Thanks to the huge amount of insurance claims, health and safety checks and studio oversight involved in modern movie productions, film sets tend to be relatively safe and professional places to be. This hasn’t always been the case, however. Today, we’re looking behind the scenes of some of Hollywood’s most famous films at some shady production practices that would never happen today.
10. The Wizard of Oz’s Tin Man paint was toxic
The Wizard of Oz is one of the most wholesome classic movie musicals of all time, beloved by people of all ages and still watched eagerly today. However, despite its whimsical musical numbers and iconic happy ending, the behind-the-scenes story of The Wizard of Oz is not so lighthearted.
Buddy Ebsen was originally cast to play the Scarecrow, but traded roles with original Tin Man actor Ray Bolger early on in production. This meant it was Ebsen who had to suffer through the many strategies the make-up artists used to create the Tin Man’s recognisable silver skin, from using actual pieces of tin to silver paper, to eventually settling on white face paint covered in aluminium dust.
The aluminium face paint sent Ebsen to the hospital just nine days into production, as he began to experience shortness of breath and severe cramping. Whilst in hospital, one of his lungs failed temporarily due to the large volume of aluminium dust in his lungs. As a result, actor Jake Haley was brought in to replace Ebsen, and the paint was reformulated into a thick paste. Unfortunately, the paste gave Haley an eye infection that kept him away from the set for four days.
9. Three actors died in a helicopter accident on The Twilight Zone
Twilight Zone: The Movie was released in 1983 to mixed reviews, with critics agreeing that some segments of the anthology film were substantially stronger than others. Today, however, rather than being best known for the actual content, the Twilight Zone movie is mostly infamous for the tragedy that occurred on set.
The story goes that John Landis believed that Vic Morrow’s character, Bill Connor, was too unsympathetic, and so a last-minute scene was added during which he saved two Vietnamese children from American helicopter fire. Unfortunately, the two child actors were hired under the table to circumvent California’s rules, which prevented children from shooting at night or around explosives. The children were hidden from the fire marshal on set, and many crew involved in the scene didn’t even know children were participating.
This already dangerous situation was made worse by the fact that the helicopter pilot was having trouble navigating through the pyrotechnic fireballs being let off on set. The pyrotechnics coordinator was unaware of this, and let off two fireballs slightly too close together. This led to the pilot being temporarily blinded, and the helicopter spinning out of control and crashing, killing both Vic Morrow and the two children instantly.
8. The animals were routinely injured on Doctor Dolittle
There’s an old adage in the entertainment world that states that you should never work with children or animals, and no film production makes it more obvious why than Doctor Dolittle. The 1967 movie was doomed from the start thanks to leading man Rex Harrison being nearly impossible to work with, so much so that he was temporarily replaced by Christopher Plummer, who was unceremoniously dropped after Harrison wanted to rejoin the project. (Plummer still had to be paid his six-figure fee, however, and so the cost of the already expensive film ballooned overnight.)
The only thing more troublesome than the leading man turned out to be the animals, which two million dollars of the film’s budget went to accumulating and caring for. The animals wreaked havoc on set, with stories of a goat eating director Richard Fleischer’s script, a parrot learning to yell “cut!”, and a whole herd of ducks forgetting how to swim and sinking in the lake, resulting in the actors and crew members jumping in to save them.
Most troublesome of all, though, were the giraffes, with one inexplicably dying on set and the replacement being nigh-on impossible to ride. Not only that, but there was even a three-day break from shooting after the replacement giraffe stood on its own genitalia, and had to be given immediate medical attention before continuing.
7. William Friedkin deliberately gave Ellen Burstyn a back injury making The Exorcist
The Exorcist is one of the most iconic horror movies of all time, and part of the reason it remains so impactful today comes down to William Friedkin’s directorial style. Friedkin wanted to emulate what he called an old Hollywood directorial approach, manipulating his actors to an extreme degree. This led to a lot of discomfort, anger and even genuine pain on set, leading to lasting resentment from the cast and crew.
For some scenes, stars Linda Blair and Ellen Burstyn were both yanked around painfully on harnesses, with their authentic screams of pain being used in the final cut of the movie. Burstyn for one landed on her coccyx after being pulled on a special effects cable by a stuntman, which thankfully didn’t permanently injure her. Friedkin also slapped Father William O’Malley across the face before the last rites scene, and would randomly fire blanks on set to startle the actors and make them feel on edge. Friedkin even had Regan’s bedroom built inside a freezer so that the cast’s breath would be visible on camera, leading to the camera crew constantly having to wear cold-weather gear on set.
6. The actors were repeatedly mauled by real lions on Roar
Usually, when a director decides to make a movie due to legitimate passion for the subject material, it’s a recipe for a great film. However, when Noel Marshall decided to direct an animal rights movie starring real animals and his real-life wife, Hollywood legend Tippi Hedren, things went about as far from smoothly as it is possible to go.
Marshall and Hedren’s desire to make Roar was a continuation of their wildlife advocacy work. Whilst travelling, they were invited to observe a pride of wild lions who had been forced to live in a house after being driven out of their usual habitat by poachers. Marshall and Hedren decided to recreate the experience, inviting real-life big cats to live with them in their California home, and documenting the process over five years.
This crazy idea went exactly as you might expect. A lion pinned Hedren’s daughter Melanie Griffith to the ground, and the cameras rolled as she screamed for her mother to help her. Later, another lion attacked Griffith, resulting in her almost losing an eye. Cinematographer Jan de Bont was scalped by one of the lions and had to get 220 stitches, while both Marshall and Hedron were bitten by the lions numerous times, resulting in everything from gangrene to blood poisoning to phlebitis. Hedron even suffered a broken ankle when she was unexpectedly picked up by an elephant.
5. Werner Herzog had native workers drag a steamship over a mountain for Fitzcarraldo
Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo is a 1982 movie about a rubber baron who attempts to pull a 320-ton steamship up a mountain using native labour. The fact that this movie is (loosely) based on a true story is wild enough, but what’s even stranger is that over the course of the production, art began to imitate life.
Put simply, Herzog didn’t want to use special effects in order to create the illusion of a steamship being pulled up a mountain, so he demanded it be done practically. As if that wasn’t close enough to the events of the story that inspired it, Herzog exclusively hired native people to do the heavy lifting, and there were numerous injuries on set. This brutal demand led to immense resentment from the native crew towards Herzog, who began calling himself the Conquistador of the Useless because of his perceived accomplishment.
The questionable labour practices weren’t the only issue during production either, as the movie’s original star, Jason Robards, dropped out of production halfway through after contracting dysentery. The replacement star, Klaus Kinski, was so awful to work with that one of the native crew members allegedly asked Herzog if the director would like him to kill Kinski. Another crew member, meanwhile, was forced to chainsaw his own foot off after being bitten by a venomous snake.
4. The Conqueror was shot downwind of a nuclear testing site
When you imagine the deadliest movies ever filmed, you probably wouldn’t expect a 1956 Genghis Khan biopic starring John Wayne and Susan Hayward to top the list. Nevertheless, thanks to the film being shot just 137 miles downwind of the US government’s Nevada National Security Site, a nuclear testing ground, the film ended up having a real-life body count of around 46 members of the cast and crew.
Both the local residents and the studio were reassured that the nuclear testing presented zero danger to humans. However, when a statistically above-average number of the cast and crew were diagnosed with cancer in the years following the film’s release, people began to suspect that the nuclear testing was to blame.
By 1980, 91 out of the 220 members of the cast and crew members had contracted cancer, and 46 of them had died. Amongst those who died were stars Agnes Moorehead, Pedro Armendáriz, Susan Hayward and John Wayne, though Wayne blamed his alcohol and cigarette habits for his own cancer diagnosis.
3. The Mafia put up the funding for Winter Kills
Winter Kills is a black comedy thriller with a star-studded cast that includes everyone from John Huston and Jeff Bridges to Anthony Perkins and Elizabeth Taylor. That’s why it’s so surprising that everything about this movie, from its producers to its way of securing financing, was unusual right from the very beginning.
The movie had as producers Robert Sterling and Leonard Goldberg, two individuals who were most famous for producing softcore adult films. Not only that, but they secured a significant portion of their financing from the Mafia, which still didn’t prevent the production from going over budget and the money drying up. Throughout the second half of the shoot, actors were paid by being summoned to a random hotel room and being given envelopes of well-used bills, but even that stopped happening eventually.
After the actors began working for free in the hopes that they’d be paid after the film’s release, Leonard Goldberg was found dead in his hotel room, presumably murdered by the Mafia due to his failure to pay them back. The film’s other producer, Robert Sterling, made it out of the production alive, but was sent to jail for 40 years soon after for drug trafficking. Yikes.
2. Heaven’s Gate treated its animals horrifically
Heaven’s Gate started out with a budget of $12 million, which nearly quadrupled over the course of the production, thanks to Michael Cimino’s boundless perfectionism. Cimino demanded all the sets be torn down and rebuilt from scratch when it transpired that the streets needed to be six feet wider to be historically accurate, and he used over a million feet of film trying to create an entirely authentic Western epic.
The film has become infamous for Cimino’s demanding approach to directing, the fact that it only made $3.5 million back at the box office on a $44 million budget, but most of all for its horrific treatment of animals on set. Heaven’s Gate even led to animal rights reforms in Hollywood, due to accusations that real hen fights were happening, cows were being disembowelled so their intestines could be used as ‘props’ and several horses were bled so actors could smear the blood on their faces. One allegation even stated that a horse was blown up using dynamite.
1. A prop disaster on The Crow killed its leading man
The Crow tells the story of a murdered man who comes back to life as a vengeful vigilante, in order to rid the city of the crime that led to the deaths of both himself and his girlfriend. However, the film has become famous in retrospect for containing one of the most extreme examples of tragic mismanagement on set, as lead actor Brandon Lee was killed during production.
Lee died filming a fairly routine stunt, during which he was supposed to be shot with a real gun that had been altered to contain fake bullets. Due to the fact that an altered dummy bullet was left in the chamber of a real 44 Magnum, Lee tragically was shot and died for real.
Though Lee’s death is the most famous example of it, that wasn’t the only time The Crow’s production went awry. Along with the gunshot stunt gone fatally wrong, a crew member accidentally stabbed a screwdriver through his hand, a sculptor drove his car through the studio in a fit of rage and a crane was accidentally driven into live power lines.