The summer movie season is upon us, which means glorious, over-the-top, shoot’em up, blow’em up action movies that — oh, that’s right, Hollywood has come to a screeching halt because of the pandemic. The likelihood of any summer blockbuster action movies actually hitting theaters this year, then, is pretty slim, so we’ll just have to wait until next summer to watch Tom Cruise leap out of a space station or Vin Diesel jump a Lambo over a minefield.
This does provide an ample opportunity, however, to look back at some great movies of the past that featured harrowing stunts performed by the actors themselves. While stuntmen and women are often called upon to perform dangerous on-screen maneuvers, some actors who are truly committed to their craft like to perform their own stunts. And occasionally, those stunts go horribly wrong and result in injuries that involve dislocated spinal discs or skull fractures.
So break out the ice packs and bandages, because it’s about to get bloody around here as we look at the worst of the worst injuries actors have incurred performing their own stunts…
Charlize Theron — Herniated Disc
Theron has demonstrated in multiple films that she has what it takes to kick some bad guy ass, and more than once, she’s paid the price for performing her own stunts. Theron shared her most recent injury while visiting Jimmy Kimmel Live! in 2019, saying she “tore a ligament off the bone (of her thumb) fighting a very big guy.” Just a few years earlier, Theron cracked two of her teeth while training for fight scenes in Atomic Blonde.
As unpleasant as those injuries probably were, they don’t sound so bad compared to the injury Theron sustained while filming 2005’s Æon Flux. A mere 10 days into the shoot, she was out of commission after performing a backflip and landing on her neck. The crunch left Theron with a herniated disc and, for a time, doctors were worried she might have long-term limited mobility. “That injury scared me — I was almost paralyzed,” Theron told Total Film (via Express).
Back injuries are one of the most painful kinds of injuries and, understandably, it made Theron think twice about the types of stunts she would perform moving forward. “I’ve definitely come to a place in my career where I would be the first to say, without feeling guilty or not badass enough, ‘You know what? I don’t need to do this,’” she told Total Film. Good call!
Bruce Willis — Permanent Hearing Loss
One doesn’t simply sign on to do a movie called Die Hard and escape without some sort of injury. Even though the action classic used 37 stuntmen, Willis still sustained an injury that he would have to live with from that point on. Oddly enough, it wasn’t John McClane’s roof jump that injured the actor, but the near non-stop amount of machine gun fire.
Because one of those guns was fired too close to the actor’s ear, Willis told The Guardian that he lost two-thirds of his hearing in his left ear. Sure, it might not be as bloody as some of the other injuries on Hollywood sets, but most people would probably take a few stitches over going deaf any day.
Willis’ daughter, Rumer, has said that this is exactly why, when the actor does talk show appearances, he’s not especially chatty — it’s not that he’s trying to be rude, he just can’t hear Jimmy Fallon’s goofy questions because he’s deaf from killing German terrorists three decades ago.
Jaimie Alexander — 11 Chipped Vertebrae
Sometimes it’s a fight scene or pyrotechnic stunt that results in an actor having to visit the emergency room — other times it’s something ridiculously mundane. Case in point: Alexander, who didn’t hurt herself filming Thor: The Dark World by riding into battle with the God of Thunder, but merely by walking downstairs.
Alexander explained that she was walking down a metal staircase on the film’s set that had gotten wet in the rain when she slipped. The tumble resulted in a number of injuries including a slipped disc, shoulder dislocation, torn rhomboid muscle in her back and the real doozy — 11 chipped vertebrae.
Amazingly enough, the tumble only put Alexander out of commission for a month before she was back on set, helping Thor save the universe.
Margaret Hamilton — Hand and Facial Burns
If you haven’t seen The Wizard of Oz since childhood, let us refresh your memory: The Wicked Witch of the West doesn’t handle water especially well. While a glass of water may have been all it took for Dorothy to end her wicked bully, fire was a much greater danger on set for Hamilton, who played the witch.
The Wizard of Oz was groundbreaking in regards to its special effects when it was released and pyrotechnics played a significant role. In one particular scene, the witch was to exit Munchkinland in a cloud of smoke, followed by a fireball. That’s pretty badass for 1939. But as told by Narratively, Hamilton was supposed to fall through a trapdoor with the pyro kicking on once she was out of harm’s way. In one take, though, Hamilton wasn’t yet through the trapdoor before the fire ignited and her face and hands were badly burned as a result.
To make matters worse, crew members had to use rubbing alcohol to quickly remove the copper based-makeup so that it didn’t get into her bloodstream and poison her. The combination of alcohol on burned flesh was undoubtedly incredibly painful, and when Hamilton returned to the set six weeks later, she wore green gloves on her hands, rather than makeup, for the remainder of filming.
Harrison Ford — Multiple Leg Fractures
Ford managed to make it through the three Indiana Jones movies in the 1980s without being crushed by a bolder (barely), run over by a tank or putting his eye out with a bullwhip. This doesn’t mean, though, that Indy escaped injury completely.
During the filming of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Ford had to take a break from the set and fly back to L.A. for surgery after a rupturing disc in his back. Ford didn’t say exactly what the stunt was that caused the injury, but he told The New York Times in 1984 that he blamed the elephants. Indiana Jones climbing off an elephant and yelling, “Oww! My Back!” isn’t the most exciting story, but hey, that’s Hollywood stunt work.
Ford’s worst on-set stunt, though, would come decades later when reprising his role as Han Solo for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. According to The Guardian, Ford walked under the door of his trusty old spaceship, the Millennium Falcon, when the hydraulic door — which weighed the same as a small car — pinned him to the ground and nearly crushed him to death.
Ford was lucky enough to get out with only two broken bones in his leg — had somebody not quickly hit the door’s emergency stop button, Han Solo could have been down for the count before ever reuniting with Kylo Ren.
Tom Cruise — Broken Ankle
If Cruise’s ramblings on Scientology weren’t enough to convince you that maybe he’s got a few loose marbles, listening to him talk about his stunts should remove any doubt. “It was a little intense,” the actor told Jimmy Fallon while recounting hanging off the side of an Airbus for Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation.
Surprisingly, Cruise’s penchant for doing his own stunts hasn’t resulted in a particularly lengthy resume of broken bones and flesh wounds. The actor did suffer from a swollen foot while filming a fight scene for Jack Reacher; however, it was from kicking a guy in the crotch too many times, so it’s the other poor guy who probably deserves sympathy more than Cruise.
Cruise’s nastiest injury took place fairly recently while filming a scene for Mission Impossible: Fallout that had him leaping from one roof to another. Spoiler alert: He didn’t quite make it. While Cruise only suffered a broken ankle, the slow-mo footage of his foot hitting the side of the building and bending like a piece of taffy is particularly cringe-inducing.
Fifty bucks says Cruise doesn’t make it back from outer space without hurting himself.
Ben Stiller — Possible Rabies
Stiller belongs in an action movie about as much as Arnold Schwarzenegger belongs in a production of Swan Lake (Tropic Thunder being the obvious exception). But that doesn’t mean the guy can’t perform his own rom-com stunts, and on one occasion, such a “stunt” went horribly wrong.
During the final scene of 2004’s Along Came Polly, Stiller’s character is chasing after his love interest (Jennifer Aniston) while holding her pet ferret in his hands. Perhaps the ferret was just regretting its showbiz career that day, because it flipped out on Stiller.
“He did this crazy turn around thing and he literally attached himself to my chin and then he didn’t let go,” Stiller told The Age. The actor swore that he didn’t provoke the creature, but said the entire thing was a “horrible experience” that resulted in him having to get a series of rabies shots. “Their teeth are sharp, like razors. I mean they’re rat-like creatures,” Stiller added.
Maybe a ferret attack isn’t quite as harrowing as being set on fire, but it is a great reminder that adopting a dog is always a better decision than adopting a weasel.
Sylvester Stallone — Swollen Pericardial Sac and Spinal Injury
Stallone really needs to stop doing action movies. And that’s not a dig at his movies — it’s concern for the guy’s overall health. Stallone’s history of movie injuries started with the first Rambo movie, First Blood, when he jumped down a cliff and used a tree to break his fall. That resulted in several broken ribs, and things only got crazier from there.
Stallone’s worst movie stunt injury, well, that’s a toss-up between Rocky IV and the first Expendables film. In Rocky IV, Stallone wanted his fight with actor Dolph Lundgren to look as real as possible and told Lundgren to knock him out; he got his wish. Lundgren punched Stallone so hard in the chest that his pericardial sac, which surrounds your heart, became swollen. Stallone ended up in the intensive care ward of the hospital for several days.
Stallone found himself in real trouble once more while filming The Expendables in 2009. The actor — who was 62 at the time — fell and suffered a fracture in his back. Stallone ended up in the hospital, yet again, and after surgery, now has some metal plates holding his spine together.
Oddly enough, Stallone looks at his injuries and jokes that they’re a “good omen” for his movies. “Every film I’ve done where I got injured has turned out great,” the actor said, before adding, “Ones where I come out unscathed? Disasters.”
Jackie Chan — Multiple Dislocations, Broken Bones, Lacerations and Spinal Injury (Obviously)
Chan might just be the only actor on our list who has lost count of all the injuries they’ve sustained from performing their own stunts. Chan doesn’t have a stuntman, he is the stuntman — with the battle scars to prove it.
There’s a wonderful GIF collection on Imgur of the many injuries Chan has sustained throughout his four decades in the movie business, but the GIF above is a real highlight of pain. It’s from 1985’s Police Story and resulted in a dislocated pelvis, second-degree burns to the palm of his hands and spinal damage. Delightful!
Truthfully, this entire article probably could have been dedicated to Chan’s injuries, but to save a little time, consider these mishaps: a skull fracture while filming The Armour of God; eye injury on the set of Drunken Master; and cervical spine damage after falling from a clock tower in Project A.
As for the worst injury that Chan’s sustained in the movie business, that would be what he described as a “simple stunt” (uh-huh) involving jumping from a slope for 1991’s Armour of God II. Not so simply, the martial arts star ended up in the hospital requiring brain surgery and now has a metal plate in his head.