“I don’t think it’s anything to be proud of, being hurt,” says Amazing Spider-Man stunt coordinator Andy Armstrong. “It’s invariably a mistake, something gone wrong, a miscalculation.” And most of the time Hollywood’s top stunt men nail the ever-more-intense action sequences that pack thrill seekers into theaters every summer. But sometimes things do go wrong, and when you’re, say, driving an airborne car that’s rigged to explode, the consequences can be devastating. We asked a bunch of prominent stunt pros about their most brutal accidents.
Andy Armstrong (The Amazing Spider-Man, Planet of the Apes, Thor)
Armstrong broke his back in five places while shooting “a silly truck commercial” for Mazda in 1998. “I jumped a truck [off a ramp] and had a miscalculation where I landed very badly,” he says. “It was very, very scary when I landed. I was in the air long enough before I hit the ground to have two thoughts. The first was ‘This is going to hurt.’ And the second was ‘Wow, maybe this won’t hurt. Maybe this will be the big one.’ Maybe it will be, you know, fade to black.”
Then he hit the ground. “There was excruciating pain,” he says. “The first thing I did was wiggle my toes, so I realized I hadn’t severed the spinal cord. But I knew I was in bad shape. I made sure I got myself out of the car and got down. While I was laying on the ground I handed my wig to another driver and said, ‘I think you’ll be finishing the day out, because I’m off to hospital.’ But you learn from these things. The bad thing is to do something like that and not learn anything from it.”
NEXT: Bourne Legacy‘s Dan Bradley gets burned in an exploding car
While doing stunts for a small 1992 movie called Boris and Natasha, Bradley got trapped during a botched car explosion. “I spent a month in a burn ward,” he says. “I lost more skin than you’re supposed to. I wound up doing the whole skin grafts and all that fun stuff. I was driving a car, and it [was rigged to explode] into many different pieces. There were some problems with the effects rig, and when I hit the button, it was a tremendous explosion; it felt like someone just kicked you in the chest. And then within seconds, the fire was just on me. It was supposed to stay beyond this barrier that had been constructed, but the barrier failed almost instantly. I drove for like 10 seconds and hit my mark and turned the corner. And it took about 8 seconds to get out because of the debris that kept me from easily getting out. I wasn’t pinned for that long, but I was in there long enough for it to burn through a four-layer Kevlar full-immersion fire suit. I grabbed the thing that was pinning my legs, and as I pulled on it I could feel my hands burning. Then I suddenly felt on my wrists and forearms this searing pain, and then it didn’t hurt at all anymore. I was like, ‘Okay, that’s third degree.’ I knew instantly that I had suffered a really serious burn. Then I basically dove for the door and my feet popped loose, and I was able to scramble away.”
It was the kind of accident that might make you reconsider your career. “It messed with my head when I was in the hospital wondering if I ever wanted to do this again,” says Bradley. “By the time I was out, I really missed it. I didn’t work for, like, 10 months. [Because of the accident] I’ve become more involved in dealing with the way things are rigged. I didn’t just accept a rig from another department. I was kind of insistent to the point where I now have a little bit of a reputation for being very demanding. I’m very proud of my safety record. I learned from [the accident], and I’m very insistent on keeping people safe and have pioneered techniques and technologies to make things exciting, but make them safer.”
NEXT: The Dark Knight Rises‘ Tom Struthers gets knocked off a horse by a shotgun blast
Struthers’ worst injury came on the set of the 1999 movie The Mummy. He was supposed to get knocked off a horse by a shotgun-wielding actress. “She theoretically shoots me and I get blown off the back of the horse,” he says. “I was supposed to hit a wall. I hit the wall wrong. I didn’t hit the area that was padded. I smashed my elbow. I fractured it pretty badly. My arm’s not quite straight now.”
But Struthers is eager to point out how rare such injuries actually are in his line of work. “As a stunt performer, we push the limits,” he says. “If you work 48 weeks a year like I was doing, the odds slowly get closer and closer that you could injure yourself. It’s a risk what you do. You do get those butterflies, you do get that adrenaline. When they say, ‘Stand by, roll camera,’ you do think, ‘Ooh, sometimes I wonder why I’m here.’ But I’m there because I like to perform, I like to do things a little outside the normal day-to-day life. I love the excitement of the job. We rehearse things and work at it very hard. We’re here to create an illusion [on screen]. The illusion is we get hurt, we get killed, we get banged around. But we have to do it day after day after day. We have to give that illusion rather than get knocked around and then we don’t work for three weeks. We couldn’t afford to live like that. At the level that we work, it is a very professional job.”
NEXT: The Avengers‘ R.A. Rondell dislocates both shoulders.
Rondell crashed a motorcycle while shooting the 1979 David Carradine motorcycle movie Fast Charlie…The Moonbeam Rider. “I dislocated both shoulders,” he says. “It was the first movie I ever coordinated. I got it because of my motorcycle background, but there were certain things I didn’t really know how to set up. It was trial and error. I’ve done the same gag several times since without any problems.”
Otherwise, Rondell has managed to escape serious injury. “I’ve been very fortunate,” he says. “I’ve got my slight concussions and bruises and sprains, but I’ve never really had any big broken bones or anything. I know quite a few that can’t claim the same. And there’s also fatalities. That’s something we live with day in and day out. Not to be melodramatic or anything — it’s what we’ve accepted as far as the job description. That doesn’t mean that we’re going to go out there and test fate all the time. It’s a calculated risk, but it is a risk nonetheless. That kind of s— happens. You’ve just gotta carry on, or it’s not the job you should be doing. We’re not all fatalists, like, ‘I’m going to just throw myself into the fire and hope for the best.’ But stuff does happen. You plan everything out the best that you can. [When you’re about to do a stunt] you’re very focused. You start tasting a little bit of that bittersweet bile in the back of your mouth, because things are real, and it’s time to go. And you do your gig, and you walk away from it, hopefully. And you have a laugh. You know, we’re all adrenaline junkies. What can I tell you?”
For more on summer’s (real) action heroes, check out this week’s issue of EW.
Rob on Twitter: @RobBrunnerEW