5 Phenomenally Heartbreaking Movie Set Tragedies

movie_theatre - Phenom 5

A lot of my Phenomenal 5 lists have been fun, playful, or downright silly. Others have focused on actors, actresses, or different movie years. This week I’m taking a more somber tone and looking at some of the saddest moments in filmmaking. So much time and effort are put into making the movies that we watch and talk about. Unfortunately there have been instances of real life tragedy that makes us wonder if it’s all worth it. The five tragedies caught headlines and changed lives. Unfortunately there were several of these to pick from so I won’t say this is the definitive list. But the sad reality of these 5 movie set tragedies is most certainly heartbreaking.

#5 – “DELTA FORCE 2”

Delta Force 2

I liked the original “Delta Force” movie with Chuck Norris and Lee Marvin. But as was the case with many films in the era, there just had to be a sequel. “Delta Force 2” had some pretty good action scenes but overall it wasn’t a good movie. During filming in the Philipines there was a horrible helicopter crash that took the lives of four crew members and the pilot. Sadly, the crew was only a few days away from wrapping up shooting. The crew was set to do some filming when eyewitnesses said the chopper veered left before crashing into a ravine. It’s said shots of the helicopter was used in the film. To add another layer of tragic mystique to the story, this was the second Chuck Norris movie that experienced a fatal helicopter crash in the Philipines.

#4 – “TOP GUN”

Top gunOne of the signature movies of the 1980’s was Tony Scott’s “Top Gun”. It was all the buzz and it put Tom Cruise on the bedrrom walls of teenaged girls everywhere. But the movie was also scarred by a tragic accident during the filming of one of the many air combat scenes. Art Scholl, one of the most renowned aerobatics pilots of the time, was killed after putting his plane in a flat spin for one of the movie’s key scenes. While getting some camera shots himself, Scholl would radio in that he had a serious problem. He was unable to recover and his plane crashed into the Pacific Ocean. Neither Scholl or the plane was ever recovered leaving the full cause of the accident still in question. It was such a tragedy and the finished “Top Gun” movie was dedicated to Art Scholl.


ConquerorRegarded as a huge flop, “The Conqueror” remains a shining example of what not to do when making a film. It starts with the terrible casting decisions most notably John Wayne as Genghis Kahn. But the film would be remembered for something far more tragic. “The Conqueror” was filmed around St. George, Utah less than 150 miles from a government nuclear test site in Nevada. For weeks the cast and crew worked within the vicinity of the tests. It wasn’t until later that the effects of the tests would be revealed. Despite the government’s assurance, 91 cast and crew members died from cancers that are believed to have resulted from nuclear fallout. All of the main cast including John Wayne, Susan Hayward, Agnes Moorehead, Pedro Armendariz, and John Hoyt were cancer casualties as was director Dick Powell.

#2 – “THE CROW”

CrowBruce Lee was an amazing martial artist and action movie star. Sadly his life ended early on a movie set. Years later his son Brandon Lee, also an accomplished martial artist, found a place in the action pictures of the late 80’s and early 90’s. His most popular film was “The Crow” from 1993. It would turn out to be his last movie. With only eight days of filming left Brandon Lee was killed when a gun prop fired a live round. The accident occurred during an action scene involving a shootout. A lodged live round was mistakenly fired which struck Lee in the abdomen. He would die a short time later after the bullet lodged in his spine. Many called the accident a Lee family “curse”. I think it’s simply a horrible tragedy that took the life of a great up and coming action star.


TWILIGHTIn 1983 Steven Spielberg and John Landis co-produced “Twilight Zone: The Movie”, a collection of four shorts bookended by a prologue and epilogue. It was based on the classic TV show and I remember seeing it in the theater. But the movie was forever scarred by a gruesome and horrific accident that took place on the set. In a segment about a racist who ends up in the shoes of the different groups he hates, the great actor Vic Morrow and two young children were tragically killed in a scene where they were fleeing from a helicopter. Pyrotechnics caused the pilot to lose control of the low-flying chopper and it crashed on Morrow and the two children he was carrying. Both Morrow and one of the children were decapitated while the other was crushed. Scandal followed after it was learned the use of the two children broke numerous rules including several of California’s child labor laws. Landis never took any kind of responsibility for the accident which forever soiled his relationship with Spielberg. Most importantly is that three people lost their lives in a heartbreaking tragedy that probably could have been avoided.

There are 5 heartbreaking movie set tragedies that will forever be linked to their movies. What are your thoughts on these sad moments in moviemaking history? What are some others that come to mind? Please take time to share your thoughts below.

31 thoughts on “5 Phenomenally Heartbreaking Movie Set Tragedies

    • The Conqueror was a really bad deal. Of course the full numbers won’t be known. It’s also said that the 91 confirmed cancer deaths don’t include family members of the ones who died. Many of them died from various cancers as well.

  1. The trial of the Twilight Zone manslaughter charges resulted in acquittals. The violations were egregious but not criminal according to the jury. The poor kids should not have been on the set, and Vic Morrow gets remembered for the wrong thing. There are too many short sighted decisions on set. The Conqueror seems like a stretch for this post but the others are tragic. A stunt driver died on the Quantum of Solace shoot. Good post, sad stories.

    • Oh I think The Conqueror definitely applies due to the fact that the cause was on set. Of course questions arose about how you can determine whose cancer was a direct result. But they looked at the percentages of people with cancer and found the 91 people to be incredibly high. In fact too high to be tossed aside. And those numbers don’t count the relatives of those who died which some believe had cancer also as a result.

      The trial in the Twilight Zone deaths was a mess. Long and unfortunately a waste of time due to the ridiculous outcome. So many things went wrong from miscommunications, to breaking of laws, etc. Tragic indeed.

      Thanks for the great comments.

  2. Way to bring the mood down Keith! 😉 nah that’s a great list man. I didn’t know about any of them apart from The Crow. I think some crazy stuff went down regarding The Exorcist but I’m not sure if they were on set or not.

    • Wow, I really appreciate that man! This is a much different Phenomenal 5 than I’ve usually done. I’m glad you enjoyed it and thanks for the encouragement.

  3. Tragic indeed, and you picked all the right ones to cover, these are some of the best known examples of how the movie industry has inherent risks, and how people occasionally lose their lives trying to bring us the movies we love.

    I never knew Spielberg and Landis fell out due to the “Twilight Zone” tragedy, but I can see that. 😯

    Good post. Somber, for sure.

    • Thanks brother. Appreciate the words. It’s not the most uplifting Phenomenal 5 but its one I’ve wanted to do for a while. Thanks for the great encouragement.

    • Wasn’t it terrible. I saw it in the theater but that was in a day when I didn’t have such instant access to information than now. It wasn’t until much later that I read the whole story. So incredibly sad.

  4. Oh my goodness! I only heard about The Crow one but these are all so heartbreaking. I didn’t know John Wayne’s cancer was because of filming The Conqueror. That’s so tragic! Well all of these are pretty tragic really, I think Bond movies also have more than its fair share of tragedies, too.

    Interesting Phenomenal 5 Keith, as always!

    • Thanks Ruth. I don’t know if Wayne’s cancer was clearly attributed to the fallout (he also had some pretty bad habits). But it was never said it wasn’t a result of it especially considered the ridiculously high number of cancer deaths on the set. SO incredibly sad!!!

  5. I was aware of your top 2, both pretty crazy. I also remember hearing that some people also believe that Lee’s death was actually a murder from someone who planted the gun on purpose, though that’s probably just conspiracy theory nuts. Interesting list.

    • Thanks! I appreciate you checking it out. You know, I forgot about it but there was a conspiracy theory that believed the loaded weapon was intentionally planted. Personally I don’t think there was anything to it and there was never any proof. I just think it was a sad, sad tragedy.

  6. Very interesting! But Bruce Lee didn’t die on a movie set as claimed. He died in an actress friends’ apartment, or at least was pronounced DOA at the hospital.

    The Twilight Zone story is horrific. The footage is chilling.

    • Bruce Lee didn’t die on a movie set literally but neither did Brandon Lee. Lee died in a hospital. Bruce Lee was doing production meetings and script readings for a new film when he went to lay down. He actually first showed signs of a condition when he collapsed while doing dubbing work about a month or so earlier. That’s what I was getting at. His death wasn’t necessarily a ‘movie related’ tragedy which is a key reason he didn’t make this list. I should have worded it a little clearer.

  7. Interesting post, Keith! The cancer deaths from the Conqueror are the saddest ones of all. And here I thought John Wayne died because he smoked 3 packs of cigs a day. Your list is the best–the only other tragedy I could think of was on the original set of Robert Aldrich’s ‘Flight of the Phoenix’ starring Jimmy Stewart, when a pilot went down doing a trick shot–Paul Mantz.

    • Thanks Cindy. Wayne’s death is a complicated one. Those arguing against the movie-related cancers point to Wayne’s heavy smoking. It’s one of those things that will never 100% be known. But the numbers are so enormous that its impossible to not attribute many of the deaths to the fallout. Such a tough story.

  8. Though not a tragedy, the lady who passes her child to those on the train when she fell and was run over by the train in “Doctor Zhivago”. The incident damaged the relationship between David Lean and much of the cast & crew because he continued filming. The scene in the film is the one where she got injured.

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