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- April 19, 1993
- Vol. 39
- No. 15
There Were Stories of Deadly Legacies, but in the End It Was Just a Human Mistake That Cut Short the Life of Brandon Lee
Blood was a constant on the set of The Crow. In the no-holds-barred action film based on a fantasy comic book character's adventures, Lee, 28, played a rock musician named Eric Draven who returns from the grave to avenge his own murder. Because his character was already dead, he could—and did—absorb many bullets. "In one scene we did, I got shot 60 or 70 times," Lee told an interviewer on March 25.
On March 30, one of the few remaining scenes to be filmed involved a simple shooting. After so many complex scenes involving blazing machine guns, this trigger squeeze seemed no cause for worry, and the people in charge of production at Wilmington's Carolco Studios told their freelance firearms consultant, James Moyer, that his services would no longer be required. The regular stage crew would handle what was to unexpectedly become one of the most grisly scenes ever filmed.
There are people close to Brandon Lee who say that for a strapping young six-footer with a loving fiancée and a promising career, he talked about death a lot. One childhood friend says that Brandon used to speak to him in hushed tones about "a premonition that he would die suddenly, like his father, and on a movie set." Trying to get into character—as an ambulatory corpse—in The Crow, Lee once filled a dozen bags with ice and packed them around his body to see how it would feel to spend a year in the cold ground. When a producer found out, he admonished the star for risking his health.
As an actor, Lee may have had a James Dean air. But in person he was no longer the angry young rebel who, as a teenager, once drove his car in reverse through oncoming traffic on his high school campus.
Growing up the son of a mythologized movie legend—who died at 32, of a brain edema, when his son was 8—had left Brandon deeply confused about his own identity. Lee and his sister, Shannon, 23, now a singer who lives in New Orleans, moved to Los Angeles with their mother, Linda, soon alter their father's 1973 funeral. The schoolyard challenges to young Brandon's "manhood" started immediately—and he wasn't able to dodge and parry them the way his father could on film. When his mother took him for martial-arts lessons, Brandon, then 9, saw a picture of Bruce Lee on the wall, started to cry and ran from the room, for a long time, his attitude was that "he didn't need school, and he thumbed his nose at the rules," says Jim Spalding, Lee's chemistry teacher at the private Chadwick School in Palos Verdes, Calif. Brandon was expelled from the school for misbehavior in the spring of 1983, just months shy of graduation. (He received his diploma at nearby Miraleste High School.) His close friend actor Lou Diamond Phillips remembers Lee in his early 20s as "a boiling mass of energy."
Recently, though, Brandon had come to terms with the legacy of his father. Realizing that he would never be a world-class martial artist ("On a scale of 10, he's maybe a 7," a family friend and martial-arts expert said recently), he confidently turned down a plum part in the upcoming film biography of his father, Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story. Carving a career of his own, he was just eight days away from completing The Crow, a movie he considered a breakthrough, or at least a step up from the martial-arts adventure movies (Showdown in Little Tokyo, Rapid Fire) he had appeared in before. And then there was his love life. On April 17, Lee was scheduled to many his sweetheart, Lisa Hutton, 29, a Hollywood casting assistant with whom he shared a home in Beverly Hills.
Lisa was in Wilmington on the last day of Brandon's life. At 8 that evening he had gone to the gym for a grueling hour-long workout. Lee did that almost every day, even though, with everyone under pressure to finish The Crow on time and under its $14 million budget, the cast and crew had been working longer and later, and he had to admit he was tired when he started exercising.
Fatigue was a constant problem for everyone working on The Crow, says a source, as it is on most movie sets in these days of smaller bankrolls. Since this was a partially nonunion set, reportedly the standard 12-hour breaks between work sessions were sometimes not observed, as directors pushed to finish whatever they could. "Even on a union show," says Wally Keske, a Hollywood craft union official, "99 times out of 100 they're working too many hours. More stressful situations are occurring."
On March 30, the cast and crew of The Crow had allegedly come to work after having had just eight hours off. It was shortly after midnight on March 31 when Brandon went in front of the camera. The scene was a flashback intended to explain how his character had been killed in the first place: A drug dealer (played by actor Michael Massee) was to fire a .44 Magnum revolver at Brandon as he entered his apartment.
The gun—not a stage prop but a fully functioning firearm—had, like the actors themselves, already spent considerable time on the set. The script of The Crow called for a close-up of the loaded weapon. The crew, following standard procedure, used dummy bullets, which are nothing more than bullets without gunpowder. When the close-up was finished, the gun was unloaded, then reloaded with blanks. Blanks sound as loud as real bullets, but when they are fired, only the harmless cardboard wadding with which they are packed is ejected from the gun.
This time, though, the action was far from benign. Massee pulled the trigger, and Lee slumped to the ground, a hole the size of a quarter in his lower right abdomen. Stunned cast and crew members rushed to Lee's side, and Clyde Baisey, 33, an emergency medical technician assigned to the set, ordered someone to call an ambulance. Then he began to administer CPR.
The scene bore an eerie resemblance to a cheesy 1979 movie called Game of Death, a kung fu film that scraped together the last, disjointed footage ever recorded of...Bruce Lee. In Game, Bruce plays an actor who is shot after mobsters substitute a live round for a fake bullet on a movie set. In the days that followed Brandon's death, some of the elder Lee's fans began to view the earlier film as a foreshadowing of Brandon's death and to revive the legend of the "Lee family curse."
Shortly before he died in 1973, Bruce Lee, whose Chinese name, Lee Shao-lung, means Little Dragon, had bought a house in a Hong Kong suburb called Kowloon tong (Pond of the Nine Dragons), incurring, as the legend has it, the jealous wrath of the neighborhood's resident demons. The curse lasts, it is said, three generations.
The Crow seemed to be operating under a curse all its own. On Feb. 1, a carpenter was severely burned after the crane in which he was riding struck high-power lines; he remains hospitalized in critical condition. Then a disgruntled sculptor who had worked on the set drove his car through the studio's plaster shop, doing extensive damage. Later, another crew member slipped and drove a screwdriver through his hand. Stories quickly spread that Lee's shooting was still another example of otherworldly interference in a movie that probes the dimension beyond the grave.
But the laws of physics, not metaphysics, most readily explain what happened to Brandon Lee. It was clear by the time he arrived at New Hanover Regional Medical Center, some 30 minutes following the accident, that something had ripped through his body with great force. Dr. Warren W. McMurry began desperately trying to stanch the bleeding, but at the end of the five-hour operation. Lee's condition had not improved. "There was so much blood loss," McMurry says. "It wouldn't clot. It was oozing from everywhere."
At 1:04 p.m. Thursday, a little more than 12 hours after Lee had been shot, and nearly five hours before Linda, who was flying in from Boise, Idaho, where she lives with her husband, businessman Bruce Caldwell, could reach her son's bedside in intensive care, Brandon was declared dead. At an autopsy the following day, medical examiners extracted what appeared to be a .44 caliber bullet that had lodged against the actor's spine.
After all the talk of ominous forces and star-crossed legacies, the theory emerged that Lee's death was nothing more mysterious than a tragic oversight. According to weapons expert Moyer, the metal tip of one of the dummy bullets, which had been loaded into the gun for the close-up, had somehow pulled loose from its brass casing. When the dummies were unloaded and replaced with blanks, the metal tip remained behind in the gun's cylinder. As soon as the blank went off, its explosive force propelled the dummy tip through the gun barrel—and into Lee's body.
Moyer feels that the failure to notice the misplaced dummy bullet led to the tragedy. "I guess the crew had so many other things to do that they didn't pay special attention to the gun," he says. "I don't want to criticize anyone. Lightning can strike anywhere."
Indeed, there have been at least 11 movie-set deaths since 1982, including the fatal accident on Twilight Zone: The Movie that year, when actor Vic Morrow and two child extras were killed when a helicopter hovering too low went out of control and crashed into them. Two years later, model turned actor Jon-Erik Hexum, playfully holding a blank-loaded pistol to his head, fired it and fatally fractured his skull on the set of the CBS series Cover Up.
Could Lee's death have been avoided if the crew working on The Crow had not been under such pressure to stay on schedule or if Moyer had been kept on the payroll for a few extra days? Such questions will probably be hashed out during the next few years, as insurance investigators move in and lawsuits are likely filed. Neither Massee, the New York City-based actor who pulled the trigger, nor Daniel Cuttner, the prop master on the production, will comment on the accident. As for the production company, Crowvision, Inc., it issued an official statement mourning the loss of Brandon Lee but pointing out that The Crow—currently on hiatus with eight days of principal photography remaining—might somehow be reedited and salvaged as—in the words of company spokesman Jason Scott—"a fitting legacy to Brandon."
Lee's body was flown to Seattle where, on Saturday, April 3, he was laid to rest beside his father in Lake View Cemetery. The following day, his family and friends eulogized him at a memorial service at actress Polly Bergen's home in the Hollywood Hills. Among the 400 who attended were fellow martial-arts stars Steven Seagal and David Carradine and Brandon's close friend Jeff Imada, who, as stunt coordinator on The Crow, had witnessed the fatal shooting. Recalls one guest: "I've never seen anyone so shattered. He could barely speak."
Moving among the mourners, the widow of Bruce Lee and mother of Brandon remained remarkably poised, however. "Linda kept everyone's spirits up," says another mourner. "She told us, 'Brandon would have wanted this to be a joyful occasion.' " And so it would be. "We're here to be happy," she said, "to celebrate his life."
MICHAEL A. LIPTON
DON SIDER, DAN YAKIR, TOM NUGENT and LAURA LEWIS in Wilmington and DORIS BACON and JULIE KLEIN in Los Angeles
- Don Sider,
- Dan Yakir,
- Tom Nugent,
- Laura Lewis,
- Doris Bacon,
- Julie Klein.
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