Cookies help us deliver our Services. By using our Services, you agree to our use of cookies. Learn More.

The Tragic Real-Life Story Of Ryan Dunn

For the friends who worked together to realize the "Jackass" TV series, films, and related spinoffs, success has proven a decidedly mixed bag. While they achieved a level of pop culture penetration many couldn't dream of, all that attention has come with a price. The most obvious cost is the massive physical toll it's taken on every member of the Jackass team. While they've all seemingly delighted in challenging themselves to do ever more dangerous, gross, and silly stunts, their bodies remain entirely too human. Broken bones, brain injuries, and damaged teeth are among the cost of doing business.

There have been psychological, emotional, and life-altering consequences as well. Marriages and relationships have dissolved, there's been substance abuse and addiction, and several members have battled psychological disorders like depression and anxiety. Perhaps the saddest story to come out of "Jackass" is the life of Ryan Dunn. A member of the team from the beginning and a friend of Bam Margera's since high school, Dunn was among those who suffered in the wake of achieving shocking success. Here's a look at his tragic life and death.

Trigger warning: The following article contains references to substance use and abuse, addiction, mental health issues, criminal activity, and sudden accidental deaths.

How Ryan Dunn got his start

Born in 1977, Ryan Dunn moved multiple times over the course of his childhood. He begin in Ohio, went to New York, and finally ended up in Pennsylvania. It was there that Dunn attended high school and met Bam Margera. The two became fast friends and remained close throughout Dunn's life.

Soon after graduation, Dunn snagged his first acting role, playing a soldier in the 1996 sci-fi movie "Lifeform." However, it wasn't until 1999 that he began to do what made him famous. That's when he began working with Margera on the "CKY" videos that would become the foundation out of which "Jackass" grew.

"Jackass" itself arrived on MTV in 2000, and Dunn was there from the start. He appeared in all 25 episodes of the series and then went on to do stunts in "Jackass: The Movie," "Jackass Number Two," and "Jackass 3D." He appeared in other projects with members of the Jackass crew, including Steve-O and, most prominently, Margera. He acted as well, but not as often and typically in small or independent projects that got less attention than his "Jackass" work.

The 2005 DUI incident

In 2005, police pulled over Dunn while he was operating a motor vehicle. They deduced his level of intoxication at the scene, and eventually, the town charged him with a DUI. In his late 20s, this was his first recorded incident of driving under the effects of a substance. Given that, the court determined Dunn was appropriate for the first-time offender's program, an opportunity which he pursued.

This pre-trial diversion program would typically allow a motorist facing charges to avoid jail time, receive reduced license suspension time, or have the charges eliminated entirely and eventually have their record cleared. Dunn completed the program as prescribed. He still did have his license suspended for over year, which is around the standard for a first time DUI offense in Pennsylvania. However, the offenders' program ensured the charges against him were dropped after he completed the probationary period.

While his friend, Bam Margera, publicly struggled with alcoholism, Dunn's own issues, including this arrest, were largely unknown by the general public until after his death.

If you or anyone you know is struggling with addiction issues, help is available. Visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website or contact SAMHSA's National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

His history of dangerous vehicular choices

In addition to his 2005 DUI, Ryan Dunn had quite a few problems when it came to sitting behind the wheel. As noted in a Philadelphia Inquirer piece from 2011 (via the Boston Herald), the stunt performer had a reputation when it came to driving. The "Jackass" star was known for loving speed and adrenaline while in a car and had a tendency to be a bit to be pretty relaxed about safety. In "Jackass" and participating in Gumball 3000 events — international races that took place on public roads and frequently attracted celebrity participants — he found lucrative and somewhat approved of ways to express himself. Unfortunately, he often didn't turn off the need for speed when it came to getting around in his day-to-day life.

This approach to driving didn't escape law enforcement's notice. In the 13 years from 1998 to 2011, Dunn wracked up 23 violations. Three of those times, he was pulled over and charged for driving with a suspended license, and 10 stops earned him tickets for speeding and reckless driving. "He drove too fast," Bam Margera's mother, April, was quoted as saying in the piece for the Philadelphia Inquirer. "I yelled at him all the time about that."

Ryan Dunn's shoulder injury

In the closing stunt of "Jackass Number Two," the plan was for a horse to pull Ryan Dunn and Bam Margera off their feet and then out of view. Visually, the scene went as planned, but the physical consequences for Dunn were anything but routine.

When Dunn went to the ground, he landed on his shoulder. His muscles in that area took the full force of the impact, an immediately painful consequence. However, the consequences of the fall proved worse than the typical kinds of bruises and breaks the Jackass gang had grown to accept.

The damage from the fall was serious enough to cause a blood clot, which was potentially life-threatening . As "Jackass Number Two" director Jeff Tremaine explained in an MTV tribute to Dunn, "A blood clot is really dangerous because if a chunk of that went into his heart or his brain, he would die." In the same MTV tribute, friend Cameron Taylor said Dunn was actually quite frightened, explaining he'd "never seen a man more scared" and that Dunn could've died "at any minute." Fortunately, Dunn received treatment that saved his life, but things were about to get even worse for the stuntman.

Dealing with Lyme disease and depression

The hits kept coming for Dunn. While receiving treatment for his blood clot, Dunn was diagnosed with Lyme disease. In an interview with Film Threat in 2010, Dunn confirmed the diagnosis and his recovery, although he didn't offer any insight into when or where he came into contact with the infected tick that passed him the virus. 

While his treatment for Lyme proved successful, the combination of the blood clot, the disease, and the long recovery process seemed to add up. In the same interview where he revealed his history with Lyme, Dunn attempted to downplay it as just taking a break after 10 years of work. Subsequent publications, however, have confirmed depression was an ongoing struggle for the actor and stunt performer. In fact, he slipped into such a significant depression that he cut himself off from contact with many of his friends, including the Jackass crew, for two years.

If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health, please contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741, call the National Alliance on Mental Illness helpline at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264), or visit the National Institute of Mental Health website.

Ryan Dunn's resurgence

Despite the way it came about, the hiatus from performing seemed to do Dunn some good. He returned to the world of reckless and hilarious stunts in "Jackass 3D" and appeared happy to be back. He referred to the experience as his favorite on-screen work. Experiencing early apprehension about returning only to find the same camaraderie he always had with the team came as a relief and led to the most fun he had making a "Jackass" film.

He booked three acting jobs in the same year, a feat he had never previously managed. Additionally, he produced his first film, "Living Will," in which he was also cast as the lead role. He even struck off on his own to co-host a show on G4 with Jessica Chobot, his first prominent TV work without any members of the Jackass crew. The show, "Proving Ground," involved attempting to replicate pop culture experiences in real life. For instance, an early episode tried to realize the Mario Kart experience in real life. Given Dunn's established stunt bona fides and his prominent place in pop culture, it seemed a promising fit. For the first time in years, Dunn's career prospects seemed on-track.

His tragic death

On June 19, 2011, Dunn was back in his hometown and celebrating. Joining him for a night on the town was Zachary Hartwell, a longtime friend who also worked on as a production assistant on "Jackass Number Two." Sometime around 2:30 the next morning, the two decided to call it quits. But as Dunn was driving — with Hartwell in the car — he soon hit speeds in excess of 130 mph in his Porsche 911 GT3. He seemingly lost control of the vehicle at some point and ran into a tree. Upon collision, the car caught fire, and both he and Hartwell were killed in the accident. The cause of death was attributed to a combination of the impact and the subsequent fire.

In addition to the fact that he was coming from a bar and that several social media posts showed him drinking, a toxicology report confirmed Dunn's intoxication at the time of the crash with a blood alcohol level around twice the legal limit. He was survived by his long-time partner, Angie Cuturic, whose name and visage had inspired several of Dunn's tattoos.

The Hartwell lawsuit

Zachary Hartwell had known Ryan Dunn and Bam Margera for several years. In addition to PA-ing on "Jackass Number Two," he'd done stunt driving on the film "Minghags," which was written and directed by Margera and starred Margera and Dunn. Additionally, Hartwell was an Iraq War vet. He served two tours overseas as a Navy gunner before returning to America. In 2010, Hartwell married Rachel, his high school sweetheart. They were married less than a year when Hartwell died in the car crash.

In August 2012, Hartwell's parents went to court seeking damages. They named Dunn's estate — as well as Barnaby's, the bar where Dunn was drinking — as defendants in the suit. In addition to wrongful death, the lawsuit alleged the parties behaved negligently and recklessly and that those actions led to the death of their son. The suit's intention was to ameliorate funeral costs, projected income lost due to premature death, wages still due for his work, and pain and suffering. They did not, however, request a specific dollar amount. As of this time, no details are available on the status of the lawsuit. 

Roger Ebert fires away

Almost immediately after news broke of Dunn's crash that took his and Hartwell's life, Roger Ebert took to Twitter. The venerable film critic had his jaw removed earlier in the year due to cancer and struggled to speak. However, he'd quickly adapted to Twitter and was very active on the platform until his own death in 2013.

Ebert tweeted out, "Friends don't let Jackasses drink and drive." The statement was not received well by many. Some felt it was inherently cruel, while others argued it was too soon for criticism or the wordplay. Bam Margera was especially infuriated since it hadn't been 100% verified yet that alcohol had played a part in the crash. Dunn's friend fired back at Ebert, tweeting, "I just lost my best friend, I have been crying hysterical for a full day and piece of [expletive] roger ebert has the gall to put in his 2 cents."

Two days after Dunn and Hartwell's death and his initial tweet, Ebert wrote a follow-up piece on his personal blog. While he did apologize for the timing and explained he did not intend to be cruel, he stopped short of a full apology. He did label his own tweet "unseemly," but he returned to the idea that Dunn's behavior was unquestionably wrong and worthy of condemnation. However, as he'd tweeted on reflex without all the information, Ebert allowed he made a bad choice.

Tributes to Ryan Dunn

Despite the tragic consequences of his actions, Dunn's death left many bereft. After all, the man was beloved by many — both people in his personal life and those who followed his adventures on the screen. As a result, fans and friends met the news of his death with an outpouring of social media posts. Musical artists like Kings of Leon and Skrillex dedicated songs from their concerts to Dunn's memory in the days after his demise. Singer-songwriter Roger Alan Wade even wrote an original piece for him, which played at Dunn's memorial service in a special tribute video. 

In 2013, the film "Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa" hit theaters everywhere. It was the first big-screen project from the Jackass crew since 2011, and Dunn's co-workers and friends dedicated the project to their late friend. In commemorative and anniversary releases, the group has continued to feature Dunn in archival footage, and despite his tragic life, the man's legend still lives on through his crazy work in the world of "Jackass."