Cover Story

The Brief Life and Unnecessary Death of Brandon Lee

The bizarre circumstances surrounding the sudden death of the young star of ''The Crow,'' and the rumors of murder, mistake, and mafia attached to the tradgedy

On the last night of his life, Brandon Lee decided to stop off at Wilmington's Fitness Today health club for a quick workout before heading to Carolco Studios for what promised to be an arduous evening of filming. Lee looked exhausted; in the three months since the 28-year-old actor had arrived in North Carolina to star in The Crow, his punishing schedule had taken a toll. The movie, a bleak, dark action melodrama about a rock musician who returns from the dead to avenge his and his girlfriend's murders, had been a brutal shoot even for an actor in Lee's superb physical condition. Almost all of the filming took place at night, with Lee outdoors and sometimes shirtless and barefoot in subfreezing temperatures. The script called for so much rain that when the skies didn't cooperate, stagehands would turn mechanical rainmakers on the shivering actors. On top of that, the $14 million production had been plagued by a series of freakish incidents that ranged from the near electrocution of a carpenter to a storm that inflicted costly damage on the sets.

The stress of making The Crow had thrown Lee's body clock into havoc; he would wake up at four in the afternoon, work all night, and collapse into bed at 9 a.m., six days a week, ''and on the seventh day,'' he joked, ''I drink.'' His workouts — half an hour or so on the StairMaster, then some light barbells — kept him relaxed without turning him into the kind of muscle-bound action-film actor he detested.

Lewis E. Davis Jr., the health club's owner, walked over to greet the young man.
''You look tired,'' he said. ''How you doing?''
''Great,'' said Lee.
''I thought you'd be gone by now.''
''No,'' said Lee, ''I've got until April 8.''

Lee and Davis chatted a while longer, mostly about the actor's upcoming marriage to Eliza Hutton, a onetime story editor for Kiefer Sutherland's Stillwater Productions, who had been shuttling between L.A. and Wilmington so that the couple could spend time together. Their wedding was to take place April 17 in Mexico, a week after The Crow wrapped. In just a few more days, Lee's work would be done, and the coming week looked to be blessedly easy. Most of the scenes left were flashbacks to happier times for the character Lee was playing — meaning no rain, no freezing outdoors in the middle of the night, and less of the heavy black-and-white death-mask makeup he had to wear for much of the movie. But the shoot awaiting Lee on the night of March 30 promised something more difficult — a scene in which his character was to be gunned down by Funboy, one of The Crow's villains.

After finishing his workout, Lee left Fitness Today and headed to Carolco's soundstage 4. Less than 24 hours later, he was dead. Coroners in Wilmington removed what appeared to be a .44-caliber bullet that had lodged against his spine, then released the body to his family.

Earlier in the making of The Crow, one of Lee's friends had quizzed him about the film's plethora of complex action sequences.

''No, man,'' Lee reassured him. ''Nobody ever gets hurt doin' that stuff. They've worked it out.''

In the week since Brandon Lee's certainty about his own safety was proven tragically wrong, speculation about exactly how he came to be fatally wounded while filming a major motion picture has encompassed everything from a vendetta by the Chinese Mafia to a curse on his late father, the martial-arts star Bruce Lee. But in all likelihood, the cause of Brandon Lee's death is simpler, and so perhaps more horrifying: Somebody made a mistake.

At about 12:30 in the morning on March 31, cameras began to roll on a scene in which Lee's character, Eric, carrying a grocery bag, comes through a door and is shot several times. Alex Proyas, an Australian music-video director making his first American feature, had cameras capturing two different angles on the scene, as well as a video camera recording the action for quick playback. Actor Michael Massee, who played Funboy, was supposed to fire his .44-caliber revolver at Lee from a distance of about 15 feet, at which point Lee would detonate a ''squib'' (a small explosive charge) planted in the grocery bag to simulate the rip-and-shred effect of the bullet. As risky as that may sound, it was nothing compared with a scene that had been filmed just a week earlier in which Lee had been shot — and ''squibbed'' — about 50 times per take. The Crow's special-effects man, J.B. Jones, had years of experience dealing with weapons on the TV series Miami Vice, and stunt coordinator Jeff Imada was also on the soundstage and had attended rehearsals of the scene, offering advice. However, since all the work involving semi-automatic weapons on The Crow had been finished days earlier, the film's weapons specialist had already left the set.

As a crew of between 75 and 100 people looked on, Massee fired the gun, the squib in the grocery bag detonated on cue, and Lee fell to the ground. Not until the scene ended and Lee failed to get up did anyone realize he had been shot. ''It didn't really appear to the people on the set like anything was wrong,'' said one eyewitness.

What the cast and crew of The Crow saw soon enough was that Lee was bleeding profusely from the right side of his abdomen. An ambulance was called, and emergency medical technicians raced the unconscious actor to Wilmington's New Hanover Regional Medical Center. When he was brought in shortly after 1 a.m., doctors discovered a silver-dollar-size entry wound in his stomach, stabilized him ''as best as possible,'' and rushed him into an operating room. During the five hours Lee was on the table, surgeons tried to repair extensive vascular and intestinal damage and stem bleeding that was so severe that Lee was eventually transfused with 60 pints of blood — the equivalent of a full supply for five grown men.

Lee's fiancee had flown to Wilmington as soon as she heard of the shooting. By the time she reached the hospital, Lee had been moved to the Trauma-Neuro Intensive Care Unit. He never awakened. With Hutton at his side, Lee died at 1:04 p.m. According to a source, the cause of death was disseminated intravascular coagulopathy — put more simply, unstoppable internal hemorrhaging caused by the blood's failure to clot.

Within hours of Lee's shooting, an astonishing array of rumors — many of which had lain dormant since Bruce Lee's mysterious death from a brain edema in 1973 — were breathlessly revived and circulated. Brandon Lee, it was said, was murdered by the Triads, a group of organized criminals with ties to the entertainment industry in Hong Kong and Taiwan, who were angry that Lee wouldn't work in their films. Others pointed to an almost uncanny similarity between Lee's killing and a scene in his father's final film, The Game of Death, in which Bruce Lee's character, shooting a movie-within-the-movie, gets hit by a real bullet while pretending to die of gunshot wounds. A two-decade-old tabloid favorite, the idea that the Chinese Mafia had killed Bruce Lee as punishment for his exposure of ancient martial-arts secrets on film, was dusted off and attached to his son.

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