The son of Bruce Lee, Brandon Lee died while performing a stunt gone wrong while filming "The Crow" in March 1993.
In 1993, Brandon Lee was an up-and-coming action star — even though he didn’t want to be.
As the son of the legendary martial artist Bruce Lee, Brandon Lee had been hesitant to follow in his father’s footsteps and wanted to be a dramatic actor instead. But that year, he landed the lead in an action-packed blockbuster. Unfortunately, he was fated to follow his father in more tragic ways too.
Like his father, Bruce Lee’s son died young and in unforeseen circumstances. But Brandon Lee’s death was made all the more tragic by how preventable it was.
On March 31, Lee was shot dead in a scene gone wrong on the set of his upcoming film, The Crow, when his costar fired a prop gun that had a dummy bullet lodged in its chamber. Lee’s death was also an eerie case in which life mirrored art. The scene that killed him was supposed to be the scene in which his character died.
The crew of The Crow had already come to believe that their endeavor was cursed. On the very first day of filming, a carpenter was nearly electrocuted. Later, a construction worker accidentally drove a screwdriver through his hand and a disgruntled sculptor crashed his car through the studio’s backlot.
Of course, Brandon Lee’s death was by far the worst omen the crew could have received. Meanwhile, rumors swirled that the bullet was purposefully placed inside the prop gun.
Besides having lived like his father as an action star, Lee died like his father — horribly soon.
Brandon Lee’s Childhood As The Son Of Bruce Lee
Brandon Lee was born on February 1, 1965, in Oakland, California. By this time, Bruce Lee had graduated from the University of Washington and opened a martial arts school in Seattle.
Lee was just one when his father scored his breakout role as “Kato” in The Green Hornet and the family moved to Los Angeles.
Because Bruce Lee had spent his youth in Hong Kong, he was eager to share that experience with his son and so the family moved there briefly. But Bruce Lee’s career teaching martial arts to private clients like Steve McQueen and Sharon Tate took off, and he went on to star in iconic movies like The Way of the Dragon.
But then on July 20, 1973, eight-year-old Brandon Lee became fatherless when Bruce Lee died suddenly at just 32. He had a cerebral edema.
The family moved back to Seattle and Lee became somewhat of a troublemaker for a time. He dropped out of high school and then went on to shoot his first film in Hong Kong. But Lee had no interest in the kind of action films his father had done. He wanted to do more dramatic work and hoped that a stint in blockbusters could transition him into more serious roles.
After working on projects like Kung Fu: The Movie and Rapid Fire, producers noticed Brandon Lee’s talent and gave him the role that would have truly kickstarted his career.
Unfortunately, it was the role that took his life, too.
The Tragic Death Of Brandon Lee
The role was to star in the action film The Crow as Eric Draven, a murdered rockstar who returns from the dead to exact revenge on the gang that killed him and his girlfriend. Since the character’s death is pivotal to his arc in the movie, the scene in which he dies was saved for the latter part of the production. But it would end in Brandon Lee’s actual demise.
The scene was supposed to be simple: director Alex Proyas intended for Lee to walk through a doorway carrying a grocery bag and costar Michael Massee would fire blanks at him from 15 feet away. Lee would then flip a switch fitted to the bag which would activate “squibs” (which are essentially small fireworks) that then simulated bloody bullet wounds.
“It wasn’t the first time they tried the scene,” a police spokesperson said after the event. The gun had been made specially by the props team to simulate realistic rounds, but on that fateful night in March, it was loaded with a dummy bullet from a previous scene.
The gun was only supposed to fire blanks, but that dummy bullet had become lodged inside without anyone noticing. Even though it wasn’t a real bullet, the force with which the dummy was unlodged was comparable to that of a real one. When Massee fired, unknowingly, Lee was struck in the stomach and two arteries were immediately severed.
Lee collapsed on set and was rushed to the hospital. He was in surgery for six hours, but to no avail. He died at 1:04 PM on March 31, 1993.
Authorities treated the incident as an accident.
Authorities Investigate The ‘Accidental Shooting’ On The Crow That Killed Brandon Lee
Police initially believed that the squibs rigged on to Lee’s person had caused his wounds. “When the other actor fired a shot, the explosive charge went off inside the bag,” said officer Michael Overton. “After that, we don’t know what happened.”
But the doctor who performed emergency surgery on Lee vehemently disagreed with this account. Dr. Warren W. McMurry of the New Hanover Regional Medical Center in North Carolina, where Brandon Lee died, concluded that the fatal injuries were consistent with a bullet wound. “I felt that that was what we were most likely dealing with,” he said.
Indeed, even professionals in the industry, like Bruce Lee’s close friend John Soet, were unconvinced that a squib charge could do such damage.
“I’ve worked in films and directed a few low-budget features,” he said. “As powerful as squibs are, I can’t recall a single incident where anyone was injured by them. Generally, they are pretty powerful. They do carry a hefty explosive charge. If you are not well-padded, you can get a bruise.”
Dr. McMurry added that he saw no signs indicative of an explosion and that the entry wound was the size of a silver dollar.
According to Dr. McMurry, the projectile had made a straightforward path to Lee’s spine where X-rays indeed showed a lodged metal object. The Wilmington Police Department consequently classified the incident as an “accidental shooting.”
Production on the $14 million action-adventure was scheduled to wrap eight days later, but Proyas immediately suspended filming and resumed with a stand-in for Lee months later.
What Happened After The Death Of Bruce Lee’s Son?
“He didn’t want to step in his father’s footsteps,” said friend and screenwriter Lee Lankford of Brandon Lee. “Eventually, he gave up to be an action star like his father. They were grooming Brandon to be a big star.”
Lankford added that Lee was a “wild and weird” friend. Instead of knocking, “he would climb up the wall of your house and go in through your window just for the fun of it.”
Lee and his fiancé Eliza Hutton were set to marry in Mexico two weeks from his death. Instead, she rushed to be by his side as he died in the hospital.
Even though police concluded that Brandon Lee’s death was an accident, there are theories that Lee was intentionally killed. When Lee’s father died, similar rumors posited that the Chinese mafia had orchestrated the incident. These rumors remain just that.
Another rumor that has persisted is that the crew used the scene in which Lee died in the actual movie. This is false. Instead, CGI was used to help complete the film.
Meanwhile, the actor who fired the fatal shot would never truly recover.
“It absolutely wasn’t supposed to happen,” Massee said in a 2005 interview. It was the first time he publicly spoke about the incident.
“I wasn’t even supposed to be handling the gun until we started shooting the scene and the director changed it.” Massee continued. “I just took a year off and I went back to New York and didn’t do anything. I didn’t work. What happened to Brandon was a tragic accident… I don’t think you ever get over something like that.”
The Crow went on to be a commercial success and is considered today to be a cult classic. It was released two months after Brandon Lee’s death and a dedication to him was made in the credits.