“Be careful! You’re going too fast!” are words you might hear a mother scream at a child skateboarding downhill. “Look, no hands!” is a time-honoured quote from youngsters with no fear. Put simply, there have always been and will always be daredevils. When they get paid for it, it’s called being a stunt person.
Evel Knievel was a legendary daredevil who jumped motorcycles across cars and even attempted canyons. Urban legend has Knievel, actually born Bobby Knievel, dying in an assortment of tragic ways — his last jump, the one where he didn't make it. In truth, Knievel lived until 2007, when he died of pulmonary disease in Clearwater, Florida at the age of 69.
What is it that makes stunts so mesmerizing to some and so terrifying to others? And why do some stunt people become famous to a mainstream audience, like Evel Knievel, and others die with recognition only from their peers?
When actors do their own stunts, they're practically heroes. Brad Pitt tore his Achilles tendon while filming Troy. Channing Tatum got a lot of attention when his man parts were badly scalded on the set of The Eagle (ouch!). This is all very accessible info, known to many. How many know the names of the following stuntmen (and one woman), who actually faced serious injury and sometimes death while performing on set? Who were the stunt doubles for major actors that sustained the most severe injuries — or worse — while filming? They're some of the bravest members of any Hollywood cast, and their jobs are among the most challenging.
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5 Scott McLean for Ed Helms: Hangover 2 (2011)
There’s nothing funny about this story, despite its having come out of the wildly successful Hangover comedy series. Experienced stuntman Scott McLean had done stunts in some of the Star Wars movies, The Matrix and more. On the Bangkok, Thailand set of Hangover 2, McLean was doubling for Ed Helms during a high-speed stunt. According to McLean, although the stunt required “precision and timing” that were quite particular, during a take the second-unit stunt director called for an increase in the vehicle's speed to a pace which was unsafe for the stunt. McLean stuck his head out the window of the vehicle as scripted, but because of the speed change, the timing was thrown off and his head, instead of meeting air, slammed into an oncoming truck.
McLean has been left with permanent physical damage and brain injuries, including long and severe seizures. He has to remain on oxygen for the rest of his life so as to not incur any more brain damage. His partner has had to stop working to care for him, and according to both McLean and his partner Raelene Chapman, as of 2013, two years after the accident, Warner Brothers had settled quietly out of court but had not yet covered the stunt actor’s medical bills.
4 David Holmes for Daniel Radcliffe: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (2010)
Another calamity on a set belonging to Warner Brothers, this accident involved explosives. David Holmes, then 25, had been Daniel Radcliffe's stunt double for all prior Harry Potter films. Formerly a competitive gymnast, he fit the bill in his colouring and in terms of his physical skills. These skills, however, did not prepare him during testing of a flying scene when a planned explosion caught him literally off guard. The flying scene was meant to involve the explosion, but the blast occurred while Holmes was too close to it. He was slammed into a wall before falling to the ground below.
Holmes recalls telling the people around him just after the fall that he could not feel his legs. He learned shortly afterwards in hospital that he had broken his neck and would be paralyzed for life. Despite this fact, Holmes now drives a specially modified car that travels up to 150 mph, and raises funds for the hospital in which he was treated, as well as the spinal unit there.
3 Yan Mei Bai for Dolph Lundgren: Expendables 2 (2012)
One thing Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger have in common is they are renowned for their roles in action flicks, with their heyday having been in the 1980s and 90s. Willis has survived the original typecasting and has continued on in more substantial action films since then. The Expendables films are a sort of nostalgic throwback to their 80s' days; they even recycle some previously famous (or infamous) lines. You might call this shtick.
In Expendables 2 as in several films these men have been in, there was a serious stunt accident. This time, stunt actors Yan Mei Bai and Kun Liu were casualties of the fact that these guys prefer old school effects in favour of computer-generated. With real explosions, filming was taking place at a dam in Bulgaria when Yan Mei Bai, Dolph Lundgren’s stunt double, had a piece of iron pierce his eye. His colleague and fellow stuntman Kun Liu was less fortunate — he was killed.
2 Sonja Davis for Angela Bassett: Vampire in Brooklyn (1995)
This film was big on many fronts. The last in Eddie Murphy’s contract with Paramount that included the Beverly Hills Cop films and had begun with 48 Hrs., Vampire in Brooklyn was also co-written by Murphy. Wes Craven directed the horror comedy, which did not do well. It received low ratings and monetarily did marginally better than breaking even.
One thinks often of male stunt doubles, but not as often of females in this field. In this movie, lead female Angela Bassett portrayed Detective Rita Veder, and her stunt double was Sonja Davis. In the stunt in question, Veder’s character was supposed to fall backwards off a building. The actual height has been reported at 42 and 45 feet. According to her mother who was present, Davis’s last words were allegedly spoken to the stunt coordinator and were: “Are you sure?” When she fell the air bag did not work as designed, almost as though it had too much air inside. Instead of cushioning her fall, Davis bounced off the air bag, slamming into the building before hitting the ground. She died in hospital 11 days later.
1 Harry L. O’Connor for Vin Diesel: xXx (2002)
Harry O’Connor was a retired Navy Seal who put his knowledge to use in his second career as a stuntman. He and his stunts were in the films Charlie’s Angels, The Perfect Storm and K-Pax, all released in 2000 and 2001. His stuntman career was short-lived, however: While filming director Rob Cohen’s Triple X in Prague, Czech Republic, O’Connor, who was doubling for Vin Diesel, was being pulled at a very high speed while on a paraglider. He hit a pillar of the local Palacky Bridge, and died almost immediately from severe injuries.
Director Rob Cohen felt the most respectful thing to do for the actor and man who'd lost his life during filming would be to have him in the film as planned. There are conflicting reports about which take was used in the film — some say his last moments shooting were used, but that the scene was cut before he hit the pillar. Although it is clear that the actual moment of death was not included, other reputable sources say he did two takes and his first passed without incident, so they used that one. If the latter is true, that begs the question: Why was there a second take?
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