Did An On-Set Ostrich Attack Prove Fatal For This Actor?

Audiences attend movies to escape reality, trusting that the death-defying feats of heroism and acts of villainy are, in fact, make-believe and that nobody involved in the production really puts themselves at risk. With the recent accidental shooting of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins, 42, by the actor Alec Baldwin on the set "Rust," film production safety is again in the headlines. Throughout Hollywood history, though, fatal accidents on or related to film production are relatively rare, but not unheard of, and one of the most unbelievable stories, involving a now largely forgotten movie star, stretches all the way back to the silent era.

According to Silentology, Billie Ritchie was one of the most well-known comic actors working in the silent era. Per the BBC, Billie Ritchie was born in Scotland in the 1870s (exact dates vary), and he would go on to star in 70 silent films in the early days of Hollywood, known for playing a tramp-like character, similar to the one popularized by Charlie Chaplin. According to Ritchie, though, accusations that Ritchie stole his act from Chaplin had things the wrong way around, and that he had been doing his thing on stage long before Chaplin made it big in Hollywood.  Since dying in 1921, Ritchie has nevertheless been mostly forgotten in the annals of film history. These days, he's known more well known for the strange and inconclusive circumstances surrounding his death than for any role he ever played on screen.

Were the ostriches at fault?

Billie Ritchie made his name primarily working for The L-KO Kompany, founded in 1914 by Henry "Pathe" Lehrman. According to IMDb, L-KO was responsible for a string of well-known comedies from that time, and many with Ritchie's name at the top of the credits. Nevertheless, production injuries were more common at that time, and Lehrman had a bad reputation for on-set safety. For that reason, many extras would not take roles in his movies.

Billie Ritchie continued to work for Lehrman, however, and since the early silent era of Hollywood relied on sight gags, visual comedy, and stunts, part of that work involved stretching the limits of the human body to the extreme. Ritchie had been injured on-set before, but by 1919 he had recovered and returned to work. It's here where history gets a little fuzzy: what's known for certain is that an ostrich attack did occur, and Ritchie was the victim. There's conflicting evidence whether it was one ostrich or multiple ostriches, and whether it was a trampling or an ostrich bite, but what's known for certain, even though the ostrich-incident would not kill Ritchie right away, his health deteriorated following the attack.

According to Movieland, Billie Ritchie died in 1921. The cause of death was listed as stomach cancer, a condition that certainly could have been worsened by the ostrich incident, but whether the on-set incident is to blame remains uncertain. Animal safety in film production has come a long way since then, but with the unfortunate death of Halyna Hutchins, however, the unusual circumstances of Billie Ritchie's passing deserve a second look.