Reel Reviews

The Death of Brandon Lee

Brandon Lee Shot on the Set of The Crow

Was it an accident or the "Curse of the Chinese Merchant?"

The Death of Brandon LeeAgainst his wishes and in spite of his best intentions, Brandon Lee will always be known as the son of martial arts movie star Bruce Lee, who starred in more than 20 films, including The Big Boss (1971), Fists of Fury (1971) and Enter the Dragon (1973). Though he toiled beneath the shadow of his father, hard work and persistence had finally begun to pay off for Brandon as he landed the role of Eric Draven in 1993's The Crow. But just like his father some 20 years earlier, Brandon Lee would die during the filming of a movie, cutting short a promising career. Bruce Lee died at the age of 32 in Hong Kong on July 20, 1973 while filming Game of Death. Brandon, would die in a tragic on-set accident while filming The Crow on a North Carolina sound stage.

The peculiar circumstances of Brandon's death coupled with the cult-like following experienced by his father, have caused much speculation and rumor mongering about the death of the young martial arts star who was about to break through into the world of mainstream Hollywood movies. Many believe he was the victim of foul play. Others speculate that his own premonitions sent him to an early but preordained destiny. Brandon himself believed his family was jinxed by a curse levied against his grandfather when he angered some Chinese businessmen. Rumors have even cropped up that Brandon is indeed alive and kicking, having pulled off a genius prank. For some reason we doubt that this latter scenario is actually the case, we do believe Elvis, Andy Kaufman and Tupac Shakur are alive.

Brandon Lee - The CrowIn 1993, The Crow was being filmed at Carolco Studios (now Screen Gems) in Wilmington, North Carolina. The set was plagued by numerous accidents before and during filming. On the first day of shooting, February 1, 1993, a carpenter was severely shocked and received serious burns when the scissor lift he was driving came into contact with high-voltage power lines. On March 13 of that year, heavy storms destroyed some of the movie's elaborate sets causing even further delays. Later, a prop master discovered a live round in one of the prop guns and an enraged carpenter drove his car into the studio's plaster shop. As if that weren't enough, another worker was injured when a screwdriver was accidentally driven through his own hand, and a stuntman fell through the roof of one of the sets, breaking several ribs.

As filming of The Crow finally neared completion, eight days from wrap to be exact, yet another accident would rock the slip-shod production. Several prop masters, in an attempt to save time and money, made a grave decision regarding some bullet cartridges that were to be used for a scene involving a close-up shot of a handgun fired at Brandon. During the scene, the gun was loaded with "dummy" cartridges, which are used for close-up shots because they contain the actual projectile on the end of the cartridge but contain no gunpowder. (It looks more realistic if the camera can see the bullet tips in the pistol's cylinders.) It seems that the prop department didn't have any of these "dummy" cartridges on hand, so rather than shut down the production for the night, some Bozo decided that he'd "rig" some of the live rounds. They removed the gunpowder from the cartridges and replaced the bullet tips, thereby giving them the "dummy' rounds that were needed for the close-up shots. At some point, one of the tips would unknowingly come detached from the cartridge and lodge itself within the barrel or cylinder of the handgun. (The subsequent investigation never conclusively determined how or why the bullet tip came dislodged.) This seemingly innocuous oversight would not only set up the tragic event that ended up shutting down production after all, but it would also provide Morbidly Hollywood® with its next fascinating tale of death and morbidity.

The Death of Brandon LeeAs shooting of the close-up scenes finally wrapped, it was now time to move on to the scene in question. It would call for a wide shot of Brandon's character being shot with a handgun that was loaded with "blank" cartridges. These blanks were loaded into the handgun not knowing that somewhere in the barrel or cylinder, there was a whole or piece of a dislodged bullet. "Blank" cartridges are different from "dummy" cartridges in that the blanks are loaded with highly explosive powder to give the handgun the smoke and muzzle flash associated with having fired a live round.

Filming was taking place in Eric (Brandon's character) and Shelley's apartment. The scene called for Brandon to enter a room where actor Michael Massee was to shoot him using a revolver loaded with blanks. Brandon, wearing black leather jacket and boots, and a t-shirt bearing the prophetic phrase "Hangman's Joke" entered the room carrying a sack of groceries. As the .44 caliber revolver fired from about 12-15 feet away, Brandon set off the "squib" which is supposed to simulate bullets hitting the grocery bag. Brandon then collapsed to the floor, bleeding profusely from his right side. Many later commented that they noticed he did not hit the floor in the same manner as he had in rehearsals. Brandon groaned and signaled with his arm that he was hit but everyone was too busy with their individual roles to notice. The director yells "cut" but Brandon doesn't get up.

Upon noticing the actor was no longer acting, Brandon was rushed by ambulance to the nearby New Hanover regional Medical Center in Wilmington located at 2131 S. 17th Street. Upon his arrival he still had vital signs and it was decided to perform emergency surgery to stop the bleeding. The bullet created a quarter-sized hole in his lower right abdomen before perforating his stomach and several more vital organs. The "bullet" finally came to a rest next to his spine.

The doctors couldn't stop the severe internal hemorrhaging. He died in the hospital at 1:03 pm on March 31st, 1993, 12 plus hours after the shooting. The investigation determined that the tip of the "dummy" shell had come dislodged and remained in the barrel unnoticed. The "blank" cartridge fired with enough force to propel the broken bullet tip out the barrel and into Brandon.

The official cause of death is listed as gunshot wound of the abdomen. His body was flown back to Washington state where he was buried on April 3rd next to his father in Lake View Cemetery. The next day a memorial service was held at his actress friend, Polly Bergen's house in the Hollywood hills where many celebrities attended including David Carradine, Kiefer Sutherland, David Hasselhoff, Lou Diamond Phillips and Steven Seagal.

Ironically, due to the inordinate number of scenes involving gunfire, a special firearms consultant was hired to ensure the proper safety standards were followed.

The Crow was eventually finished and was released on May 11, 1994. Surprisingly, or not, the film did quite well at the box office with a final total of over $50 million.

During the police investigation, detectives examined a plastic bag that contained the unloaded handgun and the spent shell casing. They later found that one of the "dummy" shells in the gun's case was missing its tip. Brandon was 28 years old.


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More Brandon Lee Stuff:

Brandon Lee House
1905 Benedict Canyon Rd. The home where Brandon Lee was living at the time of his death.

 

Carrolco Studios
Carolco Studios (now Screen Gems) in Wilmington, North Carolina, where Brandon Lee was filming The Crow.

 

Brandon Lee Hospital
New Hanover Regional Medical Center, where Brandon Lee was rushed by ambulance after the shooting.

 

Brandon Lee Mortuary
Andrews Mortuary in Wilmington, where Brandon Lee's Body was taken after his death.

 

Video that looks at the Chinese curse, Bruce Lee's death, Brandon Lee's childhood, and a reenactment and explanation of the accident that killed Brandon on the set of The Crow.

 

Michael Masse
Actor Michael Masse, who was involved in the shooting accident on the set of The Crow (1994) that resulted in the death of Brandon Lee.

 

Brandon Lee bullets Brandon Lee bullets
Dummy cartridges made with old fired primers are NOT acceptable. The cartridge on the right is a dummy. The one on the left is a misfired cartridge. It is still LIVE.
The ONLY acceptable way to make dummy cartridges is to remove the primers completely. This way everyone knows that they are safe and there is no possibility of ever mixing live rounds with dummies.

 

Brandon Lee
Brandon is buried next to his father at Washington State's Lake View Cemetery

 

Brandon Lee
Coroner's diagram showing the entry wound in the lower right abdomen.

 


 

Some External Links to More Brandon Lee Stuff:

The page at Snopes.com that discredits the rumors that Lee's death footage was left in the film.

Here's a link to his death certificate.

The Brandon Lee page over at Wikipedia

The Entertainment Weekly Story about Brandon Lee's death.

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