Shooting Star : The death of Brandon Lee

7 Jul
March 31, 2013 will mark the 20th anniversary of Brandon Lee’s passing. What really happened that fatal night, and how did this event shape the cast and crew of this now cult film?  Samantha Malagre reports on the facts behind his death and the enduring legacy he left behind. 

It was 50 of a 58 day shoot, and the crew was ready for murder.

When Australian director, Alex Proyas yelled CUT! on the set of The Crow in Wilmington, North Carolina on March 31, 1993, it was already half past MIDNIGHT, an hour behind schedule. And for a moment, the film’s leading man, 28 year-old Brandon Lee was thought to be playing a practical joke. However, his motionless body told another story – something was wrong, very, very wrong.

“Brandon, are you okay?,” asked on-set medic Clyde Baisey.

But Brandon didn’t respond.

Alex Proyas, director of The Crow, with Brandon Lee. Jan, 1993.

Alex Proyas, director of The Crow, with Brandon Lee. Jan, 1993.

Only minutes earlier, Lee had been in good spirits as he looked forward to the very last night of the action sequences in the film. The scene promised to be easy enough; a flashback death scene of the main character Eric Draven, played by Lee, and that of his girlfriend. Out of the nine sequences on the schedule that evening, this scene was the shortest.

The set for the night’s events was a large loft, equipped with industrial-style support beams, and hard wooden floors. Standing at the entrance of the set door, Lee looked the part; dressed in black leather jacket, tight corduroys, black boots – which were tapped down tight against his legs to give him a sleeker look, and a white T-shirt with the name of his character’s fictional band “HANGMAN’S JOKE” in block letters.

Nothing looked out of the ordinary.

While waiting for the rehearsal, Lee chatted with his friend and The Crow’s wardrobe designer, Arianne Phillips. Lee’s thoughts were not on the evening’s shooting, but on his wedding due to take place in less than two weeks to Eliza Hutton, his long-term girlfriend to whom he was due to marry the following month.

“He was so excited,” recalls Arianne Phillips, who had fitted Lee for his Armani wedding tuxedo only days earlier. “I remember him telling me how we were getting to Mexico and saying that we would start the party on the bus.”

The Crow was to be Brandon Lee’s breakthrough film, the story of man who comes back from the dead to avenge his and his true love’s death. The role, based on a comic book of the same name, appealed to the romantic in Lee. The part of Eric Draven was not Hamlet (something Lee had an ambition to play), but it was the closest thing to a dramatic role that the young actor had the opportunity to do on film.

As the only son of Kung Fu legend Bruce Lee, who died in 1973 of a brain edema when Brandon Lee was eight, his path to Hollywood stardom was not paved with gold. After studying theater arts at Emerson College in Boston, Lee maintained his study with weekly acting classes as he struggled to be accepted as a dramatic actor on his own terms. Bit parts in low budget action films eventually graduated into a martial arts film career, which is something Lee never wanted.

“I wanted to do Mean Streets, not Enter The Dragon,” Lee told Empire Magazine in 1992.

Brandon during an acting workshop at Lake Arrowhead.

Brandon during an acting workshop in the mid-80’s.

For years, Lee had a reputation for being arrogant, angry and somewhat reckless, he later described these traits masked the “hopeless unhappiness” he felt trying to be his own man, whilst living in the shadow of his famous father. After a few moderately successful action films, he signed to a number of studios including, 20 Century Fox and Carolco for three-picture deals.

Brandon Lee seemed on his way to achieving his acting dream.

His personal life also was looking more promising. In 1990, while meeting with Director Renny Harlin, he was introduced to Harlin’s assistant, Eliza “Lisa” Hutton. The confirmed bachelor who “never was getting married” suddenly found himself for the first time wanting to spend his time with one woman. Eventually the pair would become engaged in 1992. Hutton was described by Lee to visiting journalists as “my whole life” just 5 days before he died.

By 1992, Lee was being billed as a star in the making, and he was represented by the best people in the business. With his good Eurasian looks, chiseled jaw lines and his friendly disposition, he was the package that the producers of The Crow were looking for – at a fraction of the cost.

After reading the script for The Crow, Lee enthusiastically coveted the role of Eric Draven, telling his manager, Jan McCormack, “you have to get me this part.”

It was supposed to be the start of bigger things for Brandon Lee, not the end.

A nature lover

Brandon taken during a publicity photo shoot for Rapid Fire, 1992.

The Crow started principle filming at Carolco Studios on February 1, 1993, Brandon’s 28th birthday, and it wasn’t long before the penning-pinching oversights on the $14 million production started to be plagued by mishaps. Within weeks of the production, a stuntman accidentally fell through a roof breaking several ribs, a carpenter was electrocuted, and an unexplained fire almost destroyed one of the backlots, just to name a few of the mistakes.

Despite the problems on the set, Brandon Lee forged ahead giving his all to the role he felt would help define his career. A daily routine of three hours of make-up transformed the upbeat Lee into the brooding and menacing avenger. Some scenes on The Crow called for Lee to be barefoot in almost freezing temperatures, all which he did without complaint, impressing even the most veteran of actors with his positive attitude and professionalism.

“When I think back, I can remember how Brandon worked so incredibly hard. He worked his butt off in the freezing cold and rain,” says Lee’s co-star Ernie Hudson.

The grueling schedule on The Crow started taking its toll on Lee; there were days when he worked 19 hours straight, and fatigue and insomnia had set in. While Brandon Lee was naturally optimistic and friendly, the lack of sleep and depressing conditions on set forced him to take a closer look at the “sub-human” conditions that people were being forced to work.

On Saturday March 28, 1993, four days before he died, Lee lodged a formal complaint to his agent, Mike Simpson and manager, Jan McCormack, which was sent to producer, Bob Rosen. Rosen’s response was less than comforting, informing them that he didn’t care what they had to do to finish the role. McCormack’s last words to Rosen later became prophetic, “you guys are killing Brandon down there.”

Working extra hours on film sets is not unusual, says Mike Simpson, Lee’s then-agent at the influential William Morris Agency. But even he found this excessive when he visited the set several weeks into production.

“Actors are meant to get a certain amount of downtime between rapping one scene and starting the next. There are provisions for violating that; you pay a fine, which is called a force call payment,” explains Mike Simpson.

“But there can also be a limit on how many forced calls per week you can have and they were violating it, cutting corners.”

What Brandon Lee didn’t know that night was that the weapon actor Michael Massee was using had been loaded with a lethal charge.

Two weeks earlier, Prop Master, Daniel Kuttner, needed some dummy bullets for the 2nd unit crew to film a close up of the gun cylinder, but realizing there was no money in the budget for new dummy bullets, the unit decided to make their own using live ammunition. Kuttner (who had no prior knowledge of firearms) with Special Effects man, Bruce Merlin (who did have some knowledge), used bullets that had been originally accidentally been purchased when they were finding props for Gideon’s pawn shop set, which were then removed by Jeff Imada. After realizing that there was no more money in the budget to buy film blank supplies, Kuttner and Merlin removed the gun powder, then crimped together the bullets using hot glue. Later when the 2nd crew filmed, those members of the crew (who also had no knowledge of firearms) failed to fire off all the primers, which is the charge of a bullet, when they used the rounds for filming. One primer, for instance, had not discharged properly leaving a piece of the lead tip of the bullet with a primer in the barrel of the weapon. When the gun was needed for the fatal scene, it was re-loaded with blanks (which are harmless show bullets without any charge), causing a lethal charge that had the force of a real .44 bullet.

“It’s was actually worse than a real bullet,” says Mike Simpson, a native of Texas, who undertook his own investigation into the accident on behalf of Brandon’s fiancee and reps. “It was like two bullets firing at the same time.”

Where Carolco Studios, now GEM in Wilmington, North Carolina.

Carolco Studios, now GEM in Wilmington, North Carolina, where The Crow was filmed.

Simply, the accident could have been avoided. Actions like cleaning the gun between the dummy and blank firing could have saved Lee’s life weeks before the accident.

When Brandon Lee was shot he fell backwards and not forwards as he had rehearsed. He landed against a thick wooden door; the only exit door on that set, however, due to the force of the fall he ended up in a sitting up position. Stunt Coordinator, Jeff Imada, made his way to Brandon, initially because he suspected “that something catastrophic had happened” and stayed by Lee’s side, assisting medic, Clyde Baisey as best he could. As the set was cleared, crew members were forced to file past the barely conscious actor. The grocery bag Lee was carrying, which was rigged with squibs (a fake explosive charge), detonated, exploding the milk container and a blood pack. The effect ripped through the brown paper bag leaving a hole.

Due to the mess, Baisey found it difficult to know where the injury was coming from. They were running out of time to save Brandon’s life.

“It wasn’t until his abdomen began to swell that I knew that it must be internal bleeding,” says Baisey, who was a registered EMS medic.

Brandon Lee was rushed to the New Hanover Regional Medical Center in Wilmington, N.C, profusely hemorrhaging. After an X-ray, it was determined that some kind of object had lodged itself against his spine, though noone had any idea what that object was. Lee was taken to emergency surgery where doctors attempted to repair the damage to his internal organs. The bullet had severed a major artery, and his blood wouldn’t clot. The blood loss was substantial. With his fiancee, Eliza Hutton, by his side, Lee was pronounced dead at 1:03PM on March 31, 1993 – some 12 hours after being shot.

It was only after the autopsy that they found the object initially suspected as being a squib was actually “what appeared to be a bullet,” said the Wilmington Police Department spokesperson in 1993.

Rumors swirled that it was murder, or that Brandon Lee had been killed by Chinese mafia for sharing martial arts secrets of his father.  But the ballistic reports released several weeks after Lee’s death (which was never appropriately published in the media) confirmed that it had been a modified bullet, rather than a real .44, supporting the police findings.

The modified bullet that killed Lee. Picture credit: Unsolved Mysteries.

The modified bullet that killed Lee. Picture credit: Unsolved Mysteries.

“Somebody really screwed up. At some point, somebody has to take responsible, even if it’s just in their heart,” says co-star, Ernie Hudson.

Brandon Lee’s death was determined by the Wilmington Police to be an accidental death, though a negligent death and no criminal charges were filed. The North Carolina Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) found the production company in violation of several safety laws, fining them $84,000, as did the Actor Guild of America, who also fined them for allowing Massee to fire directly at Lee. Brandon’s mother, Linda Cadwell sued the 14 crew members in civil court who were determined to have been negligent in his death, and settled out of court for an undisclosed amount (rumored to have been $3 Million in 1993).

The Crow finished the few remaining scenes with the help of a stuntman and friend of Brandon’s, Chad Stahelski, who Lee trained with at the Inosanto Academy of Martial Arts in Los Angeles, as well as Lee’s original stunt double, Jeff Cadiente. The film was released to critical acclaim on May 11, 1994 –  grossing $11 Million in its opening weekend.

The fame and kudos though came too late for Lee, who at just 28 years-old had lost the most precious part of this legacy – his life. The devastation his death left behind can still be felt by those who loved and were loved by him in return.

Brandon with his fiancee, Eliza (Lisa) Hutton.

Brandon with his fiancee, Eliza (Lisa) Hutton.

Brandon’s fiancee Eliza Hutton, who was just 18 days away from marrying him, has never publicly spoken about her pain; even after 20 years the wound is still too deep. The affect of his death on her life has been significant. The Crow is dedicated to the couple, who for many on the film, exemplified the true love story they all were trying to capture on-screen.

There often is criticism as to why many haven’t spoken at length about Brandon. It should be noted that like Eliza Hutton many of Brandon’s close friends prefer to also keep some of their memories private. And there is a beauty in that, considering how much Brandon respected loyalty.

There of course is also value in remembering him, even if only by strangers.

Fans use social media frequently to express their enduring “loss” that Lee’s legacy has largely become overshadowed by his death and Bruce Lee. Over 10,000 signed a petition to get Lee his own STAR on The Hollywood Walk of Fame.

20 years has transpired since Lee’s death, but the affection or influence that many felt towards Lee has never dimmed. Those who knew him still fondly remember the man that ended up giving his life to a film.

The Crow started filming at Carolco Studios in North Carolina on Feb 1, 1993.

The Crow started filming at Carolco Studios in North Carolina on Feb 1, 1993.

Ernie Hudson, Lee’s co-star on The Crow says he now spends much of his year attending comic conventions, where many fans want to talk about his experience on The Crow and about Brandon Lee.

“He was a nice kid and he was so good in The Crow”, Hudson says, who first met Lee in 1988. “ I tell people that he was a talented actor and decent human being.”

James O’Barr who created the comic ‘The Crow’ admits that he had a “sort of survivor’s guilt” for years afterwards. “I wished I had never created the damn thing,” he says. “But after speaking with Eliza (Brandon Lee’s fiancée) she helped me see that what happened to Brandon wasn’t my fault.”

The Crow has become a cult hit among all age groups, and has especially resonated, says O’Barr, with people dealing with their own grief; something he has struggled with since Lee’s death.

“Moving on is part of death and grief too. You can’t stay in that anger and bitter place forever because that’s not healthy,” says O’Barr.

Brandon Lee is buried next to his father in Seattle, WA. Thousands of fans are reported to visit their graves every year.

Brandon Lee is buried next to his father in Seattle, WA. Thousands of fans are reported to visit their graves every year.

Brandon Lee’s sister, Shannon Lee, who now heads Bruce Lee Enterprises wrote in 2011, “Though I have mixed feelings about the film because of his death, he shined brilliantly and needs to be remembered.”

Jeff Imada, one of Brandon’s best friends, says that his own personal loss is not just because of his 15-year friendship that he shared with Lee.

“There is hardly a time that goes by where I don’t think of Brandon,” he says. “But for the audiences not to see more of this young man’s talent especially when he was just coming into his own is tragic.”

Brandon Lee’s legacy may just be in the lives he touched, many of whom have never forgotten what was lost that cold night in March. The Crow will forever be Lee’s epitaph, a story of a young man in his prime, that audiences will always wonder about and what might have been.

“You were making a film with a star who wasn’t yet a star – it was the weirdest thing,” says director, Alex Proyas.

*An excerpt was published in Film Ink in 2013*


5 Responses to “Shooting Star : The death of Brandon Lee”

  1. Meredith Ohman November 24, 2013 at 6:51 am #

    I’ll appreciate for those who proceed this in future. Many other people will probably be benefited from your writing. Cheers!|

  2. Scott September 17, 2015 at 6:22 pm #

    Wish you could still be here now. You were taken too soon.

    Long live the spirit of the Crow, forever Brandon.

  3. Lisa September 22, 2015 at 6:46 pm #

    awesome article!

  4. Markcrashman May 28, 2016 at 8:39 am #

    Where do I begin ?The beginning I guess would be good.This person who was larger than the characters he portrayed.The one that has stuck with me remember it like it was yesterday the crow.I Guess because Mr Lee was more than convincing,he was Eric Draven.MY wife and I talked about Mr Lee and that movie just the other day.She will not watch that movie again.I believe it scares her.At the Time we saw it the first time she did not feel this way.I do believe that even today no actor could have portrayed that part as well as Mr Lee did.He was a very gifted actor and more than decent human being.I guess I have to ask the question.Is there some reason why no one person or persons was prosecuted in connection with Mr Lee’s Death.If anyone has an answer to the question I would sure like to here it.To the Lee Family and And Mrs Hutton.I never met Brandon,but I can assure you will never forget him.Not because of. Who his father was,not because of what happened to him,But because of who he was.

  5. ibanez08 October 13, 2016 at 7:20 am #

    First, thank you for the article and allowing us to see with our eyes the beauty of who Brandon Bruce Lee was. I want to say that its about time for the world to hear his story as we anxiously await for a star to be placed in his honor of the humanitarian that he was to us all. He continues to inspire us even through his untimely death, there is no question on my mind that he left us grieving and the loss was truly great for many. Great writing thank you.

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