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SYFY WIRE Lucy Lawless

How a Dangerous Late Night Comedy Sketch Almost Derailed Xena: Warrior Princess

Lucy Lawless was seriously injured while playing Xena: Warrior Princess...just not on her own show.

By Matthew Jackson

Xena: Warrior Princess is a show packed with stunt work, from horseback riding to fight choreography and everything in between. If someone got hurt over the course of that show's six seasons, it would be understandable due to the sheer volume of potentially dangerous stuff happening on camera. But for Lucy Lawless, the biggest Xena injury came not while shooting the show, but while promoting it.

In February of 1996, Lawless was scheduled to appear on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno to promote Xena's second season, but never made it to the taping of her interview. Instead, she was in a hospital bed after a horseback riding incident during the filming of a sketch set to premiere alongside her Tonight Show interview. During filming, Lawless fell off the horse in the Tonight Show's Burbank parking lot, fracturing her pelvis and laying her up right in the middle of production on Season 2.

Years later, in an interview with Metro UK, Lawless noted that she perhaps should have suspected something bad might happen during an encounter with Leno, because a fortune-teller had once offered her a strange warning.

"A girl read my coffee grounds in Turkey and told me a man with a big chin would hurt me very badly," Lawless recalled. "I was like: ‘What are you talking about? I don’t know anyone like that.’ Two weeks later, I’m lying in a hospital after having a horse accident on the Jay Leno show. I broke my pelvis. So her prediction was bizarre."

Xena (Lucy Lawless) wears armor in Xena: Warrior Princess Episode 316.

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Because of Lawless' injuries, production on Xena: Warrior Princess had to be retooled in order to keep making the second season while the star recovered. To pull this off, the show's writers came up with a few different tricks. One was to simply put Xena's consciousness in the body of other characters, namely Callisto (Hudson Leick) and Autolycus (Bruce Campbell), who carried out Xena's adventures while the character's body was gravely wounded and even, at one point, dead. The injury also meant that Lawless was reluctant to get back on a horse for some time, which meant that the show either skipped Xena horseback riding altogether (as is apparent in several Season 2 episodes) or used doubles for riding scenes. 

Still, Lawless recovered relatively quickly, and eventually made her way to full-scale Xena stunt work. Reflecting on the accident later, she even noted that the nature of her injury, arriving as it did in the middle of taping for America's most popular late night show at the time, meant that more people than ever were exposed to Xena: Warrior Princess.

"Falling off that horse really put me on the map," she told Women's Weekly in 1997. "Before it happened, there were a lot of people out there who had never heard of me or Xena. The publicity all over the world about my accident changed all that and now a lot more people are watching the show. So, in a way, it was a blessing in disguise."

Lawless even eventually returned to The Tonight Show, and a version of her horseback riding skit did finally make it to air, complete with an appearance by Gilbert Gottfried.

Xena: Warrior Princess airs regularly on SYFY. Check the schedule for more details.