COVER STORY : In the Line of Duty : As stunts become more and more spectacular, safety concerns are a top priority. Then why are so many stunt men and women injured, and even killed, on film sets?
Janet Wilder grabbed her husband’s hand and waited.
A December wind was kicking up, and the waters of Florida’s Goodland Bay were getting choppy. Offshore, Tony Brubaker maneuvered the twin-engine Ranger outboard into position and began to put on speed, heading in the direction of Wilder and her husband, Scott, a veteran stuntman.
The Ranger was supposed to soar off a stunt ramp placed in the water and land near the Wilders.
But something went wrong. The boat bounced off the ramp, flew at a wild angle through a cluster of mangroves and, less than a second later, struck Janet Wilder in the head.
The 29-year-old Woodland Hills woman died in her husband’s arms.
Wilder was at least the fourth person to die for Hollywood in 1995, after a pilot, a cameraman and a crew member. In California alone, 18 people lost their lives and many more were injured filming movies, television shows and commercials from mid-1990 through mid-1995, according to state figures. One of those hurt was a 10-year-old boy.
Government statistics do not differentiate between stunt injuries and other types of workplace accidents in the film industry. However, say officials at the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the motion picture industry has a good overall record, with an injury rate of just 2.9% in 1994. By comparison, the injury rate for all private industry was 8.4% that year.
But when death and injuries occur on the set itself, the world takes notice.
A year before Janet Wilder was killed on the set of the Walt Disney Co. film “Gone Fishin’,” the stunt community grieved for another of its members.
Sonja Davis, a rising stuntwoman who regularly doubled for Angela Bassett, had confided to her mother and a close friend that she had a bad feeling about a high fall she was to perform in Paramount Pictures’ “Vampire in Brooklyn.”
As her mother prayed and her brother trained a video camera on her figure high above, Davis clung to the side of an old apartment building near downtown Los Angeles.
In the gathering darkness, with special-effects smoke swirling around her, Davis performed what stunt actors call a “backward high fall” into an alley. She plunged 47 feet, hit her head and died nearly two weeks later.
Since the days when Lillian Gish was sent floating on an ice floe and the Keystone Kops overturned their first car, filmmakers have always pushed the envelope, striving for bigger and more daring stunts.
“When I’m writing an action piece, I try to find something I haven’t seen before--that is outrageous,” said director James Cameron, whose credits include “True Lies” and “The Terminator.”
In the latest James Bond film, “GoldenEye,” a stuntman staged a 700-foot bungee jump off a dam. In 1993’s “Cliffhanger,” a stuntman climbed out of a DC-9 jet at 15,000 feet and slid on a rope to a small jet trailing behind. In “First Knight,” two stuntmen leaped 90 feet off a cliff into the water below, clearing an underwater shelf by just 18 inches.
These spectacular stunts were well rehearsed and performed with split-second precision. But while safety is being stressed more than ever, directors and performers agree there are no guarantees that tragedy won’t befall a production.
Horses fall. Wires break. Explosions are set off too soon.
Just this month in Rome, stuntman Tom Lucy, who was set on fire for a scene in the upcoming Sylvester Stallone movie “Daylight,” barely escaped serious injury when the flames burned too hot.
When tragedy does strike, the industry mourns, but work continues. Shooting resumed in Florida on “Gone Fishin,’ ” for example, the morning after the Dec. 19 accident.
For the studios, death and injury are a cost of doing business.
For the stunt performers, it is more than that. They live by a strong creed of individual responsibility. Each person is responsible for his own stunt--and therefore his own life.
But at the end of the 20th century, is it really necessary to have human beings leaping through glass and setting themselves on fire to titillate audiences in a darkened theater? Do producers and directors really need to outdo themselves with every movie? Are the risks too great to put a life on the line for Hollywood?
That question haunts Carmel Kinnear every day.
Her husband, British comic actor Roy Kinnear, died as a result of injuries suffered in a horse fall while filming “The Return of the Musketeers” in 1988. He hadn’t ridden a horse in 15 years--since the first “Three Musketeers” film in that series.
“I don’t suppose they’ll want me to do any [riding] this time,” his wife recalled the heavyset actor telling her. “We’re all 15 years older.”
But at the last minute, Kinnear, who was expecting a stunt double to substitute for him, was asked to ride.
“Oh, gosh, darling,” he wrote to his wife, “I’ve been called on to do a stunt.”
And during a gallop over a cobblestone bridge near Toledo, Spain, his horse lost its footing, sending Kinnear sprawling. The actor died the next day of internal bleeding.
His wife later found the letter tucked into a copy of the film’s script.
“Actors are inclined to take undue risks with their lives,” she said. “They are frightened. Time is money. They don’t want to hold production up. They don’t want to look silly in front of other people. Roy always wanted to be Mr. Nice Guy. That was always Roy’s motto in life.”
She accepted a $1.02-million settlement after filing suit against the producers.
No case focused attention on the issue of movie safety more than the deaths in 1982 of actor Vic Morrow and two children on the set of the John Landis segment of “Twilight Zone--The Movie.”
The California Legislature held hearings to see if working conditions on movie sets were too dangerous. A top official with the Screen Actors Guild testified that first aid on movie sets was “an industry disgrace.”
The film unions reactivated long-dormant safety committees and joined with producers and studio executives to devise guidelines for performing special effects.
But 14 years since the “Twilight Zone” tragedy, Hollywood has been left largely to regulate itself. Although the actors guild asked lawmakers to require such safety measures as nurses on the set and limits on the use of certain pyrotechnics, legislators balked. Some cited fears that the industry would leave California.
Meanwhile, the state’s main regulating arm for workplace safety, the Division of Occupational Safety and Health, or CalOSHA, typically does not play a proactive role in policing safety on movie sets, said Mark Carlson, deputy chief for enforcement. Sets and studios are not routinely inspected, and most sets have been exempted by the Legislature from many state building codes.
Moreover, many of the activities that take place on movie sets fall under the jurisdiction of other agencies. For example, helicopters and airplanes are regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration.
The Screen Actors Guild stepped into the breach, negotiating into its collective-bargaining agreements the safety requirements it had requested from the Legislature.
The insurance industry has also had an effect. Today, it is standard practice for an insurer to send its own safety experts to a set, studying storyboards and demanding to know who is going to perform the stunts.
An unexpected boost to safety concerns has come from technology.
During the filming of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s upcoming film “Eraser,” three stunt performers received minor injuries during an explosion scene.
“We felt it would be dangerous to try the shot again,” producer Arnold Kopelson said. “We went inside and simulated the shot with a rear-screen projection.”
For the film “Jurassic Park,” Industrial Light & Magic eliminated the need for a stunt actor in a scene in which a Tyrannosaurus rex devoured a man in a restroom. It was unsafe for a person to be shaken wildly in the manner that director Steven Spielberg wanted. So the company developed a model of the actor in a computer and animated the entire scene.
Computerization, said Jim Morris, president of ILM’s Lucas Digital division, “holds the promise of allowing more spectacular stunts for movies more safely.”
Digital stunts can also be cheaper.
For example, he said, Robert Zemeckis, the director of “Forrest Gump,” wanted to choreograph a scene in which a phalanx of attack helicopters in Vietnam moved in tandem with the movements of two actors on the ground.
“If you’d had to bring in a couple dozen helicopters, pilots, fuel and have this elaborate choreography, it would have been enormously expensive,” Morris said. “For us to add the helicopters in digitally . . . it was a fraction of the cost.”
In the end, the scene cost $50,000 to $75,000, Morris said, instead of up to $300,000.
In fact, digital stunts are becoming so popular that it’s a joke among stunt performers that computers will put them out of business.
“The stuntmen as we know them today are going to be extinct,” said stuntman-turned-director Hal Needham. “You are going to always need somebody to go through a plate-glass window, but the real big stuff, the hairy stuff, will be long gone.”
For the foreseeable future, though, stuntmen and stuntwomen will continue to jump off buildings and walk on airplane wings.
The action genre is vital to the film and television business, especially in the burgeoning foreign markets, where stars such as Stallone and Schwarzenegger attract hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office.
Stunts are the bread and butter of these films, and many directors say that even as digital technology continues to advance, audiences will prefer to see real stunts.
Filling that need are the men, women and even children of Hollywood’s close-knit stunt community. They love their work, make good money and have a very different view of what is safe than most people do.
“For me to do a standing back flip is not dangerous, because I’m an acrobat,” explained Loren Janes, who doubled for Kirk Douglas in “Spartacus” and is still working in stunts. “Someone else tries it and they’re going to break their neck.”
Janes, whose Sand Canyon home is filled with cowboy memorabilia and athletic equipment, is typical of many successful stunt performers in his unending work ethic and tremendous, almost old-fashioned sense of self-reliance.
In the 1962 epic western “How the West Was Won,” Janes had to leap from a moving train onto a cactus.
To prepare for the jump, Janes said, he burned the thorns off the cactus with a blowtorch and cut the main roots so it would fall over when he landed on it. Had he missed, said Janes, now 64, he would have plunged 40 feet to the rocks below. (Fellow stuntman Bob Morgan lost his left leg in a train-related accident on the “How the West Was Won” set.)
Although some who come to Hollywood in search of stunt work could be considered daredevils, the ones who really are successful plot each stunt with the care and precision of a carpenter measuring a set of cabinets.
For example, when planning the 90-foot jump in “First Knight,” stuntmen Bob Brown and Jon Epstein had to calculate how far out they would have to jump to clear shallow water and make it to a place deep enough for them to survive. They even measured the length of their own strides and the speed at which they would have to jump. In the end, they built a platform out over the edge of the cliff, which enabled them to leap farther out.
To survive, Epstein said, a stunt performer must check every aspect of a proposed scene and at times must persuade the director that an idea needs to be reworked for safety reasons.
Directors, after all, want to amaze their audiences. Stunt performers must be willing to confront a director if they believe a sequence is too dangerous.
“You have to be willing to pack up and leave if the director pushes you too far,” Epstein said. “If you’re banking on this one job and if you live for this one day of work, you’re going to have a hard time.”
But whereas veteran stunt performers may have the clout to walk away, the fear of being branded a coward in a macho profession leads many to attempt stunts that are beyond their abilities.
And while many stunt directors say they would respect a performer who admits he can’t do something, others in the industry say it’s hard to get hired if you back away from a stunt.
Fear of being branded unreliable was in part what drove Sonja Davis to accept the backward high fall that led to her death, said Davis’ friend Denise Roberts, herself a stuntwoman.
Davis was replaced by another stunt driver after she failed to adequately execute a car sequence in “Strange Days,” said the film’s stunt coordinator, Doug Coleman.
“I think she had a bigger heart than she had ability. . . . She had the gift to look like Angela Bassett,” Coleman said, referring to the film’s co-star, but Davis “couldn’t perform everything.”
Being replaced “hurt her pride,” said Roberts, who has doubled for Meryl Streep, Goldie Hawn, Meg Ryan and others. “She said, ‘No one else will ever do that to me.’ ”
Davis had grown up a tomboy--jumping off the roof of the family home, riding horses, doing acrobatics at the bottom of the swimming pool. Her mother, Wanda Sapp, said Davis took after her father, a skydiver.
She worked hard at her craft. But the “Vampire in Brooklyn” jump made her nervous. According to Roberts, Davis turned it down at first, but when she was offered more money, she accepted.
“A week or two before the stunt, her sixth sense kicked in,” Roberts said. “She told me something was wrong.”
Nonetheless, in the early evening of Nov. 3, 1994, Davis donned her costume and took up position, hanging from a bar just below the roof of an apartment building at Washington Boulevard and Main Street in Los Angeles. Still, she wasn’t confident, and she asked if she could perform a different type of fall. According to state investigators, she was told no, that the director wanted the back fall.
She was to “act [as] if she was sitting down and fall,” said a report by CalOSHA, which investigated the incident.
“Are you sure?” her mother, who had come to see her daughter perform, heard Sonja ask on the set. “Are you sure?”
At that point, Davis let go. What came next, her mother said, was the horrifying sound of a body hitting an air bag that investigators said was the wrong size for the jump and not properly positioned. Safety spotters were not in place, the report said, and the required drop tests and practice jumps were not performed.
Davis hit her head.
“Someone was saying, ‘Sonja,’ ” her mother said. “I just sat there. I mean, whatever happened, if she was all broken up I sure didn’t want to see that. I just sat there and I was just praying to God that it would be OK and that maybe it wouldn’t be as bad as it was. I started up just praying and asking God to give me the courage to live with this.”
Sonja Davis died 13 days later.
CalOSHA issued four citations against Paramount and fined the studio about $29,000. The studio has denied any wrongdoing and has appealed the citations.
Sapp and her three remaining children have filed a $10-million wrongful-death suit against, among others, Paramount; director Wes Craven; Eddie Murphy, the film’s star and one of its producers; and the stunt coordinator. The suit is in its early stages, with the discovery process just beginning and hearings not yet set.
Many stunt performers choose not to sue when they are injured. Some fear that if they make waves, they will never work again. But part of the answer lies in the psychology of the stunt performers themselves. They live in a world where self-reliance is paramount and risk-taking is part of the job.
In addition, negligence cases are notoriously hard to prove. A jury has to be convinced that someone should be held responsible for something he or she didn’t intend to do. When cases are filed, they are usually settled quietly. Criminal negligence cases are the hardest to prove and are the most rare.
For example, prosecutors declined to file charges in the cases of both Davis and Janet Wilder. Two years ago, authorities in North Carolina declined to prosecute anyone in connection with the death of actor Brandon Lee, who was fatally wounded on the set of “The Crow.” North Carolina safety and health officials determined that crew members had broken safety guidelines by using live ammunition to create a homemade set of dummy bullets. A piece of one of the bullets became lodged in a gun, and when an actor later used the same gun to fire blanks at Lee, the projectile flew out.
“The degree of negligence has to rise almost to a willful type of disregard for someone’s safety,” said Michael Provost, the Florida prosecutor who last month declined to file charges in the Wilder case.
Negligence is harder to prove if the person injured was hired as a stunt performer.
“They are aware of the risk, and it’s pretty much their business to take the risk,” Provost said. “It’s not a normal person off the street trying to perform this kind of stunt.”
Indeed, the only criminal case in memory to make it to trial was the one filed by Los Angeles County against director Landis and others in connection with “Twilight Zone--The Movie.” After a celebrated trial, Landis and his co-defendants were acquitted in 1987.
“It was a very difficult case to prosecute,” said Lea Purwin D’Agostino, the deputy district attorney who handled the case. “You didn’t have people who went in maliciously to do something. They went in to create a movie. They didn’t go in to kill somebody.”
Certainly, on that December morning when Janet Wilder stood beside her husband on the set of “Gone Fishin,’ ” no one intended for her to die. She was newly married into one of the grand old families of the stunt business, and its patriarch, Glenn Wilder, co-founder of one of Hollywood’s major stunt organizations, was standing nearby.
Glenn Wilder was playing a salesman in the scene, and Scott and Janet portrayed a couple shopping for a boat. All three were hired as stunt performers.
Scott Wilder held his wife’s hand and kept a watchful eye on the stunt boat. His job, if anything went awry, was to yank her out of the way.
But it all went wrong so fast that nobody could help her.
Three weeks later, the Florida Marine Patrol came back with some disturbing findings:
Stunt coordinator Michael Shane Dixon had no experience in boat stunts, and Anthony Brubaker, who piloted the outboard, had just 20 hours of practice and had never jumped a boat up a ramp before.
“Brubaker stated in his job resume that he did not have boating experience,” the report said. As he headed to shore in the speeding boat, Brubaker hit the ramp at an angle.
“The boat became airborne, not engaging the ramp as anticipated,” the report said. “The boat continued up the ramp, bouncing . . . [and] turning counterclockwise.”
The steel-pipe ramp that was being used to launch the boat was not the kind usually used in boat stunts and did not have the ability to correct an errant craft.
“The ramp was not level,” the report said. “The north rail was higher than the south rail.”
The boat flew through the mangroves at a nearly 90-degree angle and the starboard-side hull struck Janet Wilder in the back of her head. An amateur video shot from the roof of a nearby condominium shows Scott Wilder’s futile attempt to pull his wife out of harm’s way.
With the exception of a single rehearsal the day before, no test jumps were conducted using the ramp, the report said. In the rehearsal, the boat was not being chased by other boats, as it would be on the day Janet Wilder died, and it was going 10 mph slower.
“Witnesses and [stunt coordinator] Dixon all said that a formal stunt plan . . . was not prepared,” the report said. “The only plan used was one locating the prop boats, cameras and positions of the stunt crew in the scene.” (Dixon declined to comment on the report; Brubaker did not return calls.)
Workplace safety officials in Florida said last week that they were still investigating the accident.
Scott Wilder still wonders how it all went so terribly wrong. But the questions gnawing at him go beyond the particulars of what happened that day.
“Stunts have been my life since I was a child,” Wilder, 33, said in an interview with The Times. “My father is a stuntman. I did my first commercial at 3 and my first stunt at 9. It’s always been my intent to be a stuntman and filmmaker, and I’m not sure where I am right now.”
He is still a staunch defender of the stunt business and bristles at any suggestion that it is too dangerous. He says he doesn’t plan to sue, and he criticizes Sonja Davis’ family for doing so.
“I have no blame for anybody other than myself,” he said. “She was in my arms. She was depending on me to save her.”
He sees God’s hand--not just the foibles of human beings--in the tragedy that took his wife.
“I’ve got to accept that fact that God stepped in and what happened was meant to be,” Wilder said. “There’s a reason that we don’t know now, and we may never know.
“Hopefully, it will makes us all stronger and smarter people.”