The thrilling action sequences that keep audiences on the edge of their seats in blockbuster movies owe their magic to the daring and often underappreciated work of stuntmen and stuntwomen.
Performing death-defying acts for entertainment, these unsung heroes risk their lives to bring realism and excitement to the big screen.
However, sometimes the risks can prove fatal.
In this article, you can read about the often-overlooked stories of stunt professionals who lost their lives while filming, shedding light on the dangerous reality behind Hollywood’s thrilling illusions.
Table of Contents
1. Sonja Davis – Vampire in Brooklyn (1995)
Sonja Davis tragically passed away in 1994 at the age of 32 while filming ‘Vampire in Brooklyn’ which was released in 1995.
Sonja Davis (stunt double for lead Angela Basset) died following a 42-foot backward fall while filming Vampire in Brooklyn.
She bounced off the airbag meant to cushion her fall and hit a building before falling to the ground.
Her mother and siblings, who witnessed the accident, sued Paramount Pictures, Eddie Murphy’s production company, director Wes Craven, and stunt coordinator Alan Oliney for $10 million, alleging that Davis had been pressured into performing the stunt in an unsafe manner.
The outcome of the case is not known.
Before her unfortunate demise, she had worked on several other films, including Timecop (1994) and Strange Days (1995).
2. Kun Liu – The Expendables 2 (2012)
Kun Liu died on the set of ‘The Expendables 2’ in 2011 at 26.
Liu performed on a rubber boat at Ognyanovo dam in Bulgaria when a nearby explosion went wrong. The accident killed Liu and injured two others.
Before this movie, he had worked on various Chinese films.
3. John Jordan – Catch-22 (1970)
John Jordan passed away in 1969 at 44 while filming ‘Catch-22’, released in 1970.
Jordan died after he fell from a plane during a stunt.
Previously, he worked on films like You Only Live Twice (1967) and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968).
4. Paolo Rigon – For Your Eyes Only (1981)
Paolo Rigon lost his life in 1981 at 23 years old while filming For You Eyes Only, which was released in 1981.
Rigon died when he got caught under the bob in a bobsleigh chase filmed on the bobsleigh track of Cortina d’Ampezzo in Italy.
5. Harry O’Connor – XXX (2002)
Harry O’Connor died in 2002 at the age of 45 while filming ‘XXX,’ which was released in the same year.
His death was a result of colliding with a pillar of the Palacký Bridge in Prague during a para-sailing stunt for an action scene.
The fatal accident happened during the second attempt of filming the stunt. O’Connor’s first try, which was successful and incident-free, is included in the final cut of the film. The film is dedicated to O’Connor’s memory.
Before ‘XXX,’ O’Connor had worked on The Perfect Storm (2000) and Charlie’s Angels (2000).
6. Marc Akerstream – The Crow: Stairway to Heaven (1998)
Marc Akerstream passed away in 1998 at 44 while filming ‘The Crow: Stairway to Heaven,’ released in the same year.
Akerstream was killed by flying debris from an exploding rowboard while observing the scene, filming at Minaty Bay, Vancouver, British Columbia.
Marc Akerstream’s tragic death is the second in the Crow franchise, following the death of lead actor Brandon Lee in The Crow (1994).
He had previously worked on Rumble in the Bronx (1995) and Shattered Image (1998).
7. Conway Wickliffe – The Dark Knight (2008)
Conway Wickliffe lost his life in 2007 at the age of 41 while filming ‘The Dark Knight,’ which was released in 2008.
Wickliffe was in the back seat of a Nissan 4×4 when it collided with a tree at 20mph. He was operating a camera while leaning out of the window, filming a stunt car moving parallel to his vehicle at the time of the accident.
Before this, he had worked on ‘Casino Royale’ and ‘Children of Men’.
8. Jack Tyree – The Sword and the Sorcerer (1982)
John Hale (Jack) Tyree died in 1981 at the age of 37 while filming ‘The Sword and the Sorcerer,’ which was released in 1982.
Tyree’s death was a result of a cliff jump stunt gone wrong. He fell 80 feet but missed the airbag that was supposed to soften his landing by two feet.
He had previously worked on Escape from New York (1981) and Blade Runner (1982).
9. John Bernecker – The Walking Dead (2017)
John Bernecker died in 2017 at 33 while filming a stunt for The Walking Dead television series.
Bernecker died after falling off a 25ft high balcony on the set of “The Walking Dead” in Georgia. He fell onto exposed concrete, missing a safety cushion by inches.
Bernecker had previously worked on three Hunger Games films, Black Panther (2018) and The Fate of the Furious (2017).
10. Joi Harris – Deadpool 2 (2017)
Sequana Joi Harris, aka Joi “SJ” Harris, died in 2017 while filming a motorcycle stunt for Deadpool 2 (2018).
Harris was doubling for actress Zazie Beetz (Domino) when she lost control of her bike and crashed into the Shaw Tower in Vancouver. She didn’t wear a helmet, as her character Domino did not require one in the scene.
Harris, a novice stunt performer, joined the film production a week before the accident. Veteran stunt double Melissa Stubbs volunteered to do the stunt but was overlooked due to Harris’ skin color matching that of Beetz.
This decision faced criticism from stunt professionals, pointing out that Harris’ motorcycle racing background didn’t qualify her as a competent stunt performer.
Harris had no prior stunt credits to her name but had plenty of motorcycle road racing experience, her own racing team, and competed on various circuits.
11. A. J. Bakunas – Steel (1979)
Albert John Bakunas, Jr. died at 27 during a free fall stunt from the Kincaid Towers in Lexington, Kentucky, for the movie Steel in 1979, starring Lee Majors.
Bakunas, a free fall expert, had to create a fall accident scene (doubling for George Kennedy) for the movie and decided to push the limits.
In 1978, Bakunas set a record with a 70.1m (230 ft) fall from a helicopter for the film Hooper, only to be outdone by Dar Robinson’s 87.2m (286 ft) fall for a publicity stunt.
Determined, Bakunas attempted a 96m (315 ft) jump from a construction site in Lexington, reaching an estimated speed of 115mph (185 km/h).
Unfortunately, the airbag split on impact, and Bakunas succumbed to his injuries the following day.
Bakunas had previously worked on The Warriors (1979) and The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again (1979).
The tragic loss of stuntmen and stuntwomen on movie sets underscores the inherent dangers they face every day in their line of work.
Their bravery and dedication to their craft are often overlooked, yet they are essential in bringing thrilling action sequences to life.
The film industry owes it to these unsung heroes to make every effort to ensure their safety, honor their sacrifices, and recognize their invaluable contributions to the world of cinema.