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“As a physical comedian, I had always been worried about waking up with a whole different body one day. That fear became my reality. After those forty-five seconds on the ‘SNL’ stage in May of 2001, my body would never, ever be the same.” —Chris Kattan

In his heart-wrenching memoir, Baby Don’t Hurt Me: Stories and Scars from Saturday Night Live, Chris Kattan tells of an alleged neck injury suffered on the set of SNL that nearly left him paralyzed and impaired his movement and mobility for years to come.

“Even today, I still can’t open my hand wide enough to use my fingers normally on the keyboard,” he writes. “The impact that my injury and subsequent surgeries had on my career was immense, but more importantly, the fallout proved to be devastating to some of the closest relationships in my life.”

Being on set is an immeasurable honor and an excitement like no other. The otherworldly sensation of expressing oneself in a sacred medium and plumbing the depths of human endeavor is something very few people get the opportunity to experience. But there is a danger in that experience that can be overlooked by performers. 

Chris Kattan goes into voluminous detail in his book about the night he claims to have broken his neck during an SNL parody sketch entitled “MSNBC Investigates” while roleplaying a character from “The “Golden Girls.” He fell backwards in a “rickety chair” for comedic effect and hit his head. The Night at the Roxbury star says that he questioned the safety of the chair beforehand and asked for a different one, but the show’s producers ignored his request.

“I went backward on my chair to sell it, and I really put myself into the character,” he recalls. Heartbreakingly, Kattan says he kept working with a broken neck so he “wouldn’t miss a show.” But he regrets not having spoken up about his injury sooner. In fact, it would be almost a year later before the pain in his neck led him to seek medical attention. 

In the spirit of learning from others’ experiences, is there anything a performer could have done to prevent such an accident? Perhaps insist on a safer chair to perform the skit or, knowing the chair is problematic, go easier on the stunt. Also, if there’s any question that an injury has occurred, see a doctor promptly rather than wait, just to be sure. 

A movie set can be an unpredictable place, so it’s important to have your wits about you while performing in a dynamic environment. You can be as Method as you like, but never forget you are a professional and what you are doing is ultimately make-believe. It’s not worth your health and happiness to take unnecessary risks. 

Hollywood has a long list of performers who’ve been injured on set. Jacob Elordi, for example, suffered a bad concussion after banging his head too aggressively on the hard floor repeatedly in Euphoria. Also, while filming The Exorcist, Ellen Burstyn permanently injured her spine when being thrown against a wall. The screaming audiences hear in the movie is said to be her actual screams of pain. And K.J. Apa broke his hand while shooting the first season of Riverdale while punching through ice to rescue a character.

Worst of all, Brandon Lee, son of the late Bruce Lee, paid the ultimate price for an on-set accident while filming 1994’s The Crow. He died after being shot with a gun that was supposed to be loaded with “dummy bullets,” but tragically, the rounds turned out to be live. He was rushed to the hospital where doctors tried to save his life, but he was pronounced dead six hours later.

While it’s impossible to prevent all accidents from happening, these stories serve as a reminder to take the time to make sure your props are working as expected, to carefully choreograph your movements, and to try to maintain a measure of control while performing.

As an actor or actress, your body is your instrument. Protect it. Oftentimes people ignore their instincts because they are busy, or they don’t want to rock the boat, they can’t be bothered, or they’re overly trusting. That kind of thinking should be anathema when working in a potentially dangerous environment. Address any hazards so you can fully pour yourself into the scene at hand and slay that role.

Here’s to your health and longevity!

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