Actor Brandon Lee, the 28-year-old son of the late kung fu star Bruce Lee, was killed Wednesday after a small explosive charge used to simulate gunfire went off inside a grocery bag during filming on a movie set in Wilmington, N.C.
Lee, who many believed was on the threshold of stardom similar to that attained by his father two decades earlier, had been working on the $14-million movie “The Crow,” produced by Edward Pressman and Jeff Most. Lee played a rock star brought back from the grave who adopts the persona of a night bird to avenge his own and his girlfriend’s untimely deaths.
For the scene, directed by Alex Proyas, Lee was walking through a doorway carrying the grocery bag as another actor fired blanks at him from 15 feet away, police said.
At that moment, according to a spokesman for the producers, Lee activated a toggle switch underneath the grocery bag and set off the small charge, called a squib, a device commonly used on movie sets to simulate the effects of gunfire.
“It wasn’t the first time they tried the scene,” the spokesman said.
But this time, Lee was struck in the abdomen by a projectile, which lodged in his body.
It is still unclear whether the projectile came from the gun or the grocery bag or both. “When the other actor fired a shot, the explosive charge went off inside the bag,” said Wilmington police Officer Michael Overton. “After that, we don’t know what happened.”
Police released only sketchy details of the incident, declining to identify the actor who fired the gun or who else on the Carolco Studios set was a witness.
Wilmington police Sgt. R.E. Norvell said detectives would have to wait for an autopsy--which is planned for today--to find out what kind of projectile struck the actor.
Police said that the incident was being treated as an accident, but was still under investigation.
Lee collapsed on the set at 12:30 a.m. and was rushed to New Hanover Regional Medical Center. Doctors said he showed vital signs when he arrived at the emergency room but was unresponsive.
The actor died at 1:04 p.m. after surgery without regaining consciousness, a hospital spokeswoman said. Lee’s mother was at the hospital when he died, the spokeswoman said.
Surgeon Warren W. McMurray said Lee suffered intestinal injuries and major vascular injuries with extensive bleeding. He said the entry wound was the size of a silver dollar, and that X-rays showed a metallic object lodged against Lee’s spine.
A source close to the actor said Lee suffered two severed arteries.
Filming, which began on Feb. 1 and had eight more days to go, was temporarily suspended. Proyas, the director, did not issue a statement after Lee’s death. Spokesman Harry Clein said he believed that Proyas “was beside the camera or looking at the monitor” when the explosion occurred.
John Soet, editor of “Inside Kung Fu” magazine, had known Brandon Lee since the actor was a child. “I’ve worked in films and directed a few low-budget features. As powerful as squibs are, I can’t recall a single incident where anyone was (seriously) injured by them,” he said.
“Generally, they are pretty powerful,” he added. “They do carry a hefty explosive charge. If you are not well-padded, you can get a bruise even if it goes off correctly.”
The movie set had been the scene of a February incident, Wilmington fire officials said, in which a carpenter was severely burned by power lines. There was also a magazine report recently that a disgruntled sculptor went berserk on the backlot and drove a car through the studio’s plaster shop.
Lee’s publicist, Alan Nierob, told Reuters in Los Angeles that Lee had a promising career ahead of him and was engaged to be married this month to Eliza Hutton, who works for a film production company in Los Angeles.
“He wanted to take his career step by step,” Nierob said. “He had a nice touch for both comedy and drama. I was just stunned.”
Lee’s death came almost 20 years after the mysterious death of his father, who reached international superstardom in kung fu movies like “Enter the Dragon” and “Fists of Fury.” Bruce Lee died of a cerebral edema on July 20, 1973, at the age of 32.
A handsome Eurasian, Brandon Lee was born in Oakland. He spent the first eight years of his life in Hong Kong and then moved with his mother, Linda, and sister, Shannon, to Rolling Hills Estates, Calif.
Friends said Lee spent years trying to avoid living under his father’s lengthening shadow. He avoided taking up kung fu.
“He didn’t want to step in his father’s footsteps,” said screenwriter Lee Lankford. “Eventually he gave up, to be an action star like his father. They were grooming Brandon to be a big star.”
His first professional job as an actor came at age 20, when he had a part in the CBS movie “Kung Fu: The Movie,” starring David Carradine. He went on to make several low-budget action films overseas, including “Legacy of Rage” and “Laser Mission.” In 1991, he teamed with actor Dolph Lundgren in “Showdown in Little Tokyo,” his debut in an American feature film.
Los Angeles Times critic Kevin Thomas called “Showdown in Little Tokyo” a “smart, fast-moving martial arts action-adventure” and said Lee was humorous in his role.
Last summer, Lee starred in 20th Century Fox’s “Rapid Fire,” the first in a three-picture deal the actor had with the studio. “The Crow” did not yet have a domestic distributor.
Lee was known as something of a comedian to his friends. Some recalled how he once drove around Los Angeles in a hearse, while others said he could act “wild and weird.”
Instead of knocking on your door, Lankford recalled, “he would climb up the wall of your house and go in through your window just for the fun of it.”