So you think you had a tough week? Well, consider the one Hal Needham just had. On Monday he was shot in the back with an arrow. Tuesday he rolled his car over. The next day he fell 65 feet out of a tree. Thursday he was hit with a chair in a brawl and shoved down a flight of stairs. Friday Needham's horse fell on him. And that was not the end of it. Saturday afternoon he planned to go easy-riding near Burbank. He revved up his bike and took off, though not at all as he intended. Pranksters had chained the motorcycle to a pole. Needham nose-dived over the handlebars and crunched to the pavement.
Now if he were normal, Needham would have taken to bed—which presumably would be a safer place—but Needham is hardly normal: he is a movie stunt man. And after the week's abuse, he was not only $4,500 richer but also little the worse for wear—a claim which few Americans could make. Special equipment and practiced techniques protect him, but equally vital in Needham's trade is athletic talent.
Some of Hollywood's stunt men are former Olympians—men like decathlon superstar C. K. Yang and Dean Smith, a gold medalist on the 400-meter relay team in Helsinki. Vic Paul is a former Pacific Coast Conference fencer; Pete Peterson, a surfing champion; Mickey Gilbert, once a college rodeo standout; Merlin Olsen, an All-Pro defensive tackle for the Rams. Frank Orsatti once was a promising centerfielder in the Cardinal farm system. (His father, Ernie, took the reverse route, beginning as a stunt man doubling for Buster Keaton and afterward becoming one of the famed Gashouse Gang.)
Though most of these athletes' competing years are over, they continue in surprisingly vigorous training. Loren Janes, who was a college swimmer, diver and gymnast and the first civilian ever to compete in the U.S. Olympic modern pentathlon trials, is only slightly more enthusiastic than most stunt men. He runs between five and 15 miles daily and, when not working at the studio, spends four to six hours a day practicing stunting skills. His backyard is his workshop, a layout with an archery range, trampoline, 30-foot rope climb and horizontal and parallel bars.
January 31, 1972
Conditioning may harden the stunt man to all the abrupt stops, but it is sports equipment—football hip pads, ice hockey knee and elbow pads, Joe Azcue-model baseball shin guards—that softens the blows and makes them bearable. When Hal Needham did his head-over-heels motorcycle scene, he swathed himself in this sort of gear and wore, as well, two heavy leather-and-wool vests. Skidding over the pavement, he broke open his helmet and tore through both vests.
There is only a vague appreciation by the public of the stunt men's part in films and little understanding of the risks involved. Bob Rose, an ex-jockey who long ago turned to stunting and became a master of airplane routines, has a fairly precise formula to separate the sane stunt from the insane. He learned it from Houdini. "He had a theory that you had to engineer all aspects of every trick," Rose explains. "You had to figure a stunt to where the odds were 7 to 3 in your favor and to where your ability would take care of the three. That seemed a sensible gauge to me and I've always used it." Well, almost always. In 1917 Rose decided to buy an airplane. He looked around for a while, kicked a few tires and finally settled on an OX Jenny. He took it up for a checkout flight, landed, refueled and took it up once more. Rose was delighted with the plane and amazed that it was so easy to handle. After all, it was the first time he had ever flown anything.
It was Rose, doubling for Eddie Cantor in Strike Me Pink, who did a scene requiring such intricate timing that it is still regarded as one of the finest stunts Hollywood ever produced. Rose plunged from the top of a roller coaster rig and on the way down grabbed a parasol from a lady zooming by on the coaster. With it he wafted safely to the ground.
If the bravery—or, if you will, bravado—of stunt men is largely uncelebrated, actors often are awed by those who double for them. "I admire them for the same reason I admire Laver and Rosewall—because what they do they do with perfection," says Charlton Heston. "They are superbly conditioned athletes with extraordinary reflexes and ability to control emergencies. I know: I owe my life to one, Joe Canutt. We are close friends. When he introduces me to a stranger, he says, 'This is Chuck Heston. He does my dialogue.' Canutt saved me during a fight with battle axes in The War Lord. He usually doubles me, but this time the director kept me in the fight and had Joe double the actor I was supposed to be fighting. What happened was that I forgot to duck. Joe had started to swing his battle ax at my head; his momentum and the weight of the weapon were propelling him forward and there was no way he could stop. He saved me at the last instant by somehow falling over backward."
Had the scene been shot 40 years before, Heston might not have been so fortunate. At that time, stunt men were known for their "90-proof courage"—straight from the bottle. Walk-ons were used, men who came off the streets and said, sure, for five bucks they would gladly swing a battle ax at anyone.
It was not unusual in those days for a cameraman and a stunt man to drive the streets looking for comedy situations. Finding a fire or a construction site, the stunt man would leap into action, doing a half gainer from the building that was burning down or dangling by his fingertips from the one that was going up. Stunt men would fall from cars in Hollywood traffic and dodge through—sometimes even under—screeching sedans to get reel life drama. There are stories of streets being slicked with soap, causing dandy skids for stunt men—and unsuspecting motorists. These ad-lib scenes were not part of any script, but the footage, if it was exciting enough, would be spliced into movies. Stunting remained a haphazard occupation until late in the '20s, when three men—Richard Talmadge, David Sharpe and Yakima Canutt—began insisting on some common sense and precautions.
They were fine athletes. Talmadge had been a member of the Flying Metzetti acrobatic and trapeze family, the first (and he is still the only) tumbler ever to do a quadruple somersault. Sharpe won the national AAU tumbling title in 1925 and 1926. Canutt (whose son is now Heston's double) had a shoe box full of gold buckles to show for his four seasons as world champion rodeo cowboy. Though they were viewed as radicals, the men held to their code—maximum effect with minimum risk. They insisted on carefully planning each gag and making certain those who performed the stunts had sufficient athletic ability.
Douglas Fairbanks Sr. was an early advocate of these athlete-stunt men. Talmadge, now 73, recalls his first meeting with Fairbanks; "He had broken a finger during the filming of The Mollycoddle in 1919 and I decided to approach him and ask if he needed a double. Usually he did his own stunts and did them with real flair and grace. That day at the studio he said to me, 'I don't want a stunt man; I want an athlete. Can you jump?' We were walking across a stage and I took a few steps and leaped over an upright piano. 'You're hired,' he said."
In those days Talmadge occasionally worked for a group modeled on the Keystone Kops. "Nearly all the stunts were impromptu," he says. "We'd climb into a car and wait for the nine o'clock train from San Francisco. When we got a signal that the train was coming, we'd just drive onto the tracks and sit there. The car would be stuffed with people, some wedged in headfirst with their feet kicking the air, some holding onto the sides of the car. We would barely make it off the tracks in time; the engineer would shake his fist at us as he passed."
Talmadge became such an artist at blending comedy and acrobatics that moviegoers simply would not believe what they were seeing. At the time there were studios that actually put together gags by focus-pocus. For instance, they would lower a man over the side of a building on a rope and he would slide to the ground. Then the film would be reversed and the audience would see him doing an astonishing rope climb up the side of a skyscraper. But Talmadge's gags were true to life. So in 1923 the producers of Let's Go gave him an on-screen tribute: "The amazing athletic 'stunts' performed by Mr. Talmadge in this picture are actual, and are not achieved by means of 'doubles,' 'dummies' or tricks of the camera."
Talmadge's skill had Fort Lee, N.J. (the Hollywood of the time) mesmerized. He could, and did, jump from one building to another, 12 stories up and with no net. Once, in a Slim Somerville Western, he fell 72 feet without pads. And in another film, playing a fugitive from the law, he plunged from a roof through seven awnings and dropped into a waiting car. Unfortunately it was not the getaway vehicle but one owned by the chief of police.
Talmadge had less successful and more painful filming experiences as well. A director once persuaded him to leave the hospital, where he was recuperating from a severe back injury. Almost immobile, he was lifted up the side of a building by a pulley and left hanging by his fingertips on a narrow ledge. When the signal came, Talmadge was to let go, which he did, but the net holders missed him. To the astonishment of everyone, himself included, Talmadge felt fine on regaining consciousness. "Somehow," he says, "the fall fixed my back."
But increasingly severe accidents, to himself and fellow stunt men, eventually convinced Talmadge that there had to be a better way of achieving the same effects. Like Sharpe and Canutt, he decided that action sequences should be carefully plotted and gags that were too chancy eliminated. The stunt men usually could concoct routines even more spectacular and infinitely safer. One Talmadge creation, a scene he is proud of, featured a man doing a handstand high above the deck of a freighter, one that was bound from Brooklyn to Barcelona, according to the script. As the handstand took place, the 600 people on shipboard rushed to one side to watch—which caused the 250-foot boat to keel over and capsize.
Dave Sharpe did not take nearly as long to become safety conscious. As a stunt man still active at 62, he has led a charmed life; his injuries have been minimal. Sharpe is dapper and mustachioed. He retains the good looks that once made him a leading man, but a tin voice hindered that career and he switched to stunting. Since then Sharpe has appeared in more than 4,000 movies, serials and TV shows. In a Mod Squad role he so convincingly portrayed an elderly man being hit by a car that a former stunt man watching the scene groaned out loud.
Sharpe's most acclaimed performance was in The Great Race. In that movie he was lashed into a straitjacket and hung by his ankles from a balloon some 3,500 feet in the air. During the filming the balloon rose and fell, drifting across Kentucky tobacco fields, and it came perilously close to slamming Sharpe into a tobacco drying barn. In another scene, Sharpe dived 40 feet out of a castle into a rowboat, landing on target—between the knees of an oarsman. He went straight through the balsawood bottom and sank from sight, leaving his Cossack hat floating serenely across the lake.
"Before my time there were extreme daredevils," Sharpe says, "men who would say a couple Hail Marys and off they'd go. Many who want to be stunt men don't put the job in the right perspective. They have visions of self-glory. No stunt man will last if he takes a highly emotional approach to the job."
Talmadge and Sharpe did much to refine the profession, but chiefly it was Yakima Canutt who told directors to go hang by their thumbs when they asked the impossible. Back then, he was a brusque man, who could be tough as his rawhide chaps when provoked, yet he was so capable that studios chose not to offend him. In 1966 Canutt received an honorary Oscar, the only one ever given a stunt man. The citation read: "For achievements as a stunt man and for developing safety devices to protect stunt men everywhere." The "everywhere," so far as Canutt was concerned, meant from scalp to sole as well as from Hollywood to Brazzaville.
"Yakima created the profession in Europe," Charlton Heston says. "When we were doing El Cid in Spain he trained some Gypsies. They were all guts and would crash through windows but they would almost always be hurt. Yakima made them learn safer ways. He trained 7,000 as Spanish cavalry and 250 to be mounted police. That done, the director of the film said Yakima was charging too much and that he would use the Spaniards from then on. Canutt was sore; he headed for the railroad station. A scene was being filmed of a horse being shot from under an Arab. The director tried it over and over and the stunt man couldn't do it right. Finally the director snapped, 'Get Canutt.' It was just like in the movies: they raced to the station to get Yak and bring him back. He took off his tie, rolled up his pants, put on a robe and burnoose and marked an X in the sand. On the first take he made the horse fall right on the X."
It was Canutt who taught John Wayne to stride across the screen like a cowboy and usually it was Canutt, not Wayne, who was seen fighting on top of runaway stagecoaches or hurtling from a mountain hideaway to knock a rider from a horse. "Yak is the most magnificent man in the world," says Wayne.
Canutt was a rodeo star of such magnitude in his day that he was brought to Hollywood as a leading man in Westerns. After 50 or so movies, the talkies came in and Canutt's career was over. His voice was squishy soft, like a half-inflated tire. Like Sharpe, he decided to make stunting his profession.
He perfected much of the basic equipment of the trade, including the "running W" and the "ironing board." The running W consists of crisscrossed wires, which, when yanked by a rider, pull a horse's feet from under him. Pressure from humane societies has brought an end to its use. The ironing board, however, remains popular. It is a plank placed between a team of horses about a foot off the ground. It is narrow enough not to be visible on screen, yet wide enough for stunt men to grab should they miss a jump. Before Canutt came up with the idea, a fall between galloping horses could be fatal. Canutt also designed breakaway equipment for those scenes where horses and wagon would hurtle off a cliff. The team could be cut loose from the wagon in midair. The apparatus was used in Dark Command where a team plunged into a lake. "It was so successful that all of us—horses and men—were set to work again within 30 minutes," Canutt says.
Despite his inventiveness, Canutt had his share of accidents. Doing a routine fall from a covered wagon in the early '40s, his boots snagged in the landing net and his legs were broken. He tells, too, of a mishap while doubling for Clark Gable in Boom Town. "I was supposed to ride a mule," he says. "They were really tough bucking broncs with rubber ears that made them look like mules. The animal was supposed to throw me over a fence, but things didn't work out. There was take after take; we kept at it all night and I rode 17 head of buckin' horse. On the last ride, just before daylight, the horse went over backward. By then my reflexes weren't too good and I didn't react. He landed on top of me, his four feet straight toward the sky and me still in the saddle. I shoved him over with a leg, but he had done me in pretty good."
Canutt, 76, has long since retired from active stunting but he serves as a highly paid action director, traveling around the world to stage sequences for epics like Khartoum. That movie was shot in Egypt in 120° heat and Canutt spent half a year training 5,000 extras to fight on cue and 6,000 animals—camels, cows, sheep, goats—to go the right way at the right time.
It was he who managed what is probably Hollywood's grandest scene, the chariot race in Ben Hur. In it, Canutt's son Joe, doubling for Heston, catapulted his chariot over two others. A takeoff ramp had to be built to get the 700-pound vehicle airborne, but even with that boost it was no mean feat. "I tied the reins to the chariot railing so that Joe could hold on with both hands without losing control of the team," Yakima says. "And I warned Joe to hold both front and back railings so he would not be jolted from the chariot when the horses jumped." But Joe, striving for added effect, put both hands on the front rail. As the horses caromed off the ramp he was flung loose. He vaulted upward and, desperately tightening his grip, did a handstand on the rail. He fell and was tossed into a wall. A few stitches were taken in his chin and then he went back to work.
The heyday of stunting was during the '30s and '40s. Then the picture show was a way of life with Americans and people were entertained by cowboys and Indians, thrillers, chillers and lowbrow comedy. Hollywood produced a steady run of potboilers—some quite literally that. Stunt man Tom Steele, an ex-polo player, used to specialize in scenes where he seemed sure to be drowned in a cauldron of hot oil. He would always be left dangling at the end of the film so that the audience would return the following week, when they would witness his astonishing escape. These films with subpar acting, aimless dialogue and thin plots filled the movie houses. The serials—Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, Ghost of Zorro—were held together by action sequences, and the audience left with a feeling that it had gotten its money's worth. Perhaps it was worth 25¢ admission to see, say, Harvey Parry dive 110 feet into the ocean. Stunt men charged across deserts and mine fields, they fell off buildings, they rolled down stairs, they climbed mountains, flew planes, crashed cars. The profession increasingly drew athletes: Boyd Morgan, once a blocking back for the Redskins; Dale Van Sickel, the University of Florida's first All-America; Jock Mahoney, a basketball and swimming letterman at Iowa; Kermit Maynard, a halfback at Indiana and later a world champion trick and fancy rider; and Olympians like Fred Zendar, Russ Saunders and Stubby Kruger. Kruger, a backstroker at the 1920 Games, often filled in for Johnny Weissmuller in the more demanding swimming scenes in Tarzan movies. And 30 years before Don Schollander collected his four gold medals at Tokyo, his mother was paddling across jungle rivers doubling for Janes.
Stunt women have been around for a long time, too. Helen Thurston, an acrobat and trampolinist, is one of the more noted. Doubling for Doris Day, she once walked on a girder 40 feet above the ground in pitch dark. When the spotlights were switched on she was blinded and slipped, but she grabbed an upright. She got to her feet and finished the job. She shot a rapids for Marilyn Monroe, cracked up a car for Jane Russell and slipped on a banana peel for Ethel Merman. Now there is a fledgling Stunt-women's Association with 17 members.
In point of fact, there are not all that many accredited stunt men, just 140 in the Stuntmen's Association of Motion Pictures. These men are an elite, working under frightfully demanding conditions. "A producer might ask you if you can rope a calf, which seems simple enough," explains Mickey Gilbert, "but then you go out to do it and 500 people are yelling in the scene, a wind machine is blowing up a storm, maybe there is a fire blazing or guys throwing spears at you." Such is the pressure and only professionals can cope with it. Yet when a man is involved in an accident on the West Coast and doesn't have a job, he glibly tells the police he is a stunt man. Something like this happened in the Charles Manson case. One of the victims was said to be a stunt man. He wasn't. Last year former stunt man John Hagner opened a hall of fame for the profession in Lancaster, Calif., and possibly this will help the image.
The inner circle of stunting is now an organization called Stunts Unlimited, which was founded by Hal Needham and a few friends. Its two dozen members claim to do 80% of the stunt work in Hollywood. Meanwhile, the industry as a whole has been suffering from a lack of jobs. A report by the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence, warning that violence on television was affecting viewers, contributed to unemployment. Networks altered programming with drastic consequences to stunt men.
"There is a distinction between violence and action that I don't think is understood," says Bob Herron, a past president of the Stuntmen's Association. "We feel action is a logical extension of drama and we're interested in doing stunts that make shows exciting. But violence is not our bag. We aren't interested in eye-gouging and murder. The policy in this matter is inconsistent. TV news programs show violence nightly and many old movies are filled with it."
An advocate for the stunt men is John Strong, a young assistant director. He says, "Without action there would have been no Randolph Scott, no Paul Muni, no Gary Cooper, no Heston, no Peck. Stunt men were the ones who made these actors and their movies."
Producers are still very much aware of the value of stunting; only a few years ago when a studio realized it had a multimillion-dollar dud on its hands, it called in a leading stunt man and had him create and execute some chilling footage. The movie was transformed and on release won four-star acclaim.
Take the recent movie The French Connection. It is a car chase that provides the most unforgettable scene. It took two weeks to shoot the ten-minute sequence on Stillwell Avenue near New York's Coney Island. Stunt man Bill Hickman (who also played a minor part in the film—the cop shot at the end) started the job with three look-alike bronze Pontiacs and he and Actor Gene Hackman wrecked two of them before they were satisfied with the scene.
Another of Hollywood's slambang drivers is Carey Loftin. His scenes are so risky they appall other stunt men. Loftin thinks nothing of crashing headlong into a wall at 100 mph, rolling a car over three times or jumping one off a ramp 100 feet in the air. But with all this, Loftin insists he is cautious: "I won't do anything I can't do twice in the same day." He had his worst accident—300 stitches in his face—driving home from work.
Loftin has a ready test for his reflexes. He has someone hold a dollar bill vertically, its bottom edge poised between his thumb and index finger. As the bill is released, Loftin tries to grasp it. And invariably he does. "I will catch eight out of 10 while the best most people can manage is two out of 10 attempts," he says.
Split-second reflexes are a valuable commodity. For example, when Loren Janes was asked to devise some hair-raising footage for Bullitt, he decided he would sprint under the fuselage of a jet taking off into the night. Cameras were set up at San Francisco International Airport. Janes fell flat under the belly of the jet and luckily his calculations were correct and he had his wits about him—the rear wheels roared by, missing him by inches. Black tires on black runway in black of night. For all that drama, Janes earned $5,000.
Few stunt men indulge in insurance; it is too costly. And because scenes are so well engineered, no longer born out of desperation, insurance is really not necessary. "Take a fight," Hal Needham explains. "It is choreographed. Everything flows: when you finish throwing one punch you have to be in position to take the next one. You throw exaggerated punches. Directors have tried real boxers, but they're no good. Their punches are too fast to be appreciated. What really sells a punch is the way you take it. I keep my hair long so that when I take a punch I can sell it by snapping my head back and have my hair fly out like this." Porcupine quills seem to shoot from his scalp as he demonstrates.
"When I began stunting," Needham continues, "I built platforms in a tree to practice high falls. I'd go off, land in a net and climb back and fall again. Falling is an art. I learned coming off the platforms different ways, from different heights, at all angles. Every routine is planned, but the unexpected sometimes happens. I once was injured in a 65-foot fall out of a tree. The trouble was I had to wait 45 minutes for the sun to come out. Adrenalin's great, but after they got me set to fall a few times and then called it off because of the sun I had a letdown. By the time I finally did the stunt, I had lost my edge. I broke my leg."
Needham appears in Little Big Man, leaping onto a six-horse team going all-out. He and other stunt men who worked on that picture endured 122° heat in Billings, Mont. and intense cold in Calgary, Canada, where, with the chill factor, the temperature was figured at 70° below. "Needham did a remarkable job training the Indians we used for Custer's Last Stand," said Robert Rosen of Cinema Center Films. "I've worked with Indians before, and the first day you get 500 of them, the next day 300, and the third day you're lucky if 80 show up. But Needham got them coordinated. We were on location in Hardin, Mont., where there is a museum and monuments to Custer and his men. Crosses mark where each fell. The morning we were going to shoot the big scene I was out there at seven and it was a beautiful day, the soft wind blowing through the tall grass and ruffling it. Sort of eerie. I saw a man, his wife and three kids reading the names on a monument. They had no idea that a movie was being shot. Then up over the hill came 750 Crow Indians in full war paint on charging horses. The kids took off running and the man and woman clutched each other."
"At the start of filming," says Hal Needham, "I told the Indians, 'Before we're finished you'll wish I had been with Custer and you could have scalped me.' They had rubber tips on the arrows they used but some of them took the tips off and sharpened the points. One hit a stunt man with one of those sharp arrows and the guy lost his eye. After that I warned the Indians I'd make a bow tie out of their weapons if they tried that again. One Indian snorted, 'I wouldn't mind having a bow tie.' I made like I didn't hear him, but when he rode by me I whipped him off his horse and that was the end of that."
Needham owns 200 head of horses, which he rents to studios. Some have been trained to fall, a trick so old Napoleon used it with his war-horses. Ideally, the ground where the animals go down should be loosened. "There are horses that don't want to fall but there is one surefire method of making them," Needham says. "You give a hard yank on the reins with one hand and swing his head around. Then pull hard with the other hand, bringing the animal's head into your lap.
"I earned $125,000 apiece with my two best horses. Alamo is still going strong, but I lost Hondo during Little Big Man. We were going hard when he hit a chuck hole and broke his leg. Shoot, I make more money now than I ever knew they printed. Some $60,000 last year for stunts and directing. But it's not the money that keeps me in this game. It's the work and doing each gag just right so that it comes off looking real and easy and exciting."
That, essentially, is what spurs accomplished stunt men, what makes them go to such extraordinary lengths despite the risks. Take the case of Chuck Couch, who worked on a movie shot at the Grand Canyon. He was to leap at the last instant into a tramcar going across the canyon. If he missed, he would fall a mile into the gorge. The timing of the sequence was off as Couch made his attempt. Crewmen yelled for him to stop but apparently he did not hear them. He leapt, catching the pulley with his fingers. The distance of his jump was so astounding the movie crew decided to measure it. It was 26 feet. Perhaps Bob Beamon's broad-jump record, which was only some three feet longer, should be regarded as merely the second most amazing athletic feat of our time.