According to the Associated Press, almost 50 people die on American film sets and over 150 are seriously injured. Accident data from the past is hazy. If that’s happening in contemporary times, you can be certain there are injuries aplenty way back in the 1950s. The film industry is operating under the controlling studio system. Pumping out blockbuster movies like King Solomon’s Mines, The African Queen, Battle Cry, and The Bridge on the River Kwai. Television, too, was working out the kinks in production. Shows like Bonanza, Gunsmoke, The Lone Ranger, and The Twilight Zone were still somewhat experimental.
On set, actors suffer from dehydration, poor nutrition, dysentery, falls, accidents from stunts gone wrong, heart attacks, and strokes. In one case, everyone on set was exposed to unhealthy levels of nuclear radioactivity! In this video, we dig up dirt on the tragic injuries from 1960s films and television. Revealing tantalizing tidbits about on-screen accidents that the notoriously secretive Old Hollywood studios tried to keep under wraps. If you’re a die-hard 50s media fan or just curious to learn more about this somewhat scandalous era, watch on!
Katherine Hepburn Bathes in the Waters of Venice in Summertime
Iconic 50s actress Katherine Hepburn played the character of Jane Hudson in the 1955 Technicolor romantic comedy, Summertime. (Some of you might know it as Summer Madness, the name it was released under in the United Kingdom.) As many movies of the time were, this film is set in Italy’s canal town, Venice. There’s a scene in the movie where Hudson tumbles head over heels. In one of these watery conduits as she attempts to photograph a shop she finds quaint.
Hepburn, not in good health at the time, was far from keen to attempt the stunt. After all, the waters of Venice are far from clean. Plus, the director, David Lean, had ordered that disinfectant be poured into the water to make it appear frothy. However, Lean insisted that, for continuities sake, Hepburn couldn’t be replaced by a stunt double. He forced her to fall not once, but four times, into the water. Later that evening, Hepburn’s eyes started to sting and itch. She takes home an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress for her performance in the film. Also, she diagnoses with a rare–and sadly recurring–form of conjunctivitis.
The Conqueror Cast Almost All Died of Cancer
The Conqueror is an epic film about the life of legendary Mongolian emperor and battle-hardened general Genghis Khan. It was filmed in the desolate desert landscapes of Nevada and released in 1956. Unfortunately for The Conqueror cast and crew, the US tests nuclear weapons above-ground–part of Operation Upshot-Knothole–in the area. Though the site declares safe for production, it certainly didn’t seem that way as everyone start to fall ill. In the early 1960s, Director Dick Powell died of cancer, and actor Pedro Armendáriz committed suicide after learning he had terminal kidney cancer. A decade later, Agnes Moorhead, Susan Hayward, and John Wayne (Duke) were dead–also killed by cancer. By 1981, over 90 cast and crew members had developed various cancers, and almost 50 had died. And that was out of a total of 220 employees and stars.
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The Ten Commandment’s Cast Suffered Heart Attacks and Scorpion Bites
Cecil B DeMille’s The Ten Commandments, which hit the screens around the world in an epic way in 1956, was plagued by mishaps. When filming a sandstorm scene, an extra holding a burning torch tripped and fell, setting another extra’s costume alight. Thankfully, the young girl only suffered from minor burns. In that same scene filmed on location in the desert, numerous extras were bitten by cobras or stung by scorpions blown out of hiding by the artificial winds. Unbelievably, DeMille himself also powered through a minor heart attack that hit when climbing down a ladder mounted to an Ancient Egyptian city gate.
Japanese Actor Harou Nakajima Suffered Severe Burns in Pyrotechnic Accident
One of the Tragic Injuries From 1960s Films is the 1958 Japanese kaiju film Varan the Unbelievable depicts the fight between locals in a small village in Japan and the US military, hoping to test desalination techniques in a nearby lake. The villagers are fearful the chemicals will reawaken a lake-dwelling god called Obaki. The kaiju genre was notoriously tricky for actors: they often complained of exhaustion, minor injuries, and heatstroke. However, the set of Varan the Unbelievable was particularly bad, with one famous stunt actor, Harou Nakajima, hospitalized for severe burns after his suit caught on fire.
Charlton Heston’s Stuntman Falls From a Chariot in Ben-Hur
Honestly, given how complicated the filming was, it’s surprising that there were only a few misadventures on the epic 1959 film Ben-Hur. Rumors abound that one to several horseback riders were killed during the fast and furious chariot race scene. However, it turns out that only one actor–Joe Canutt, Charlton Heston’s stunt double–suffered a pretty serious gash on his chin when he was knocked out of a chariot when its wheel broke.
Veteran Stuntman Fred Kennedy Was Killed by His Horse
However, the stuntman in The Horse Soldiers (1959) was not quite as lucky as Joe Canutt. Veteran stunt double Fred Kennedy was killed when his horse fell during filming. It’s said that the incident so tore up director John Ford that he immediately shut down production, filming the rest of the scene later on in San Fernando Valley instead.
Dick York Injured His Back in an On-Set Train Car Accident
Actor Dick York injured his back so severely on the set of 1959’s They Came to Cordura that years later, the ongoing pain forced him to resign from playing Darrin Stephens on TV’s Bewitched. According to the man himself, the accident happened when he and Gary Cooper were shooting a railcar scene. They were working a hand cart down the track and when the wrong grab of the see-saw-like handle from another actor propelled York into the air. He tore all the muscles along the right side of his back.
Actor Tyrone Power Never Made it to the Hospital
If Tyrone Power was a rising star in 1930s Hollywood, his lead roles in 1939’s Jesse James and The Rains Came propelled him into superstardom through the 1940s and 1950s. His versatile style meant he performed equally as well in a courtroom drama as he did in a swashbuckling adventure flick. As he entered his 40s, Power landed a title role in the late 50s epic Solomon and Sheba. Shot in Spain, the shooting was physically demanding, with lots of travel and Power performing many of his own stunts and fight scenes. He complained of aches, pains, and chills and asked to be sent to the hospital. Unfortunately, he never made it, dying from complications of a heart attack on the way there.
Did Charles King Really Die on Set After Playing a Corpse?
Charles King was one of America’s most prolific actors of the earliest 20th century. Starting in 1915, he appeared in hundreds of films over the next four decades. King was most well known for playing villainous roles in b-rated Westerns, and in 1957 was cast, uncredited, to play various extra characters in the popular radio and TV drama Gunsmoke. In a May 4 episode called Cheap Labor, King played a corpse, a performance that sparked an urban legend that he died on set after filming. Of course, that would have been impossible since the episode aired days before he died of cirrhosis of the liver.
James Dean Died Before Filming Had Finished on Giant
So, this one isn’t exactly an injury that happened on set, but some people claim that the filming of the 1956 movie Giant pushed troubled 1950s heartthrob James Dean over the edge. And this may have influenced his reckless driving of the speedy Porsche 950 Spyder that took his life in 1955. Despite the young star’s death, Giant was released in 1956, and Dean even received a posthumous Oscar nomination for his performance. Actor Nick Adams did the dubbing for one scene in place of Dean to complete the movie in time for its release.
Wild Animals and Dysentry on the Set of The African Queen
The 1951 blockbuster The African Queen was filmed in Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The notoriously persistent John Huston directed the film, with Humphrey Bogart cast as the lead actor and Katherine Hepburn his leading lady. Today, The African Queen ranks among the American Film Institute’s top 100 movies of all time. And considering the hardships the cast and crew went through to capture the thing on film, it certainly deserves to be there! At the time, almost no one chose to shoot on location in remote Africa, so the all-American team was severely ill-equipped to deal with the wild animals, water and airborne diseases, searing heat, and inadequate food supplies they encountered. Almost everyone contracted dysentery, except, it was rumored, the hardy Bogart. Why? Because he apparently drank only whisky during production, avoiding the contaminated drinking water entirely.
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