As a nearly month-long police investigation draws to a close, North Carolina District Attorney Jerry Spivey announces on this day in 1993 that the death of 28-year-old Brandon Lee on March 31 of that same year during filming of The Crow was due to negligence on the part of the film’s crew, not foul play.
Lee was the son of the martial-arts legend Bruce Lee, whose performance in Enter the Dragon (1973) catapulted him to fame in America and Europe. Already a huge star in Hong Kong thanks to such movies as Fist of Fury and Way of the Dragon, Bruce Lee would not live to see the film’s release. On July 20, 1973, he died at the age of 32 after being found unconscious in his Hong Kong home. His death was attributed to a brain edema, or excess of fluid. Controversy swirled around the incident, and rumors persisted that he might have been murdered by gangsters in the Hong Kong film industry or by a drug gang.
Brandon Lee made his own acting debut at age 21, in the TV movie Kung Fu: The Movie (1986), based on the 1970s series Kung Fu. He starred in one Hong Kong action film, Legacy of Rage (1986), and made his American big-screen debut opposite Dolph Lundgren in the cop-buddy action movie Showdown in Little Tokyo (1991). In early 1993, Lee landed the lead role of Eric Draven in The Crow, based on the popular underground Gothic comic book series about a rock musician who returns from the dead to avenge his and his fiancee’s murders.
Filming of The Crow began in February 1993. Around midnight on the morning of March 31, the cast and crew were filming a scene at Carolco Studios in Wilmington, North Carolina. As Lee entered a room, another actor shot him from a distance of 15-20 feet. Though the gun was supposed to have been loaded with blanks, police later found that a .44 bullet entered Lee’s abdomen and lodged in his spine, fatally wounding him. He died in the hospital hours later of internal injuries, blood loss and heart failure.
As the police investigation began, little was certain about how Lee died, and rumors circulated that the film set was jinxed (there had been a series of accidents), or that his death had been plotted by some unknown enemy. In the end, the truth was far less sinister, but no less tragic. Hollowed-out cartridges are often used to film close-ups of a gun being loaded; the “dummy” cartridges are then supposed to be removed and replaced with blanks before being fired. The police investigation into Lee’s death concluded that a tip of one of the cartridge’s bullets broke off from the cartridge and lodged in the gun, then fired at Lee along with the blank.
D.A. Spivey eventually decided against bringing charges against Crowvision, the production company making the movie. Though Lee was to have appeared in nearly all of the scenes left to be shot, the filmmakers completed The Crow using another actor as a double and a good deal of digital technology. The movie went on to make $50 million at the box office.