Hollywood stars are frequently rewarded for going through major physical transformations for a role. But some performers take the idea of “method acting” one step too far—endangering their health, sanity, and the safety of others for the sake of an unforgettable performance.
From life-threatening stunts to disturbing roles and cursed movie sets, here are 10 films that nearly—or actually—killed their stars.
1. Isabelle Adjani in Possession
Adjani’s role in this deeply disturbing 1981 horror film by Andrzej Zulawski left her wondering if she would ever recover. The role of Anna is an intense mix of emotional and physical trauma, and features several insane scenes where Adjani looks to be actually physically suffering. One particular scene in a subway tunnel takes the cake as far as is concerned.
She later told a French magazine that it took her years of therapy to recuperate from the character of Anna, and that she would never take another role like it. Though she won a César Award (the French equivalent of an Oscar) for the part, it was obvious that Possession had pushed her to the brink of madness.
2. Brandon Lee in The Crow
Brandon Lee’s accidental death while filming 1993’s The Crow is perhaps one of the most tragic and infamous of all production-related deaths. In the movie, Lee’s character walks into an apartment and finds his girlfriend being raped; he is then shot and killed by one of the rapists. The film’s narrative has the character rise from the dead to avenge his death, as well as the rape and murder of his fiancée.
In a grossly negligent move, the production team had inserted live primer into the gun, unknowingly trapping a live round in the weapon. When the gun went off, its bullet struck Lee in the abdomen. After six hours of surgery, he died. Lee was the son of actor Bruce Lee, who also died a sudden death.
The crew of The Crow was eight days from completing the film. With the support of Lee’s fiancée and his mother, they decided to finish and release the film using stand-ins. It became a huge hit, and gained a cult following in the years that followed.
3. Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight
Ledger’s tragic death at the age of 28 had many wondering if the actor’s dedication to his craft had sent him over the edge. A year before his death, he told The New York Times that his role as the Joker in The Dark Knight had impacted his ability to sleep. “I couldn’t stop thinking,” he said. “My body was exhausted, and my mind was still going.” Journals that the actor kept during production of The Dark Knight revealed an intense character study, filled with disturbing images and a picture of Ledger dressed as the Joker with the words “BYE BYE” scrawled across it. Ledger’s father with a German documentary series, and described his son’s commitment to the role. “He pretty well locked himself up in a hotel room for weeks.”
On January 22, 2008, Ledger’s housekeeper discovered him unresponsive in his Manhattan apartment. An autopsy revealed that Ledger had died from acute intoxication of a cocktail of drugs—mostly sleep aids and prescription painkillers.
4. Christian Bale in The Machinist
Bale’s insane weight loss for this 2004 film, about an industrial worker suffering from insomnia, goes down in history as one of the most dramatic physical transformations of all time in the name of acting.
According to interviews, Bale reportedly subsisted on water, one apple, and one cup of coffee per day (plus the occasional whiskey). Bale lost 62 pounds in four months, getting down to 120 pounds. Apparently, the actor wanted to get down to 99 pounds, but the production’s physician expressly forbade him to lose any more weight, citing health concerns. Amazingly, when The Machinist wrapped, Bale had just six months to bulk up for his role as the caped crusader in ; he put 100 pounds back on by binge eating ice cream and pizza and lifting weights. Suffice to say, do NOT try this body regimen at home: extreme weight fluctuation puts massive strain on your heart, and can even lead to death.
5. Dominique Dunne in Poltergeist
By now you’ve surely read about the Poltergeist curse—the film that allegedly led to the deaths of three of its stars. But the tragic end of actress Dominique Dunne, who played the older sister in the original film, is particularly creepy.
After Dunne’s abusive boyfriend John Sweeney tried to strangle her, Dunne ended the relationship. She was at a friend’s house rehearsing for a miniseries when Sweeney showed up. Dunne and Sweeney went outside to argue, and Dunne’s friend reportedly put on the Poltergeist soundtrack to drown out the noise. What he then failed to hear were Dunne’s screams as Sweeney attacked her. By the time he got outside, Sweeney had strangled Dunne. Several days later, she died. Dunne was buried in Westwood Village Memorial Cemetery. Six years later, her co-star from Poltergeist, Heather O’Rourke, was also buried at Westwood.
Sweeney bizarrely took the stand in his own defense. His lawyers argued there was no premeditation, even though Sweeney had previously tried to kill Dunne. He was eventually convicted of voluntary manslaughter. To the horror of Dunne’s family, he was sentenced to six-and-a-half years in prison, and served only three.
6. Adrien Brody in The Pianist
For his Oscar-winning turn as Holocaust survivor Wladyslaw Szpilman in Roman Polanski’s The Pianist, Adrien Brody shaved 31 pounds off his narrow frame by consuming only two boiled eggs, green tea, and a small piece of chicken and steamed vegetables for six weeks.
Aside from the physical toll, the emotional side of telling Szpilman’s story drove Brody to the outer limits of healthy behavior. “I gave up my apartment, I sold my car, I disconnected my phones, and moved to Europe,” he told . Having lost family in the Holocaust himself, Brody’s dedication to the part was personal. “I couldn’t have acted it without knowing it,” he said. “I’ve experienced loss, I’ve experienced sadness in my life, but I didn’t know the desperation that comes with hunger.”
7. Buddy Ebsen in The Wizard of Oz
Originally cast as the Scarecrow in the 1939 production of The Wizard of Oz starring Judy Garland, Buddy Ebsen switched parts with his co-star Ray Bolger to instead play the Tin Man—Bolger was more attached to the Scarecrow role and wished to play it for personal reasons. As it turns out, Ebsen should’ve stuck with his original part. The aluminum dust in the silver body paint that Ebsen had to wear throughout production was toxic, and Ebsen had a near-fatal allergic reaction.
According to interviews given in a Wizard of Oz documentary, Ebsen claimed no one believed he was sick. Eventually, he dropped out of the performance, handing his axe to actor Jack Haley. Ebsen complained of lung issues until his death, claiming his symptoms were a direct result of the Tin Man body paint and “that damned movie.”
8. Diane Kruger in Inglorious Bastards
Apparently, Quentin Tarantino is a hands-on director. In the scene from Inglorious Basterds in which [SPOILER ALERT] Hans Landa strangles Bridget von Hammersmark to death, Tarantino insisted on doing the scene himself. The hands you see in the finished product are Tarantino’s, not Christoph Waltz’s.
Unfortunately for Kruger, Tarantino went a bit overboard, and she actually . For her part, Kruger took the scene in stride as another weird day at the office, telling Parade: “I get strangled, which was especially weird because you feel it when someone is choking you … I have to say it was very strange being strangled by the director.”
9. Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange
If all those scenes of ultraviolent rehab in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange had you wondering how Malcolm McDowell escaped with his eyes unscathed, well, you’re not alone.
Though McDowell’s eyes were anesthetized during shooting, the clamps were actually attached to his eyelids. They were also being used incorrectly, with McDowell sitting upright rather than lying down. McDowell later said he was in during the entire shoot, suffered temporary blindness as a result of his eyes being forced open for so long, and ended up with a sliced cornea. Turns out those screams weren’t a result of great acting but rather just genuine torture.
10. Vic Morrow, Myca Dinh Le, Renee Shin-Yi Chen in The Twilight Zone: The Movie
While filming The Twilight Zone movie in 1982, actor Vic Morrow and two child actors, Myca Dinh Le and Renee Shin-Yi Chen were killed when a helicopter crashed upon them. Six others were injured in the crash. The on-set deaths were the result of a spectacular sequence in which a helicopter pursued Morrow and the two children from above. Sadly, the pilot got too close to the ground just as a special effect mortar detonated; he lost control, and the helicopter crashed onto Morrow and the two children, killing them.
This tragedy led to some disturbing revelations: child labor laws were in violation, and the production team ignored warnings from fire safety officials that the scene was too dangerous. All four parents of the children were present on set and testified in a criminal and civil suit that followed the accident, resulting in major changes in set safety standards and stunt practices. Morrow reportedly told a friend just before the scene began: “I’ve got to be crazy to do this shot. I should’ve asked for a double.”
Photo credits (in order): Still from "The Crow" via Miramax; Still from "Possession" via Limelight International; Still from "The Crow" via Miramax; Still from "The Dark Knight" via Warner Bros.; Still from "The Machinist" via Paramount Classics; Still from "Poltergeist" via Warner Bros. Ent.; Still from "The Pianist" via Focus Features; Wikipedia (Tin Man); Still from "Inglourious Basterds " via Universal Pictures; Promotional Still from "A Clockwork Orange" via Warner Bros.; Still from "Twilight Zone: The Movie" via Amblin Entertainment