An autopsy yesterday on 28-year-old actor Brandon Lee revealed that a .44-caliber bullet apparently killed the son of Bruce Lee during filming of a shooting stunt in an action movie.
The shooting of Lee on the set of the movie "The Crow" in Wilmington, N.C., renewed concerns about the safety of stunt work. Police said they were investigating how "what appeared to be" a real bullet ended up in a prop gun's chamber. But for now they are still treating Lee's death as accidental.
The incident involving Brandon Lee comes 20 years after his father, a martial arts superstar, died under suspicious circumstances at the age of 32. The shooting also was the latest in a series of accidents to befall the film's production, leading some crew members to refer to "The Curse of 'The Crow.' "
Lee was filming a scene at the Carolco Studios early Wednesday morning when he was shot in the abdomen. According to production officials, Lee was standing 15 to 20 feet from the gun when it was fired by actor Michael Massee, playing a villain. The scene was captured on film and is being reviewed by police.
Lee's death was the sixth fatality in the past 11 years on a set being used to make a movie or a television show. After the deaths in July 1982 of Vic Morrow and two child actors during filming of "Twilight Zone: The Movie," Hollywood established its own set of stringent safety regulations.
"Somebody made one hell of a mistake," Richard Mazzochi, a prop master who is not affiliated with "The Crow," said yesterday from Los Angeles. "Live ammunition should never be on a set. A blind man can tell the difference between a blank and a real round."
"The Crow's" producers refused to answer questions regarding safety procedures on the set, and Jason Scott, a spokesman for the movie, declined to divulge the name of the prop master for the film.
Police told the Los Angeles Times that they recovered the .44-caliber handgun from the movie set along with what appeared to be two spent cases -- one from a blank round and the other from a "dummy" round used in the filming. A dummy round is not supposed to be operable, but it resembles a real cartridge. The dummy round found on the set was reportedly missing the projectile from its case. The projectile is what is fired off in a real cartridge.
In the ill-fated sequence, Lee was entering a door carrying a bag of groceries rigged to explode as if a bullet had passed through it. Massee was to fire the gun but the source of the explosion was to be the bag. A source who had spoken with a cast member said that, at first, actors in the scene didn't realize that Lee had been shot. The sequence called for him to be punched after the shooting, but as an actor approached, Lee reportedly waved him off. Once those present realized what had occurred, the source said, both Massee and the prop man who had supplied the gun were visibly shocked.
According to hospital reports, the entry wound was about the size of a silver dollar. Lee required 60 pints of blood in a transfusion. He died 13 hours after the accident of intestinal injuries and heart failure, officials said.
Lee's body was released to his family yesterday. His mother, Linda, and sister, Shannon, were in Wilmington, as was his fiancee Eliza Hutton, whom he was to marry later this month. "This is a terrible tragedy and we are all in shock," said Scott. "The cast and crew are in mourning, and no one is thinking about the film, but about getting through this difficult time."
Filming of the $14 million picture began Feb. 1 and was on schedule to wrap next Thursday. Lee was involved in almost every scene remaining to be filmed for "The Crow," an action-adventure movie based on an adult comic book of the same name in which he was playing a rock star murdered by a gang. The character, who quotes lines from Edgar Allan Poe, comes back to life with supernatural powers to avenge his death and reunite with his fiancee.
Wednesday's incident was the most serious but not the first accident on the set of "The Crow." On the first day of filming, a worker touched a high-voltage wire on the studio's back lot; he remains hospitalized. Later, a disgruntled employee drove his car through the film's plaster shop; a construction worker slipped and drove a screwdriver through his hand; a fire destroyed some sets; and a publicist was injured in a minor car accident.
In "The Crow," Lee was undertaking his second starring role after making his mark in last year's "Rapid Fire," in which he played an art student caught between American and Thai drug gangs. It was Lee's first picture under a three-movie deal. "Rapid Fire" took in $15 million at the box office before becoming one of the hottest films on videotape.
Lee's first professional role came at age 20 when he was cast in an American TV production, "Kung Fu: The Movie." To make the leap to the big screen, Lee went to Hong Kong, where in 1986 he starred in a Cantonese martial-arts film, "Legacy of Rage," and later teamed with Dolph Lundgren in the 1991 movie "Showdown in Little Tokyo."
Brandon Lee was the only son of Bruce Lee, whose death in 1973 was officially listed as a brain embolism in reaction to a headache tablet ingredient, though the coroner listed it as "death by misadventure." Rumors circulated that drugs or other factors may have been responsible. In May, Universal is scheduled to release "Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story," based on Linda Lee's book, "Bruce Lee: The Man Only I Knew."
Brandon Lee had been approached over the years by producers eager to use his pedigree. But as for portraying his father, he told one interviewer, "It would be just too strange." He had no involvement in the "Dragon" film.
Lee was born in Oakland, Calif., but spent his early years in Hong Kong, where most of his father's best-known movies were made and where Bruce Lee achieved cult status. He grew up on movie sets, and by the time he was able to walk, Brandon Lee was already being trained by his father in the fierce karate chops and lightning-fast kicks that would later become the centerpiece of his acting career as well. He was 8 when his father died.
Bruce Lee's shadow was immense, of course -- the son avoided martial arts studies until he was in his teens. But according to Brandon Lee's publicist, Alan Nierob, "While it was an issue to everyone else, Brandon had dealt with it long ago. He always put his father at a level of achievement beyond reach.
"Brandon had a nice touch for both comedy and drama," Nierob added. "Part of his frustration came from the fact that he was very different from his father. He had spontaneous wit and a great sense of humor and an appeal broader than action-adventures. He was out to establish his own identity."
Part of that identity was Brandon Lee's potential as an Asian American actor poised to break through as a major star. His exotic Eurasian features (his mother was Swedish American) set him up for the kind of matinee idol promotion denied his father, who was born in San Francisco to Chinese parents.
In the '60s, Bruce Lee developed a huge following for his martial arts skills after he developed jeet kune do, a style that simplified and modernized the ancient art of kung fu. He was eventually cast as the chauffeur Kato in the popular TV series "The Green Hornet." But Lee was not even given a chance to read for the lead in the movie "Kung Fu," which he'd helped develop. And so he moved to Hong Kong, where he began a series of martial arts films whose success around the world finally persuaded American producers to bankroll "Enter the Dragon." It opened three weeks after his death.
In a recent interview with Wilmington's Morning Star newspaper, Brandon Lee had talked about his role in "The Crow" as a resurrected rock star.
"I find myself thinking: 'What if I died and had a chance to come back?,' " he said. "So many things seem so trivial and mundane. If you came back, they would seem significant and bittersweet."
Staff writer Kim Masters contributed to this report.