Paramount Pictures’ romantic military drama, Top Gun, is one of the most iconic movies of the 1980s. Although it opened to mixed reviews, it went on to become the highest grossing movie of 1986 – 1987. Indeed, with a budget of only $15 million, the film went on to gross $356 million, making it one of the most commercially successful movies of the 1980s. In 2015, it was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry, which is dedicated to conserving “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” movies.
One of Top Guns’ saddest scenes was the tragic death of Maverick’s buddy and fellow pilot, Goose, in an unfortunate accident. In real life, the movie’s biggest tragedy was the actual death of legendary pilot Art Scholl (1931 – 1985), to whom the film is dedicated in the end credits. He lost his life in a mysterious accident during filming, when his plane inexplicably plunged into the Pacific Ocean.
Scholl was a highly experienced aerobatic and stunt pilot, flight instructor, educator, and aerial cameraman, based in Southern California. He had performed in shows across the US and internationally for decades, from the 1950s to 1980s. His specially modified de Haviland Canada DHC-1 Chipmunk airplanes, which he renamed “Super Chipmunks”, were well known in the air show circuit. By the time Top Gun’s production team hired Scholl to do in flight filming, he had thousands of hours of flight experience, and thousands of aerobatic stunts under his belt. For years, he had been the go-to aerial cameraman, and the first choice for any movie or TV scene that required aerial film.
On September 16th, 1985, Scholl was in his Pitts S-2 camera plane, filming dramatic backdrop scenes over the Pacific for the movie, when he deliberately entered into a spin in order to capture it on film with his onboard cameras. There was nothing special or particularly dangerous about the maneuver for a pilot of Scholl’s experience – he had done thousands of stunts that were more complex and riskier. However, the plane continued to spin as it plunged downwards past its planned recovery point, and for whatever reason, Scholl was unable to recover.
His last radio messages were “I have a problem“, when he was at an altitude of 3500 feet. Then, at 2500 feet, he radioed “I have a real problem“, before his plane plunged into the ocean about five miles west of Carlsbad, California. Investigators were never able to determine a cause for the crash, as the airplane vanished into the ocean depths, and neither it nor Scholl’s body were ever recovered.
1941’s They Died With Their Boots On was a highly fictionalized depiction of the life of George Armstrong Custer, from when he first entered West Point, to his death at Little Big Horn. Starring Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland, the film was a huge commercial success, and one of the highest grossing movies of 1941. Production had been marred by significant tragedy, however, as three crew and cast members had died on set during filming.
The film set seemed to have been jinxed from early on, and misfortune seemed to be stalking the production. At some point Errol Flynn collapsed from exhaustion, and for a while, it seemed touch and go for the famous actor. In the opening days of filming, which entailed scenes of massed cavalry charges and melees, 80 personnel were injured, and 3 died. The first fatality was a stuntman who had a massive coronary, and dropped dead on the set from a heart attack. Next was an extra with no horseback riding experience, who fell off his steed while galloping and broke his neck.
The best known of the set’s deaths was that of Jack Budlong (1913 – 1941). An experienced horseman and a personal friend of Errol Flynn, with whom he frequently played polo, Budlong badgered the famous actor into getting him on set. Flynn relented, and got him a role as an extra. It did not seem problematic: Budlong was a great horseman, the movie was about a famous cavalryman, and it would have many horseback riding scenes.
However, Budlong got carried away by amateurish enthusiasm – or maybe simple stupidity. In a scene depicting a Civil War clash between Union and Confederate forces, instead of using a prop sword, he insisted on using a real saber while leading a rebel cavalry charge against Union artillery. As a coroner’s inquest described what happened next, Jack Budlong, dressed in a Confederate cavalryman’s costume, charged across the “battlefield”, enthusiastically waving his saber while prop explosions went off all around, to simulate enemy artillery rounds. However, his horse was not adequately trained to deal with the explosions and simulated battlefield chaos and noise. It panicked and started bucking, and Budlong was thrown off the saddle 15 to 20 feet in the air. He landed on and was impaled by his saber, which ran him clean through, piercing his abdomen and exiting out his back.
Budlong was rushed to a Los Angeles hospital, but his injuries were too severe and he succumbed to them. His demise brought to three the number of deaths during production, making They Died With Their Boots On one of Hollywood’s deadlier film sets. The movie’s name was an apt descriptor of those who lost their lives during filming: dressed up in military costumes when they met their ends, they had literally died with their boots on.
Paul Mantz (1903 – 1965) was a famous and highly respected air racing pilot, aerial stuntman, movie stunt pilot, and film consultant. He caught the flying bug in early childhood, and growing up, his mother had to prevent him from launching himself off a tall tree with canvas wings. He saved money from working part time jobs to pay for his first flying lesson at age 16. In 1926, despite lacking the requisite college education, he finagled his way into the US Army’s flight school with forged documents purporting to be from Stanford University. However, he was kicked out a few days before graduation when he pulled a dangerous stunt that was witnessed by high ranking officers.
He worked in commercial aviation for a while, but left that to head for Hollywood upon hearing that stunt pilots were making money hand over fist there. A natural showman, he managed to attract attention in a crowded field and soon made a name for himself after successfully pulling off a dangerous flying stunt for the 1932 movie Air Mail.
On July 8th, 1965, Mantz and fellow veteran stuntman Bobby Rose, were on the film set of The Flight of the Phoenix, doubling for the movie’s stars, Jimmy Stewart and James Attenborough. The stuntmen were flying the Tallmantz Phoeniz P-1, a one-off makeshift aircraft made of aluminum and plywood, specially manufactured for the movie by Mantz’s company, Tallmantz Aviation.
Mantz was piloting the airplane, as cameras rolled to capture film for the movie’s early aerial sequences. The script called for takeoffs, which Mantz attempted to simulate with “touch and go” passes before the cameras. However, on the third low camera pass, Mantz’s rate of descent of 90 miles per hour exceeded the aircraft’s structural capacity. Upon touching down, the modest impact combined with an unexpected drag to produce disaster.
When the plane’s landing gear touched the desert floor, the boom section behind the wings failed and snapped off. That caused the nose section to pitch forward and slam into the desert floor, and the airplane broke apart as it cartwheeled into destruction. Paul Mantz was instantly killed by the crash, while the more fortunate Bobby Rose was thrown out of the cockpit and clear of the wreckage. He suffered a broken shoulder and pelvis, but survived.
The subsequent investigation uncovered a variety of factors, which combined to produce the tragedy, but pilot error was the main culprit. Particularly Mantz’s overestimation of his plane’s structural capacity, and his miscalculation of the consequences of his speed during this final touchdown pass. Investigators also assumed that Mantz might have been under the influence of alcohol at the time of the accident. However, there were delays in getting a blood sample to the lab and in testing it for alcohol, which might have skewed the results. Thus, whether Paul Mantz had been flying drunk at the time of the crash was never proven conclusively, and has remained a matter of speculation ever since.
xXx (pronounced “Triple Ex”) was an action adventure spy flick starring Vin Diesel, as an extreme sports enthusiast who gets dragged into spying for the National Security Agency. It opened to mixed reviews, but performed respectably well at the box office, grossing $277 million worldwide. However, production was marred by the accidental death of respected stuntman Harry O’Connor, to whose memory the movie was dedicated.
O’Connor was a retired US Navy SEAL who launched a second career as a film and TV aerial stunt coordinator. Over the years, he developed a solid reputation in his new profession, and became well known in the industry as a highly sought after stuntman and sky diver. His body of work included stunt appearances and stunt coordination in blockbusters such as Airforce One, The Perfect Storm, and Charlie’s Angels.
With that background, coupled with a similar body type to Vin Diesel’s, O’Connor was at the top of the list when xXx’s production team sought a stuntman body double for their film’s star. The movie was heavy on action sequences, and O’Connor was signed on and sent to Prague, in the Czech Republic, to perform and supervise a series of complex and exacting stunts.
As production neared completion, O’Connor set out to perform a particularly exacting stunt, which entailed him parasailing along the Vltava River, while being dragged by a speedboat at a high velocity towards Prague’s Palacky Bridge. As the stunt was designed, he would end up parasailing under the bridge, with inches to spare, then release himself from the parachute to land on a submarine on the other side of the bridge.
However, something went wrong, and O’Connor ended up getting slammed at high speed into a bridge pillar. He was killed instantly. Ironically, the tragedy occurred while filming a second take of the stunt. O’Connor had already performed a first take earlier, which went flawlessly and was captured on film. However, he was in a perfectionist mood that day, and thought that it might be improved even further with one more take. He was mistaken, and the movie ended up using film from the earlier, successful take.
In the early 20th century, airplanes fascinated the public in a manner and to an extent that is difficult for us today, accustomed as we are to flight as just another routine aspect of modern life, to grasp. Most people had never seen an airplane before, and paying crowds gathered in the hundreds and thousands to watch the era’s pioneering pilots put on aerial displays for them.
Ormer Locklear (1891 – 1920) was a daredevil aerial pioneer who learned flying with the US Army Air Service, then went on tour as a barnstormer pilot, putting on aerobatic displays for crowds across the country. He is credited with developing the stunt of wing walking, which was particularly popular with air show audiences in the 1920s, as a means of enabling pilots to make repairs in flight. He also came up with the trick of jumping from one airplane to another mid flight, and of clambering aboard a low flying plane from a moving car.
By 1919, Locklear was the most famous daredevil pilot in the world, and it did not take long before his fame attracted the attention of Hollywood. Universal Studios inked a contract to buy all his future air show dates, in order to get him to sign on to a two movie series. The first film, The Great Air Robbery, was a 1919 drama about air mail pilots, which showcased Locklear’s aerobatic antics. It received favorable reviews, and went on to become a commercial success at the box office.
Locklear followed up that success with The Skywayman, about an amnesiac shell shocked veteran returning from The Great War. Filming began in 1920, and from early on, disaster came calling and was narrowly avoided on more than one occasion. A stunt involving Locklear knocking over a church steeple with his airplane almost ended in a plane crash. Soon thereafter, Locklear narrowly avoided death during the filming of a scene in which he was to jump from an airplane on to a moving train.
A final stunt called for a tailspin, known as a “suicide dive”, to be performed for a nighttime scene. It was initially supposed to be performed during the daytime, with special camera filters to simulate nighttime, but Locklear insisted that he be allowed to perform the stunt at night. The studio agreed, and as news leaked out of what Locklear planned, a crowd gathered on the night of August 2nd, 1920, to watch the filming of the stunt.
Searchlights were to be focused on Locklear’s airplane to render it visible for filming in the dark as it entered its tailspin. In the searchlights’ glare, Locklear would be flying blind, so after the airplane descended to a specific height, the searchlights were to be turned off, to enable Locklear to see, and to let him know that it was time to pull out of the tailspin. Something went wrong, however, and the searchlights were not turned off. Before the gaze of horrified onlookers, Locklear’s floodlit airplane began its “suicide dive” – and remained brightly let within the searchlights’ glare, as it continued its dive straight into the ground. Locklear and a fellow pilot were instantly killed in the crash.
1989’s The Return of the Musketeers was a sequel to The Three Musketeers, depicting events twenty years after the original story. It was a middling movie that opened to mixed reviews, and the reviews remain mixed to this day, with a current Rotten Tomatoes rating in the 60% ballpark. Filming was marred by the tragic death of character actor Roy Kinnear (1934 – 1988), who played the role of Planchet, the servant of the Musketeer d’Artagnan.
On September 19th, 1988, on a film set in Spain, a scene called for the Planchet character to gallop on horseback at speed across a wooden bridge. Kinnear had not expected to perform such a strenuous stunt – he was 54 years old and considerably overweight. Additionally, he had little to no experience in horseback riding, and was described by fellow actors and the filming set’s stunt coordinator as a “nervous” and “incompetent” horseman. That did not stop the film’s director, Richard Lester, from instructing the aging and obese actor to “thunder” at high speed across the Alcantara bridge near Toledo.
As might have been expected, ordering an inexperienced, overweight, and out of shape rider with next to no equestrian skills to charge at top speed across a bridge was a bad idea. Kinnear fell off his horse, and the fall caused him severe pelvic injuries, which led to massive internal bleeding. He was rushed to a hospital, but the doctors were unable to save him, and he died as a result of his injuries the following day.
Kinnear’s family sued the movie’s director, Richard Lester, and a producer, for exposing the actor to unnecessary risks while filming. On the first day of the trial, witnesses testified that although the scene was known to be hazardous, Kinnear was not offered a stunt double. That was then compounded by Lester ordering Kinnear to ride at speed across the bridge, despite knowing that the actor was a poor horseman. The following day, the defendants settled the case for 650,000 British pounds. As to director Lester, he was forced to quit the film making business as a direct result of his role in the accident.
The filming of 1994’s fantasy action movie, The Crow, seemed to have been jinxed. Production had been plagued by safety issues, compounded by money issues that further exacerbated those safety issues. In February of 1993, a construction worker was badly burned on the film set. A month later, an even bigger tragedy struck, to claim the life of one of the film’s stars.
Brandon Lee (1965 – 1993) was an American actor and martial artist, and the son of the legendary actor and martial artist Bruce Lee. Brandon had worked his way up the acting ranks, starring in a number of television films and low budget films during the 1980s, before landing a breakthrough role in the movie The Crow. Unfortunately, his big breakthrough would end in tragedy.
Brandon had started his film career at age 20, starting off as a script reader, and doing uncredited cameo roles. In 1986, he got a role in the ABC television film Kung Fu: the Movie, as David Carradine’s son. He then moved to Hong Kong, where he starred in a number of movies, and in the late 80s and early 90s, he appeared in some B-movies in the US. Finally, in 1992, he landed a starring role in The Crow, a film adaptation of a popular comic series.
Early on the morning of March 31st, 1993, one of The Crow’s pivotal scenes, the killing of Brandon’s character, Eric Draven, by street thugs, was staged in Wilmington, North Caroina. Brandon was supposed to enter through a door, carrying groceries, and be met by actor Michael Massee, who would then shoot him with a revolver loaded with blanks.
However, whoever was in charge of the props and safety that day neglected to properly inspect Massee’s revolver. Had that been done, the inspector would have discovered a fragment of a dummy bullet lodged in the barrel, left there from an earlier firing. An inspection was not done, however, and when Massee fired the revolver, the charge from the blank bullet propelled the fragment out of the barrel. It struck Lee in the abdomen and ripped through his vital organs, before finally coming to a rest against his spine. The injuries proved fatal, and Brandon Lee’s life and budding career were cut tragically short.
This was probably the single most significant on set tragedy, because of its impact on the filming industry and its approach to safety. In the early 1980s, Steven Spielberg and John Landis teamed up to produce a cinematic version of the 1959 – 1964 TV series, The Twilight Zone, for Warner Bros. Studios. The movie, released in June of 1983, received mixed reviews, then and since. It did not turn into the blockbuster Warner Bros. had hoped for, but it grossed enough to count as a financial success. Even before its release, however, the movie had garnered notoriety because of a stunt that caused a helicopter crash, which took the lives of actor Vic Morrow, and two child actors.
The movie consisted of four segments, most memorable of which was “A Quality of Mercy“. It revolved around a racist character, played by Morrow, who finds himself travelling through time to experience the racist persecutions suffered by others. He eventually winds up in Vietnam, where he ends up defending some Vietnamese children against rampaging American soldiers.
To play those children, director John Landis hired a 7 year old ethnically Vietnamese kid, Myca Dinh Le, and a 6 year old Chinese one, Renee Shin-Yi Chen, in violation of California’s child labor laws. The parents were paid under the table, and no permits or waivers were secured to allow the children to work at night, in which the main scene was filmed. As investigators would discover after the tragedy, the filming set was rife with safety violations, and those in charge had taken short cuts to circumvent basic safety precautions.
Most significant were a series of safety violations surrounding the segment’s climactic scene – a nighttime war action sequence, that involved a huge amount of explosives, and a large number of explosions going off. Director Landis did not even attempt to get a waiver – most likely because he knew the request would get denied – to have young children take part in such a dangerous scene.
The scene, shot on the night of July 23rd, 1982, called for US troops in a helicopter to pursue Morrow as he carried two children across a river. It was clearly dangerous, and Morrow’s last words to a friend soon before the tragedy were: “I’ve got to be crazy to do this shot. I should have asked for a double“. During filming, the helicopter hovered about 25 feet above ground, near a debris mortar – a special effects device that uses pressurized air pumped through a tube to propel dirt and detritus, simulating a burst or splatter.
As the helicopter made a 180 degree turn, the debris mortar went off beneath its tail rotor, and blew the rotor clean off. That caused the helicopter to spin out of control, and fall on top of Morrow and the children. Morrow and one of the kids were decapitated by the helicopter’s spinning rotor blades, while the other kid was crushed and drowned. Six other people inside the helicopter were injured.
There had been so many glaring safety violations on set that the accident was investigated as a case of criminal negligence and reckless homicide. As emerged in the subsequent trial, director Landis had been warned of the dangers, but shrugged them off, stating that the loss of the helicopter was an acceptable price for the shot he wanted. When the helicopter pilot had complained that the debris mortar effect was too strong, and that he wanted to get out, Landis yelled at him over the radio to “Get lower! Lower!”
It also emerged that one of the producers had told the children’s parents not to let the firefighters on set, there to ensure compliance with safety regulations, know that their kids would be involved in the scene. The parents were also instructed to hide their children from a welfare worker on set. Additionally, the parents testified that they had never been told that there would be explosives on the set, or that the scene would involve a helicopter hovering over their children.
Criminal and civil litigation lasted for a decade after the accident. Landis and others were charged with manslaughter, but were acquitted after a nine month trial in 1987. Civil litigation continued into the early 1990s. Vic Morrow’s family settled early, but the children’s parents pursued civil lawsuits against various defendants, and ended up collecting millions.
A silver lining of the tragedy was that it shook the filming industry, and shocked it out of its hitherto casual approach to safety on film sets. Studios established committees to set up safety standards, while actors started paying more attention to their own safety, and resisting pressure from directors to do dangerous shots. The Directors Guild also stepped in with its own safety procedures, and began monitoring and penalizing its members for violations of safety rules. It did not completely eliminate dangers on film sets, but it brought about great improvements and made a huge difference.