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COVER STORY : In the Line of Duty : As stunts become more and more spectacular, safety concerns are a top priority. Then why are so many stunt men and women injured, and even killed, on film sets?

FIRST OF TWO PARTS: In Monday's Calendar, the world of the stunt performers, their unofficial creed, the dangers they face.

February 18, 1996|Sharon Bernstein and Robert W. Welkos | Sharon Bernstein and Robert W. Welkos are Times staff writers

Janet Wilder grabbed her husband's hand and waited.

A December wind was kicking up, and the waters of Florida's Goodland Bay were getting choppy. Offshore, Tony Brubaker maneuvered the twin-engine Ranger outboard into position and began to put on speed, heading in the direction of Wilder and her husband, Scott, a veteran stuntman.

The Ranger was supposed to soar off a stunt ramp placed in the water and land near the Wilders.

But something went wrong. The boat bounced off the ramp, flew at a wild angle through a cluster of mangroves and, less than a second later, struck Janet Wilder in the head.

The 29-year-old Woodland Hills woman died in her husband's arms.

Wilder was at least the fourth person to die for Hollywood in 1995, after a pilot, a cameraman and a crew member. In California alone, 18 people lost their lives and many more were injured filming movies, television shows and commercials from mid-1990 through mid-1995, according to state figures. One of those hurt was a 10-year-old boy.

Government statistics do not differentiate between stunt injuries and other types of workplace accidents in the film industry. However, say officials at the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the motion picture industry has a good overall record, with an injury rate of just 2.9% in 1994. By comparison, the injury rate for all private industry was 8.4% that year.

But when death and injuries occur on the set itself, the world takes notice.

A year before Janet Wilder was killed on the set of the Walt Disney Co. film "Gone Fishin'," the stunt community grieved for another of its members.

Sonja Davis, a rising stuntwoman who regularly doubled for Angela Bassett, had confided to her mother and a close friend that she had a bad feeling about a high fall she was to perform in Paramount Pictures' "Vampire in Brooklyn."

As her mother prayed and her brother trained a video camera on her figure high above, Davis clung to the side of an old apartment building near downtown Los Angeles.

In the gathering darkness, with special-effects smoke swirling around her, Davis performed what stunt actors call a "backward high fall" into an alley. She plunged 47 feet, hit her head and died nearly two weeks later.

*

Since the days when Lillian Gish was sent floating on an ice floe and the Keystone Kops overturned their first car, filmmakers have always pushed the envelope, striving for bigger and more daring stunts.

"When I'm writing an action piece, I try to find something I haven't seen before--that is outrageous," said director James Cameron, whose credits include "True Lies" and "The Terminator."

In the latest James Bond film, "GoldenEye," a stuntman staged a 700-foot bungee jump off a dam. In 1993's "Cliffhanger," a stuntman climbed out of a DC-9 jet at 15,000 feet and slid on a rope to a small jet trailing behind. In "First Knight," two stuntmen leaped 90 feet off a cliff into the water below, clearing an underwater shelf by just 18 inches.

These spectacular stunts were well rehearsed and performed with split-second precision. But while safety is being stressed more than ever, directors and performers agree there are no guarantees that tragedy won't befall a production.

Horses fall. Wires break. Explosions are set off too soon.

Just this month in Rome, stuntman Tom Lucy, who was set on fire for a scene in the upcoming Sylvester Stallone movie "Daylight," barely escaped serious injury when the flames burned too hot.

When tragedy does strike, the industry mourns, but work continues. Shooting resumed in Florida on "Gone Fishin,' " for example, the morning after the Dec. 19 accident.

For the studios, death and injury are a cost of doing business.

For the stunt performers, it is more than that. They live by a strong creed of individual responsibility. Each person is responsible for his own stunt--and therefore his own life.

But at the end of the 20th century, is it really necessary to have human beings leaping through glass and setting themselves on fire to titillate audiences in a darkened theater? Do producers and directors really need to outdo themselves with every movie? Are the risks too great to put a life on the line for Hollywood?

That question haunts Carmel Kinnear every day.

Her husband, British comic actor Roy Kinnear, died as a result of injuries suffered in a horse fall while filming "The Return of the Musketeers" in 1988. He hadn't ridden a horse in 15 years--since the first "Three Musketeers" film in that series.

"I don't suppose they'll want me to do any [riding] this time," his wife recalled the heavyset actor telling her. "We're all 15 years older."

But at the last minute, Kinnear, who was expecting a stunt double to substitute for him, was asked to ride.

"Oh, gosh, darling," he wrote to his wife, "I've been called on to do a stunt."

And during a gallop over a cobblestone bridge near Toledo, Spain, his horse lost its footing, sending Kinnear sprawling. The actor died the next day of internal bleeding.

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