Hollywood Myths

Skeptoid looks into some of the classic Hollywood legends that you've always believed are true.

by Brian Dunning

Filed under Urban Legends

Skeptoid #237
December 21, 2010
Podcast transcript | Listen | Subscribe

Today we're going to point the skeptical eye at legends of the cinema. We're not talking about ridiculous movie science, such as the idea that any computer in the world can control the air conditioning in any office suite anywhere in the world using dramatic full-motion animation of flying through electrical panels and HVAC ducts.

No, we're talking about the folklore of classic Hollywood, the enduring fables that gild the stars with mystique. So let us now dim the lights, raise the curtain, strike a dramatic note on the Wurlitzer, and fade in on:

Ben-Hur Myths

There are at least two lingering legends about Ben-Hur, the 1959 epic starring Charlton Heston. It was Hollywood's third iteration of the film, with black and white silent versions appearing in 1907 and 1925. The 1925 version rivaled the scope of the 1959 movie, with a chariot race in particular that was larger and more violent. The charioteers are said to have been offered a prize of $5,000 to win, for real, resulting in much onscreen mayhem.

This probably gave rise to the most common myth, that a stuntman was killed during the 1959 chariot race and that its footage was left in the final cut. Although a few sources have made this claim, the studio's records, and the statements of most of those involved including Charlton Heston, say that no stuntmen or horses were seriously hurt. The sequence was very carefully shot over several weeks. The worst injury came from a stuntman whose chin was smashed and cut when he unexpectedly flipped out over the front of his chariot. Articulated dummies were put to very effective use throughout this scene, and the guys you see getting trampled or run over are all dummies.

The source of the myth is probably the 1925 film. Records were poorly kept and incidents often went unreported in those days, so we don't know for sure, but most film historians agree that at least one stuntman was killed, and at least a few horses were injured badly enough that they had to be put down. A lot of this happened in one particular crash where several chariots came around a blind corner and struck another that had overturned.

The other myth from Ben-Hur is that a red sports car, sometimes described as a Ferrari, can be seen in the background of the 1959 chariot race. There's a good reason you won't find any screen captures of this on the Internet; it seems to be a completely untrue rumor. I watched the entire scene carefully on the DVD, and others on the Internet have gone through it frame-by-frame. No red car has been found yet; though there are numerous tire tracks visible onscreen from the camera trucks, which may be the source of the myth.

Goldfinger's Golden Girl

We all remember the classic scene where Sean Connery comes across the gold-painted corpse of Goldfinger's assistant whom he had seduced to betray her boss. Later he observes that she had died of skin suffocation, and that painting the entire body would be lethal unless you leave a small bare patch at the base of the spine, "to allow the skin to breathe". This danger subsequently became something of an urban legend.

Perhaps the writers forgot that we breathe through our lungs, not through our skin. Today, performers are routinely bodypainted, even with latex. People take mud baths. There are certainly other things that can go wrong when you coat your entire body — overheating and hypothermia are two real possibilities — but "skin suffocation" is not one of them.

The Poltergeist Curse

The story goes that all three children who starred in Poltergeist were dead soon after its release, as were a number of other actors from the series. It's partially true, but a few hits and many misses does not really make a good legend.

Dominique Dunne, who played the older daughter, was murdered at age 22 only five months after the movie was released. Heather O'Rourke, the little girl, died from a medical condition at age 12, but only after completing both sequels. In a blow to the curse, Oliver Robins, who played the son, is still alive and well, and is writing and directing.

Other actors from the original Poltergeist and the sequels have since passed away as well, but of expected age related conditions. It's a little like saying there's a Gettysburg Address curse, since everyone who attended is now dead.

The Wizard of Oz Hanging

There's a famous legend that an actor playing one of the munchkins in The Wizard of Oz was distraught over a lost love and decided to hang himself in the background of a live scene shot in the movie. Some versions of the story have it as a stagehand who may have fallen accidentally. Somehow nobody noticed it at the time and the shot was left in the final cut. Right after Dorothy and the Scarecrow pick up the Tin Woodsman, they link arms and go happily singing down the yellow brick road. In the center of the screen, between two trees against the blue backdrop, something can be seen falling to the ground. A few seconds later there is another large movement in the same spot. It's too far away and indistinct to make a clear judgement, but with a little imagination, I suppose it could be taken as someone being hanged.

Fortunately, there are no records of any hanged corpses being discovered when the set was struck. What did happen, though, was that various large birds were borrowed from the Los Angeles Zoo to roam freely around and make the sets look more wild. Although the movement is indistinct, it takes very little imagination to see one of those birds jumping down from the tree then spreading its wings. Or doing some other bird thing. No record survives of bird poop being cleaned up in that spot, so this is just one of those mysteries that we'll never solve. You judge which you think is more likely: A suicide where no body was found and nobody was missing; or some large birds strutting about that are known to have been there.

Brandon Lee's Death

The mysterious death of Bruce Lee's son was sure to achieve a cult status all its own. The story goes that actor Brandon Lee was shot on the set of his final film, The Crow, in the middle of filming a scene; and that his death was left in the final cut of the movie. Many of the same conspiracy claims surrounding his father's death surfaced again: He was assassinated for revealing martial arts secrets, killed by organized crime, or some other such thing.

Brandon Lee was indeed shot while filming. It was a tragic accident involving a gun firing blanks. A fragment of a dummy bullet, from a previous scene, was lodged in the gun and fired into Lee, fatally wounding him. Some mystery remains surrounding the film of the incident, with some saying it was destroyed, and others saying it was confiscated by police. It was not used in the movie. The scene was rewritten and reshot using a double, and the manner of his death is different than what happened in the fatal accident.

No credible evidence links the tragedy in any way to organized crime or martial arts overlords. Everything that happened was fully explained by the events of the day, no external mysterious forces required.

Steven Spielberg's Covert Beginnings

One of director Steven Spielberg's most enduring pieces of fictional entertainment is the story he used to tell about how he got started in show business. He snuck off of a Universal Studios tram, slunk around the studio, and moved into a vacant office, adding his own name to the building directory. From there he met people, introducing himself as a new director on the lot, and finally weaseled his way into his first directing jobs.

Never let the truth get in the way of a good story, especially if the truth is really mundane. Spielberg was once shown around the lot by a friend of a friend of his father's, and returned the next summer for an unpaid internship working on purchase orders. He did make the most of this opportunity, though, finally landing a job directing a TV episode after several summers running errands and stacking paper. The rest is movie history. But among those who worked there with him at the time, none remembers any but legitimate work-related reasons for him to be wherever he was.

Tip Skeptoid $2/mo $5/mo $10/mo One time

James Dean's Killer Car

James Dean, one of Hollywood's prototypical outcast bad boys, enjoyed his motor racing at least as much as he enjoyed acting. To this end he bought a 1955 Porsche 550 Spyder, in which he was infamously killed in a road accident on his way to a race. The legend says that anyone who owns the wrecked Spyder has bad luck; they die or get injured by it or something like that.

The car was pretty comprehensively destroyed in the crash, and its few useful (and valuable) mechanical components were parted out by the insurance company. When the wreck was initially purchased, a man's legs are said to have been broken when it was delivered on a trailer. It's not too surprising, since the car was a non-rolling lump and probably had to be awkwardly lifted onto dollies to roll it down the ramp. Two amateur racers installed the car's engine and transaxle in their own cars. One was later killed and the other was injured in separate racing accidents in cars using the Spyder's components, however none of the James Dean parts caused the accident. A whole great long string of horrible injuries are said to be associated with the car's body, which went on tour with the California Highway Patrol as an exhibit in the late 1950's, but there is no reliable documentation that any of these injuries actually happened.

Bits of the car disappeared (some are currently displayed in various museums), and it's said that the remaining body was mysteriously lost during transport. However no police report was ever filed regarding a theft, so the safe money says that there's probably no appreciably sized remnants of the car unaccounted for; the families of the two amateur racers still have the parts they bought. Certainly there's no good evidence that unusual accidents were associated with the car or its parts, and enough details of the legend are demonstrably fabricated to cast doubt on the whole idea.

But if it were not for these romantic tales, Hollywood would not be Hollywood. Whenever you hear a story that seems too incredible to be true, don't be skeptical if it's from Hollywood. Instead suspend your disbelief, and enjoy the show.

Brian Dunning

© 2010 Skeptoid Media Copyright information

References & Further Reading

Beath, W. The Death of James Dean. New York: Grove Press, 1986. 9-10.

Freiman, R., Wallace, L. The Story of the Making of Ben-Hur. New York: Random House, 1959.

Harmetz, A. The Making of The Wizard of Oz. New York: Dell Publishing, 1989.

McBride, J. Steven Spielberg: A Biography. New York: Da Capo Press, 1999.

Meehan, P. Cinema of the Psychic Realm: A Critical Survey. Jefferson: McFarland, 2009. 98.

Mikkelson, B. "Movies." Urban Legends Reference Pages. Snopes.com, 1 Jan. 2010. Web. 12 Dec. 2010. <http://snopes.com/movies/>

Reference this article:
Dunning, B. "Hollywood Myths." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, 21 Dec 2010. Web. 8 Oct 2015. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4237>


10 most recent comments | Show all 26 comments

Great stories! I love these kinds of things. A little disappointed about the Spielberg farce, but now I don't feel so bad for not trying it myself. ;-)

You mention the Bruce Lee death, but don't expound on it. Why? Seems to fit the bill for "Hollywood myth".

Tom Hesser, San Francisco, CA
February 11, 2011 4:34am

RE: The Wizard of Oz Hanging

I watched a YouTube video of a program that debunked this. They clearly showed it was an ostridge or some other similar large bird. They also interviewed one of the actors who played a munchkin who adamantly says the myth is not true. Also they said at the time of filming this scene none of the munchkin actors were in town for their scenes yet.


Henry, Vancouver, BC
June 28, 2011 4:23am

Complaining about movie science is fun but remember it is fiction and therefore only has to obey the rules it invents for itself.

If Superman says a man can fly then in that fictional world such a thing is possible. And Bugs Bunny is a rabbit that talks.

The laws of physics do not apply in an entirely imagined world. If you carry realism too far you will be asking actors to use their real names and portray themselves.

I admit it does get to a point where it oversteps the boundaries and becomes laughable but if it is not claiming to be a documentary I am not going to take biology or physics lessons from a film. That is for other idiots.

Clint, Cornwall, UK
November 25, 2011 10:13am

I can remember seeking out and watching Poltergeist with a certain ghoulish-teenage interest as it was "that cursed film where everybody's died", then looking it up after on IMDB and thinking "hang on..." that's not a curse, that's just a couple of really awful tragedies and somebody who died of cancer. And the rest of them are all still alive -and doubtless hold the whole 'curse' thing as below contempt. The first inkling of future skepticism about tall tales.

AJ Ball, Sheffield, UK
June 4, 2012 2:22pm

@John Blackhall: You've posted two things that have nothing to do with the topic. Anyway, science fiction is fiction enabled by science, no matter how improbable the "science" actually is.

Also Clarke and Asimov wrote stories that broke laws of physics (hell Asimov wrote works of pure fantasy). Both of those authors are immensely overrated and Clarke was (with a few exceptions) really boring, and neither of them had any proper concept of writing character. Hard SF purists will disagree, but what makes good science fiction is the same as what makes any good fiction. Give me the Braduburys, Le Guins, Aldisses, and Zelaznys any day. If I want real science I'll read Science/Nature or a text book.

Josh, Brooklyn
October 4, 2012 4:01pm

Besides hypo and hyperthermia, painting the skin can lead to (sometimes lethal) some sort of poisoning by some degree of absorption of the paint, I don't know exactly what happens physiologically though. Some paints may contain lead, which is quite poisonous and unhealthy at best, perhaps there are other chemicals that are less than healthy to be absorbed by the skin or skin cells.

skeptic guy, planey Earth
November 17, 2012 1:38pm

I watched that episode of Mythbusters, and don't remember that happening. Maybe I need to go and rewatch it.

HistoryTalking, The Real World
January 23, 2013 4:45pm

1959's Ben Hur is a 3 hour movie.
I got the tape, and a few days later spent about 3 hours going through the chariot race alone, frame-by-frame as Brian did, looking for the red car. I didn't see it.
I find a tape is better for frame-by-frame than a DVD.

And yet I have several friends who swear they saw it; and even told me the exact spot in the movie where it's visible for 1/2 a second or so. But I still didn't see it, and told them so.
Are they influenced by urban legends and percieving something not there?
Or did I get an "edited" version with a few things cut out?

I sure wish I knew, because that's one of the "neater" things to bring up when discussing movies.

Ron, Calgary Alberta Canada
January 31, 2014 11:29am

RE: Poltergeist
Will Sampson, who played Taylor the Medicine Man, died because he had a heart and lung transplantation, it wasn't because if his age. He was 53 years old, this is far to young to die 'from age'.
Sampson suffered from scleroderma, a chronic degenerative condition that affected his heart, lungs and skin. During his lengthy illness, his weight fell from 260 pounds to 140 pounds, causing a malnutrition problem. After undergoing a heart and lung transplant at Houston Methodist Hospital in Houston, Texas, he died on June 3, 1987, of post-operative kidney failure and pre-operative malnutrition problems. Sampson was 53 years old. He was buried at Graves Creek Cemetery in Hitchita, Oklahoma.''

I remember very well his death, because I liked him since I was a girl and smuggled by by Mama into 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest' in the cinema, I felt sad when he died so tragically. May he have found eternal peace.

Frollein S., Germany
April 14, 2015 9:31am

Re: Science Fiction

My favorites for a good chuckle come from waaayyy back - in written stories; and some old movies - when all the planets and other solar system bodies were quickly and easily accessible by single-stage chemical rockets that always took off and landed vertically. Some of them even had fins!

Other than that, gimme the old B+W shlock about giant bugs causing havoc, dinosaurs trashing cities, and various other giant vertebrates and non-vertebrates making life miserable for the human race!

Ron, Calgary Alberta Canada
June 21, 2015 4:06pm

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