One Of 2001: A Space Odyssey's Most Famous Scenes Could Have Cost The Actor His Life

Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece, "2001: A Space Odyssey" is remarkable for many reasons. To this day, it is one of the largest sources of inspiration and influence for many science fiction films that have come out since its release in 1968. Even now, when watching "2001: A Space Odyssey" more than 20 years after the film's futuristic vision of the year 2001, it does not really feel like a movie that was made in the late '60s. The film is masterful in its special effects and ability to convey a futuristic world without seeming dated. 

The movie is based on Arthur C. Clarke's short story, "The Sentinel," though the film version takes some liberties when it comes to reimagining Clarke's story. Split into two distinct parts, the first half of the film explores mankind's first steps towards civilization. Prehistoric humans discover a mysterious monolith that helps them learn how to use tools. This discovery eventually leads to mankind conquering space with the invention of high tech space travel and artificial intelligence. The second half of the movie deals with a small crew aboard the spaceship Discovery One on their way to Jupiter. Things get wildly out of hand when the ship's main AI control system, HAL 9000, begins to malfunction, turning on the crew and killing everyone but the scientist Dave Bowman. 

The scenes involving the breakdown of HAL are some of the most memorable moments in the entire film. HAL exhibits a voice that is both nonchalant and haunting as he increasingly refuses to obey orders given to him by the crew. In one pivotal scene, HAL denies Dave entry back onto the spaceship after Dave takes an emergency vehicle out to try and rescue another crew member on a space walk gone wrong. Dave, helmetless and scared, repeatedly asks HAL to "open the pod bay doors," but HAL will not listen to him because he is afraid the Discovery crew will dismantle him for being insubordinate. Taking matters into his own hands, Dave must find another, manual way to enter the ship, and the scene that follows is breathtaking both for its suspense and its special effects. It's a frightening scene of life and death, but when you realize just what went into filming it, you realize that the real life actor who played Dave was actually in danger during the shoot, as well. 

Open those pod bay doors, already!

After pleading with HAL, Dave decides his only option is to manually open the ships emergency air lock and eject himself from his tiny vessel back onto the main ship. It is a risky move since Dave forgot to bring his helmet and exposure to the atmosphere of space is, well, deadly. But he is out of options. Fortunately, he survives the potentially deadly transition from pod to ship, and manages to close the doors, repressurizing the chamber before anything can go wrong. It's a tense scene, and it's even more tense when you realize that Keir Dullea, the actor who played Dave, could have been seriously injured or even killed while filming this dangerous stunt. 

In order to make this scene accurate, Kubrick heavily researched whether or not a helmetless person could survive brief exposure to space if it was just through a quick transition from pod to ship. After discussing this possibility with Arthur C. Clarke, they decided it would work, and so filming began. Dullea had to perform the scene himself, and an article for Vanity Fair explains that this was "somewhat harrowing for Dullea, who, with no helmet to hide behind, had to forgo a stunt double." Dullea had to "dive headfirst through the escape hatch, secured by a hidden rope attached to a harness underneath his costume" from two stories up.

The camera was positioned below his projected body making the shot seem like a horizontal ejection when in reality, Dullea was falling headfirst towards the ground. Vanity Fair states that "as the actor fell, the rope sped through the gloved hands of a circus roustabout," the only protection Dullea had from crashing into the ground. Talk about someone holding your life in their hands! When asked by Vanity Fair if there were any other protections in place aside from the man holding the rope, Dullea's response was, "I would have been dead." He quickly followed this with, "I had been working with Stanley for months, and I totally trusted him. Nothing could go wrong if Stanley was in charge."

Thankfully for Dullea, he was able to film the shot in one take, but just knowing that both the actor and the character had to put their lives on the line to get back inside the ship makes this scene all the more thrilling.