5. Kenneth Hawks (“Such Men are Dangerous”) – Killed (with nine others) in plane collision
Howard Hawks is one of the most well-known directors of the Golden Era, mainly because he directed a number of classics across a number of genres (gangster, screwball, Western, horror). It’s unfortunate that his brother Kenneth, who was also a director, had the potential to be as revered as his brother, were it not for what was the first big moviemaking accident to occur in Hollywood.
Both brothers had previously been in the Air Force, before they both started working for Fox Studios directing a number of silent films and then talkies, and Kenneth made good use out of it by filming aerial scenes from planes for his third feature, appropriately titled “Such Men Are Dangerous”.
The film was based on the mysterious death of wealthy financer Alfred Loewenstein, who fell to his death when he emerged through an exit door in his airborne private aircraft; perhaps he was committing suicide, perhaps it was a mistake, perhaps he was actually faking his death, but Kenneth didn’t see any premonitions in bringing this curious story to life.
While filming a parachute scene on January 2, 1930, two of the three planes that were used for filming this scene collided in mid-air, killing Kenneth and nine other crew members on board — assistant director/cameraman Ben Frankel, assistant director Max Gold, cinematographer Conrad Wells, cameramen George Eastman and Otho Jordan, property men Tom Harris and Harry Johannes, and the pilots of each plane, Halleck Rouse and Walter Ross Cook.
This sort of tragedy was unprecedented for filmmaking and became a headline story for Hollywood, strengthening the caution that filmmakers would take from then on. The death of his brother was a harsh blow for Howard and his other surviving sibling, William, as their youngest sister Helen had died at only five years old, and their second youngest sister Grace had died just three years before Kenneth’s death.
Kenneth, like Howard, was making his way as a Hollywood director after the acclaim for his debut “Big Time”, which was described as a fast-talking talkie, a staple in the screwball comedy genre that Howard would later utilize and flourish in himself.
6. Claudio Guerin Hill (“The Bell from Hell”) – Fell to his death
In one of the more unfortunate on-set fatalities, 34-year-old Spanish horror director Claudio Guerin Hill was shooting on the last production day on his second feature film, “The Bell from Hell”, when he (spoiler alert) met a similar fate to the main character of the film – he fell from the titular church tower to his death.
While filming the climactic scene atop of a church in Noia in a fake bell tower that had been constructed near the real one, Hill tried to make his way from the passageway to an overhang on the church, but lost his balance and fell 20 metres, dying before he was brought to the hospital.
The very last scene to be filmed was completed by veteran filmmaker Juan Antonio Bardem, and the finished film was released to generally moderate praise (at least from the horror crowd).
This tragedy has been pondered over ever since as to whether the filmmaker fell by accident or if it were by suicide, though the latter explanation sounds a little too dramatic and has probably just been an urban legend in the horror film community to make this director’s death sound even more sensational than it really is.
7. H. B. Halicki (“Gone in 60 Seconds 2”, unfinished) – Killed by a falling telephone pole during a stunt
This fearless filmmaker was a true auteur, who directed, wrote, produced, starred, and stunted in all of his films, debuting with “Gone in 60 Seconds” (the 1974 non-Nicolas Cage version), which offered a high-octane adrenaline rush for audiences when it was released, featuring car chase scenes even lengthier and more destructive than the already impressive ones in “Bullitt” and “The French Connection”, with the film concluding with a 40-minute car chase that spans five cities and has 39 cars destroyed (a number of which were Halicki’s own).
The film was followed up three years later with a sort-of sequel, “Double Nickels”, which featured much of the cast (but not Halicki), and Halicki continued to make crunchy, destructive car-chase movies such as “The Junkman” (1981) and “Deadline Auto Theft” (1983). He then decided to start filming the sequel to “Gone in 60 Seconds”, but tragedy struck before principal photography was completed.
For the film’s most dramatic stunt, Halicki was to crash a truck into a number of cars before hitting a water tower, causing it to topple and collapse, but it fell prematurely and snapped one of its wires, severing a telephone pole that landed on Halicki after he had emerged from the truck. His brother attempted CPR on him, but Halicki was pronounced dead on arrival at the nearest hospital and the film world lost one of its finer car-loving filmmakers.
At the time of his death, Halicki had only just married Denice Shakarian, who later initiated a remake in honor of her late husband in 2000, starring Nicolas Cage and Angelina Jolie, which is a strange way of honoring someone’s life, but it hopefully might’ve redirected some newer audiences’ attention to his directorial debut.
8. James Cameron (“The Abyss”) – Almost drowned
Sadomasochistic blockbuster director James Cameron has displayed some questionable on-set antics in getting his films made at the best level he can manage, and it arguably pays off, not just at the box office, but in how revered a good portion of his films are in pop culture. Yet it was on the set of one of his lesser known and underrated films that Cameron’s quest for realizing outrageous films almost cost him his life.
Production on “The Abyss” (40 percent of which took place underwater) was a highly problematic shoot for all involved, with lead stars Ed Harris, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, and Michael Behn all later complaining about the stressful shoot and were barely willing to talk about it, even for promotion.
Not only did Mastrantonio walk off set during one of her scenes and Harris nearly drowned during one of his, but poor Cameron came even closer to death when he too nearly drowned whilst submerged in the 7.5-million gallon and 35-feet deep water tank during filming.
As revealed in “The Futurist: The Life and Films of James Cameron”, he was at the bottom of the water tank when he found out he had absolutely no oxygen left in his tank; the assistant director was supposed to remind him every time he went low, but this time he had forgotten.
Unable to swim at all, Cameron contacted his cinematographer over the PA, but his partially deaf ear couldn’t hear him. With two options to get help exhausted, Cameron tried to make an “out of air” gesture in the hopes that one of the assistant divers would notice, but nothing – at the bottom of the water-tank, no one could hear or see him.
As a last resort, Cameron threw off his diving equipment and began his free ascent. He was stopped 15 feet before surfacing as one of the safety divers had to give Cameron a regulator, but disaster struck again when the regulator turned out to be broken – it flooded Cameron’s mouth (and lungs) with water instead of oxygen.
Cameron pushed away from the diver and, against safety regulations, made his surface; he didn’t black out, but he did fire the safety diver and the assistant director for their carelessness. It seems Cameron continued with filming that very day and ultimately finished what was his unrecognized masterpiece.