5 Times James Cameron Literally Almost Died For His Work

There have been plenty of difficult directors over the years, from Hitchcock pelting Tippi Hedren with live avians in "The Birds" to Kubrick and his hundreds of takes on "The Shining." Sam Peckinpah infuriated Charlton Heston so much that the actor brandished a saber at him, while William Friedkin fired real guns on the set of "The Exorcist" to keep his actors suitably on edge. Few modern filmmakers, however, have the tyrannical reputation of James Cameron, self-proclaimed King of the World.

A notorious egomaniac and fierce taskmaster, Cameron may just have the biggest balls in Hollywood. Who else would make a blockbuster about the Titanic so he could explore the actual wreck site? The stories of hardship on his movie sets are the stuff of cinema legend, from threatening, to firing crew members for taking bathroom breaks, to nailing their cellphones to the wall if they ring during a take.

Love him or hate him, Cameron is a visionary and an innovator, constantly pushing technology and his actors and crew to the limit in pursuit of his grandiose goals. Whether it is using pioneering CGI in "The Abyss," which opened the floodgates for the deluge of computer-animated special effects today, or Kate Winslet nearly drowning on the way to her Oscar-nominated performance in "Titanic," he does nothing by halves.

Despite his ferocious reputation, he is also one of the hardest working directors in cinema today and rarely asks people to do anything he isn't prepared to do himself. As a result, there have been quite a few occasions when he has almost ended up injured or killed for his art.

Almost drowning on The Abyss

One thing we can definitely say by now is that James Cameron really loves water. Whether it's designing his own submersibles to explore the floor of the ocean, building giant tanks to re-stage the sinking of the Titanic, or persuading his actors to train in free-diving for "Avatar 2," if it's H20, Cameron's all about it. This passion for the wet stuff has led to some arduous shoots; up to 40% of "The Abyss" was shot underwater, creating logistical difficulties in just communicating with his actors, who put in grueling 70-hour weeks for six months (via Syfy).

Those harsh working conditions led to angry flare-ups with his stars. Ed Harris reportedly punched Cameron after he kept cameras rolling when he got in trouble in the water, and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio walked off set during a scene when Harris' character was required to slap her around while trying to resuscitate her after drowning.

Cameron himself almost drowned during the shoot. He was diving at the bottom of a huge underwater set when he ran out of air, which he blamed on his Assistant Director for failing to monitor his oxygen levels. Realizing he wouldn't make it to the surface while burdened with all his gear, he shed everything including his mask. The safety diver saw this and sprang into action, trying to give the director air through a spare regulator. It was faulty, and Cameron drew in a lungful of water instead, causing him to struggle. The diver interpreted this as the bends and refused to let go. Cameron punched the guy and swam to safety, and both the AD and diver were fired.

Almost getting into a fist fight with Arnie's stunt double

Peter Kent was Arnie's stunt double for many of his most famous action movies including "Predator," "Commando," and the first two "Terminator" films. Naturally, if you're going to stand in for the former Mr. Universe, it helps if you buff yourself up a little, too. Kent started training with Schwarzenegger halfway through the "The Terminator" shoot and carried on working out with him every day for the next 15 years.

Those films kept Kent pretty busy. "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" included an array of spectacular stunts, including the outrageous bike jump where the T-800's motorcycle just hangs in the air forever before touching down. You might think that someone built a little like Schwarzenegger who has no qualms about launching himself into the LA river on a Harley-Davidson isn't the kind of guy you'd want to make mad, but Cameron, with his special way with people, certainly tried his best. Kent recalled (via The Terminator Fans):

"We also almost got into fisticuffs on 'True Lies' because he was yelling at me about acting like a child and hanging out with Arnold, smoking cigars, and joking around in his trailer. So I asked Jim why he was ranting like a spoiled child in front of his crew. He raised his hand and got on his tiptoes and looked at me. I said, 'you get to throw one and I get one, OK?' He blinked at me for a couple of seconds, but he knew who would win that contest, so he just walked away telling me that my dive from the exploding tanker into the harbor 'Had better be a 10!' I think that was the first time anybody ever really stood up to him."

Almost run over by the APC in Aliens

The special effects team for "Alien," including artist H.R. Giger, won the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects, and rightly so. From the nightmarish creature itself to the haunting derelict spaceship and its mysterious "Space Jockey" former pilot, they created a fully realized world for the action to take place. James Cameron's team for the sequel, "Aliens," expanded on this universe even further, creating a fearsome Alien Queen and some unforgettable hardware: the Dropship, the Pulse Rifles, and the Power Loader. Then you have the brutishly cool APC (Armored Personnel Carrier), a bulky ride great for popping Xenomorph skulls and crashing through walls.

While the APC interior was a mock-up, Cameron wanted the real thing for exterior action shots. But what kind of vehicle could he use for this futuristic battering ram on wheels? Rather than build the thing from scratch, his design team picked up a second-hand 75-ton towing tractor from Heathrow Airport, the kind of four-wheel beast used for tugging passenger jets around. Some of that weight needed stripping in case it fell through the floor of the power station where they were filming, before fitting it with a new exterior shell to look the part.

The APC proved difficult to control. On one occasion, the brakes failed and it crashed into a camera. Luckily, it was operated remotely, so nobody got hurt (via Cracked). On another occasion, the driver put it in reverse rather than drive, slamming it into a wall. Cameron and the cinematographer managed to get out of the way just in time.

Getting too close to an incredibly dangerous helicopter stunt on Terminator 2

The CGI effects in "The Abyss" and "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" may have ushered in the modern era of computer-generated spectacle, but prior to "Avatar" Cameron was still a devotee of muscular, hair-raising practical stunts. One of the most wildly dangerous examples came in "T2" while filming the sequence when the liquid metal T-1000 seizes control of a police helicopter ("Get out") and pursues our heroes along a freeway, passing under a bridge as he goes. The stunt is absolutely ridiculous; skimming along just above the surface of the road, there is very little clearance for the chopper's landing skids or rotor blades.

Unbelievably, the entire chase sequence was originally intended to take place in a tunnel, but even that was too much for Cameron. Instead, he stripped it down to one measly instance of the helicopter flying under a bridge. As Cameron stated in his director's commentary (via Film School Rejects):

"See this helicopter going under a freeway overpass? That's a helicopter going under a freeway overpass."

He may sound nonchalant about it but real helicopters can be very deadly props, as demonstrated by the tragic accident that killed Vic Morrow and two child actors on the set of "Twilight Zone: The Movie." Once again, the director didn't shy away from getting in on the action with the brave souls actually performing the dangerous feat. Stunt pilot Chuck Tamburro pulled off the maneuver twice so Cameron could get footage from different angles, while the director filmed the action himself when the regular camera crew refused to get that close (via Film School Rejects).

Eating spiked chowder while filming Titanic

Cameron is no stranger to drugs; he once admitted to taking ecstasy while trying to figure out the right direction for "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" (via The Ringer), which may explain why he managed to act so coolly when someone sneaked PCP into a pot of chowder one dinner time on the set of "Titanic." Over 50 people were hospitalized due to the stunt but Cameron, despite getting stabbed in the face with a pen by a tripping crew member, had the presence of mind to make himself throw up before the drug could do too much damage (via First Post). 

An inquest followed, with theories ranging from shellfish poisoning (ruled out by a subsequent toxicology report), a disgruntled crew member seeking revenge, to those hard-partying showbiz types taking things a step too far. The catering company blamed the cast and crew, with the CEO claiming (via Vanity Fair):

"It was the Hollywood crowd bringing in the psychedelic s**t. I don't think it was purposefully done to hurt somebody. It was done like a party thing that got carried away."

Cameron had his own suspects, which ultimately was all that mattered:

"We had fired a crew member the day before because they were creating trouble with the caterers. So we believe the poisoning was this idiot's plan to get back at the caterers, whom of course we promptly fired the next day. So it worked."

So while you might get fired, drowned, punched, drugged, or just epically chewed out while working on a James Cameron movie, it's pretty safe to say it will never get boring. And for better or worse, Cameron will be right there in the trenches with you.