One, Nuo Sun, was lucky enough only to be injured from the incident, but another wasn’t so lucky; Kun Liu died from his wounds in the hospital. As a result, the third film noticeably relied much more heavily on CGI than the dangerous stunts of old.
12. John Bernecker – The Walking Dead
Ever since he started his career as a stuntman in 2009, John Bernecker traveled far and wide across prestigious Hollywood circles. He had provided stunt work for a vast array of top-quality Hollywood movie productions. More recent productions of films and shows that he worked on include Logan, The Magicians, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Parts 1 & 2, 24: Legacy, and the upcoming 2018 Marvel film Black Panther. On July 13th, 2017, Bernecker was rehearsing a fight scene with an actor for an episode of The Walking Dead. He was supposed to partake in a routine fall from a balcony, but lost his footing and fell 30 feet to the concrete floor. He was pronounced brain-dead at the hospital and later taken off of life support.
11. Fred Kennedy – The Horse Soldiers
This John Wayne vehicle called The Horse Soldiers is remembered more for the unfortunate accident that befell veteran stuntman Fred Kennedy than for the film itself. In 1958, Kennedy had been working on films in Hollywood as a stuntman for the better part of two decades. His work in The Horse Soldiers called for him to ride a horse for the film’s climactic battle scene. While shooting, Kennedy fell from his horse, broke his neck, and died. The film’s director, John Ford, was devastated and felt responsible for Kennedy’s death, so much, in fact, that he closed production that day and rather than end the film on the originally scripted battle scene, he ended it on a more subdued note with a farewell between two characters.
10. Jose Marco – Shark!
In the 1960s, there were plans in place to film an adaptation of the Victor Canning novel, His Bones are Coral, starring Burt Reynolds in the lead role. When Samuel Fuller joined the team as director, he re-titled it Caine and rewrote the script to his liking. Production had been going smoothly until a 1967 day in Mexico when stuntman Jose Marco was filming an underwater sequence for the movie. Suddenly, Marco was mauled to death by a shark. The footage was caught on camera, and the studio decided to promote the film by using the stuntman’s death as a marketing ploy, going as far as to rename the movie Shark!. The director, Fuller, was so disgusted by this cheap marketing tactic that he left production and distanced himself from the film as much as he could.
9. Charles Boddington – The Red Baron
Roger Corman was always used to directing small-budget films and then receiving a big gain at the box office, a la small risk, high reward. When he received a much bigger-than-normal budget for the 1971 war film The Red Baron (aka Von Richthofen and Brown) the pressure was on for Corman. It didn’t help that everything that could go wrong on the set did go wrong during production. Easily the biggest blunder on the set came on September 15th, 1970. That day, while flying a vintage S.E.5. biplane at Weston Aerodrome near Dublin, the plane stuntman Charles Boddington was riding crashed and spun out of control over an airfield, and he was killed. The next day, another aircraft crashed during production, this time only injuring those involved. Corman was so shaken by the bad luck on set, bad reviews of the film, and poor performance at the box office that he didn’t direct another film until 1990.
8. AJ Bakunas – Steel
Despite spending just under five years in the stunt world, AJ Bakunas was able to dedicate his skills to a handful of classic movies. He provided stunt work for films like Dog Day Afternoon, Return from Witch Mountain, The Car, and The Stunt Man. He became well regarded in Hollywood as a specialist in high falls. He decided to commit to another high fall for the film Steel while filming on September 20th, 1978. He attempted to jump from 314 feet high in the air from the 22nd floor of a construction site. Amazingly enough, he successfully made the jump, but the airbag he fell onto gave way and split in half on impact. Bakunas died from his injuries the next day. The worst part is that the day that Bakunas fell was the first day that his father was in attendance to see one of his son’s stunts.
7. Jack Tyree – The Sword and the Sorcerer
Jack Tyree did stunt work for a number of classic ’80s action films, including Escape from New York and Blade Runner. While the 1982 fantasy action film The Sword and the Sorcerer is not regarded nearly as highly as the aforementioned works, it does have the unfortunate reputation of marking the tragic end of Tyree’s career as a stuntman, as well as his life. On August 25th, 1981, Tyree committed to a routine jump onto an airbag cushion, but what made this so dangerous was that the jump was off of a 78-foot cliff. Tyree knew the jump had a dangerous risk, but he chose to look danger in the face and laugh, albeit at a price. After working more than ten years in the sport of stunt work, Tyree’s career and life would come to a tragic end after missing his cushion by 60 centimeters and hitting the hard ground, dying instantly.
6. Paolo Rigoni – For Your Eyes Only
The James Bond franchise has always been notorious for featuring death-defying stunts, but the movie magic usually comes into place so well that these stunts have been conducted without anyone actually getting hurt. It’s a miracle that it’s so rare that anyone involved in such stunts has been seriously injured, yet alone killed. Sadly, the opposite was the case in the early ’80s when Paolo Rigoni was filming For Your Eyes Only. The stunt was a ski-chase sequence that went awry when one of the bobsleds flipped onto Rigoni, instantly crushing him to death. The sad part is that this all happened during the final day of shooting. It’s unfortunate that production on the film wrapped up on such a sour note.
5. Ken Carter – Never Say Never Again
The production on the James Bond film Never Say Never Again was actually plagued by a surprising number of freak accidents on the set. A notable one that often gets brought up is how Steven Seagal (then working as a fight choreographer) legitimately broke Sean Connery‘s wrist during a training session. One on-set mishap that was bigger than that, however, resulted in the death of stuntman Ken Carter. Carter was a well-accomplished driver at that point, and Never Say Never Again marked his return to the profession for the first time in almost five years. For a car chase sequence, Carter was prepping to jump a pond using a rocket-powered Pontiac Firebird. Unfortunately, Carter overshot the landing and ended up crashing on the roof of the target landing ramp. He died from the impact.
4. Joseph Leonard Svec – The Right Stuff
The Right Stuff is a 1983 epic chronicling the real-life story revolving around the seven military pilots who were selected as astronauts for Project Mercury, the very first manned spaceflight by the United States. One scene recreated the 1963 incident where a test pilot named Chuck Yeager nearly died during a botched test flight due to Yeager’s NF-104 fighter plane stalling and filling with smoke. Yeager was lucky enough to survive the incident, but stuntman Joseph Leonard Svec was not so lucky when he had to recreate the moment for the film. A smoke canister was used to recreate the smoke that nearly befell Yeager, but the simulated smoke wound up engulfing Svec’s helmet. Before his plane crashed, he was meant to eject from the plane, but Svec was knocked unconscious by the smoke. He died soon after.
3. Dar Robinson – Million Dollar Mystery
Million Dollar Mystery is not a very well remembered or celebrated movie among filmgoers. Everything that it’s remembered for is not very flattering to the film’s legacy. Those who do know about the movie, though, know it for it being one big overly long Glad-Lock advertisement, a terrible final feature from the Oscar-winning director of Soylent Green and the unfortunate reason behind the death of stuntman Dar Robinson. One day, Robinson was filming a dangerous stunt involving a motorcycle, which had become his specialty in the stunt business. The stunt went awry, and he drove his motorcycle off of a cliff. He might’ve actually survived if the medics had not been dismissed from the facilities earlier that day. Unfortunately, the medical personnel were, and Robinson died from his injuries.
2. Sonja Davis – Vampire in Brooklyn
The history of this Wes Craven-directed horror-comedy was plagued by poor reviews and is one of the biggest financial failures of Eddie Murphy‘s career. The only thing worse than the critical response to the film is the poor production of the film that saw the death of Sonja Davis, who worked as a stunt double for Angela Bassett. The stunt was a simple backward drop off of a 45-foot building, Davis’s fall planned to be broken by the air cushion beneath her. Though she did land on the cushion, the cushion was out of position and in a different spot than Davis expected it to be. Worse, the bag itself wasn’t equipped to take a fall from such a big jump, and, as a result, Davis bounced off of it, hitting the building she fell from and then the ground. What makes this even sadder is knowing her three children were there to see their mother’s death.
1. Chris Lamon – Exit Wounds
Chris Lamon had a relatively short career as a stuntman. He only spent about five years in his profession, but he managed to work on the productions for The Boondock Saints, which went on to become a cult favorite. He also did stunt work for early 2000 Hollywood productions like Angel Eyes and, most notably, Exit Wounds. Exit Wounds has become something of a forgotten romp in recent memory, but one thing that hasn’t been forgotten about it is the tragic accident that occurred on set while filming. In August 2000, Lamon was filming a car-chase sequence in Toronto where he was meant to roll safely out of a van that was being towed upside down along the street. Things took a bad turn when Lamon hit the pavement head first. He would die from his head wounds six days later.
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