In the aftermath of Thursday’s shooting, Lee’s family offered their support to the families of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins, 42, and director Joel Souza, 48. Hutchins was pronounced dead at a hospital, officials said, while Souza was reportedly released after being treated for his injury.
“Our hearts go out to the family of Halyna Hutchins and to Joel Souza and all involved in the incident on ‘Rust,’ ” the family tweeted from an account dedicated to Lee. “No one should ever be killed by a gun on a film set. Period.”
Lee’s family did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday.
The history of prop guns in film and television productions goes back decades. While prop guns are thought of as a nonfunctional weapon, the term also refers to real guns on TV and film sets that are loaded with blank cartridges, which are essentially modified bullets. There is an ongoing debate in Hollywood over whether they should still be used, with some directors saying computer-generated imagery offers a safer alternative.
Juan Rios, a spokesperson for the Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office, said detectives are investigating what type of projectile discharged from the prop gun used by Baldwin, as well as how many firearms were on the “Rust” set and how they were handled.
A series of on-set deaths from prop guns has left the industry uneasy about the role the guns have during filming. Actor Jon-Erik Hexum died days after accidentally shooting himself in the head with a prop gun on the set of the CBS show “Cover Up” in 1984. Authorities said at the time that Hexum, 26, was pretending to play Russian roulette with a .44 Magnum revolver when the gun fired a blank cartridge that killed him.
That concern has also been felt on film sets outside the United States, including after an incident in Mexico in 2003 in which an actor who said he thought he was handed a prop gun with blanks ended up killing a colleague with a real bullet.
But the story of Lee, the son of a cultural icon, remains perhaps the most notorious cautionary tale of prop guns on film sets.
Lee became interested in acting at an early age, following his famous father as he bounced between movie sets in the United States and Hong Kong. He was just 8 years old when Bruce Lee died in 1973 at the age of 32. His death was officially listed as a brain embolism in reaction to a headache tablet ingredient, though the coroner called it “death by misadventure.”
The year after his father’s death, Lee’s mother brought him to study with Bruce Lee’s protege, according to the Chicago Tribune. The sight of walls covered with photos of his father led a grieving Brandon Lee to burst into tears.
While Lee respected the legacy his father left behind, those closest to him said that he tried hard to not get lost in the long shadow of the martial arts legend when he got into acting.
“He wanted to go out as Brandon Lee. He didn’t want to exploit his father’s name,” Dwight Little, who directed Lee in the 1992 action film “Rapid Fire,” told the Hollywood Reporter in 1993. “He was very devoted to his father’s memory, but he didn’t want to be ‘Little Bruce Lee.’ ”
Although Lee landed film and TV roles early in his career, he had yet to find Hollywood success. (Marvel Comics co-creator Stan Lee reportedly wanted Brandon Lee to play Shang-Chi in a project that never came to be.) His trajectory changed with “Rapid Fire,” which earned more than $14 million at the box office. Though it was largely panned by critics, Lee was a revelation.
He landed the lead role in “The Crow” as Eric Draven, a musician who is raised from the dead by a supernatural crow to help avenge his own death and the rape and murder of his fiancee.
The thriller only had eight days of shooting remaining in Wilmington, N.C., when Lee prepared himself for a scene in which his character is shot and killed by Funboy, played by actor Michael Massee. Before the scene on March 31, 1993, Massee believed the prop gun he was handed was loaded with blanks. Unbeknown to the crew or Massee, the tip of a .44-caliber bullet had become lodged in the barrel of the prop gun weeks before.
In the scene, Lee walks through a doorway and is shot one time by Massee.
After the prop gun was fired, Lee collapsed on the set. The crew initially thought Lee was kidding when he didn’t immediately stand up, but soon realized something had gone terribly wrong when he was breathing heavily and bleeding profusely from the right side of his abdomen, reported author Bridget Baiss in the 2001 book, “The Crow: The Story Behind the Film.”
Lee was rushed to New Hanover Regional Medical Center in Wilmington where he underwent hours of surgery to try to save his life from the real bullet that was lodged near his spine. But it wasn’t enough.
About 12 hours after he was taken to the hospital, Lee was pronounced dead. His death rocked the Lee family and Hollywood.
“I don’t know if our family is cursed, but I am seriously starting to think about it,” Robert Lee, Brandon’s uncle and Bruce’s brother, told the Hollywood Reporter in April 1993. “It seems like a never-ending story.”
After a months-long investigation, Jerry Spivey, the district attorney on the case, announced in September 1993 that he would not bring negligent homicide charges against the film production company, Crowvision. Spivey noted that while negligence was a factor in Brandon Lee’s death, there was no evidence of criminal wrongdoing.
“There’s a part of me that wants to file charges and have a trial,” Spivey said at the time, according to the New York Times. “But from a purely legal point of view, I would not feel comfortable, with the circumstances as I know them to be, charging Crowvision with negligent homicide.”
Linda Lee Cadwell, Lee’s mother, later filed a lawsuit against the company for negligence, which was settled out of court, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Bill Davis, a Georgia-based weapons expert with Tactical Edge Group who has worked on film and television productions, told The Washington Post that there was an increased awareness of safety and demand for armours — those who specialize in firearms on set — after Lee’s death. That urgency eventually fizzled out, he said.
“I had a lot of work for five or six years after Brandon’s death, and then these directors lulled themselves into a false sense of security,” said Davis, who has worked on more than 300 films and TV shows.
Before he died in 2016 at the age of 64, Massee expressed regret for the “tragic accident” that killed Lee.
“It’s something I’m going to live with. … It took me the time it took to be able to not so much put it in perspective but to be able to move on with my life,” he told “Extra” in 2005. “It’s very personal. It’s something that I want to make sure when I work that it’s never repeated.”
When “The Crow” was released in May 1994, the film premiered at No. 1 in the box office and made about $50 million in the United States. Fans and film critics praised Lee in his final performance as well as expressed sadness over what happened. Writing for The Washington Post, Desson Howe observed in May 1994 that Lee “haunts every frame of his final film.”
“The 28-year-old actor’s passing suffuses this scenario, about a murdered rock musician whose ghost wreaks vengeance on his killers, with prescient, touching irony: An otherwise respectable pop noir is transformed into something eerie and deeply compelling,” he wrote.
Roger Ebert, the legendary critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, gave the film 3.5 stars and wrote he was relieved the film was released to show audiences Lee’s talent.
“It is a sad irony that this film is not only the best thing he accomplished, but is actually more of a screen achievement than any of the films of his father, Bruce Lee,” Ebert said at the time. “Both careers seemed cut short just as early potential was being realized.”
Jaclyn Peiser contributed to this report.