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Twenty years ago, director Stephen Sommers dusted off Universal’s classic 1930s creature feature, The Mummy, for the blockbuster age. Released on May 7, 1999, the F/X heavy adventure movie became one of that summer’s big success stories, grossing more than $400 million worldwide, and acquiring a devoted fanbase that followed it through two more sequels. Those fans will likely be out in force for The Mummy’s 20th birthday, a milestone that its star — Brendan Fraser — almost didn’t live to see. Speaking with Yahoo Entertainment, the actor revealed that he had a close brush with death while shooting the film, something few people probably knew. (Watch our video interview above.)
The scene in question comes early on in the story when Fraser’s alter ego — dashing adventurer Rick O’Connell—is facing the gallows in a Cairo prison even as Egyptologist Evelyn Carnahan (Rachel Weisz) tries to secure his release so that he can aid her in finding the fabled “city of the dead.” As she’s negotiating, the noose is placed around Rick’s neck and he’s dropped through the trapdoor, dancing on the rope until Evelyn strikes a deal and he’s cut down.
While a stuntman took Fraser’s place for the trapdoor fall, the actor had to wear the rope around his neck for the close-up shots where Rick struggles to get words out. “This was my mistake,” the actor says now. “[I thought] I’ll just take a deep breath, hold it and I’ll get squirmy veins on my face and they’ll just call cut.”
And having that thought is the last thing that Fraser remembers about that scene. The next thing he knew, he was on the ground and The Mummy medical team was hovering over him. “I had no idea what happened!” he says. “Later I learned [from other people] ‘They had to come and resuscitate you. And it’s a good thing you hit the ground sideways, because it started your heart again.’ I was like, ‘How do you know that? C’mon — I died right? Glad we got that out of the way — let’s go make some more movie.’”
Fortunately for Fraser, the Grim Reaper remained at bay for the rest of the shoot, although he and the rest of the cast did have to contend with long hours, physically demanding action sequences and, worst of all, mean camels. “I named [my camel] Barney just to try to make him nicer,” he says, laughing. “Because he wasn’t! He turned his head around when you put the saddle on him. Not one of the smarter creatures you can ride, I learned.”
Beyond its genial good humor and rambunctious set-pieces, Fraser credits The Mummy’s initial success and enduring popularity to Sommers’s understanding of one of key tropes of classic Universal monster movies: the monster himself isn’t necessarily the bad guy. So even though the titular mummy — centuries-dead Egyptian high priest Imhotep (Arnold Vosloo) — causes all manner of trouble for Rick and Evelyn, he’s kind of doing it for a good cause: to be reunited with his one true love, Anck-su-Namun (Patricia Velásquez). “Arnold Vosloo probably saw this as a romance — a demented Romeo & Juliet,” Fraser explains. “And I can see that: it’s just about a guy looking to get his girlfriend back. He was interesting methods about going about doing it!”
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