The problem wasn't riding the car down a rain-swollen river and over a roaring 70-foot waterfall. Terry Leonard had meticulously planned that part of what was to be the most important stunt in the 1984 adventure-comedy Romancing the Stone. Leonard was even looking forward to the moment just before the cable caught the car, when he would propel himself from the running board into a majestic swan dive. "I was going to do a Greg Louganis into the smooth water," Leonard says. "The one thing I knew I couldn't do was land in the impact zone under the falls. It was like a 70-foot wave that never ends."
This is an article from the Oct. 5, 1992 issue
The problem was that the car was moving so fast that it snapped the retaining cable. That sent Leonard and fellow stuntman Vince Dedrick Jr., who were doubling for actors Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner, plunging straight into an area that was being hit by hundreds of tons of water and was about to be hit by a couple more tons of automobile. "I was falling right with the car, dead center into the impact zone." Leonard says. "And while it was happening, I knew I was dying, that this was the end of my life. And I remember hoping they got the shot all right."
Leonard, now 51, survived that fall, as he has survived dozens of others equally perilous in a 26-year career that has taken him from saloon fights with the Duke to his most recent job as stunt coordinator on the forthcoming classic Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III. Surviving is the one thing, above all others, that a stuntman is supposed to do. "Anybody can be a daredevil if he's crazy enough," says Dean Smith, a 38-year veteran of falling down for a living. "A stuntman is a guy who has to go to work the next day."
It is not always the best stuntmen who survive longest. Dar Robinson, one of the legendary stuntmen in the movies, died in 1986 when a motorcycle he was riding hit some loose gravel and went over a cliff. Robinson had plunged 230 feet into an air bag for the 1978 movie Hooper and walked away without a scratch, but on the day he died, he was performing a relatively easy stunt for the TV movie Million Dollar Mystery. "You'd better damn sure pay attention to what you're doing every second," Leonard says, "because it's going to catch up with you sooner or later, and you'd better be ready when it does."
Stuntwork is one of the few businesses that can be as cutthroat as professional sports—"where they'll chuck you out like a piece of meat when they're through with you," says Leonard, who, before going to Hollywood, was a running back for Wisconsin-Milwaukee in the early 1960s and for the British Columbia Lions of the CFL in '66, and who qualified for the Olympic trials as a decathlete in '60 and '64. Top stuntmen can make from $100,000 to $200,000 a year, and the best stunt coordinators, of whom there are only about 20, make as much as $400,000. There are 2,000 stunt actors registered with the Screen Actors Guild, but only about 300 of them work regularly. "It's always been who you know," says Smith. "The most difficult damn stunt I ever did was trying to get a job."
The profession enforces its own brand of Darwinism, a kind of survival of the hippest. Most of the feuding is about jobs and reputations, and it almost always cuts across generational lines, pitting the cowboys against the comers. Sometimes it gets nasty. "There are guys who, if their best friend is up for a show and they know his price, will bid under him to get the show," says Loren Janes, still working at age 61 after surviving calamity and vicious competition for nearly four decades.
If the stunt coordinator—who sets the stunt budget, chooses the stunt actors and designs many of the action sequences—is a favor-currying toady, the consequences can be lethal. "There are a lot of guys who are yes-men," says stuntman Joel Kramer, 35. "Anything the director wants, it's 'Yessir, we'll do it. I'll go break his leg as long as we gel the shot you want.' "
A canon of ethics is something most stuntmen are more likely to be shot out of than read. Stuntmen are the movies' ultimate solitary figures, existential supermen all alone out on a ledge, taking the pain for others in their own adrenaline-crazed, Christ-like way. They spend about as much time with their arms covering their faces as purse snatchers do, trying to preserve the illusion that it is actually Bruce Willis being thrown down an elevator shaft or Harrison Ford perched like a hood ornament on the front of a speeding truck. This allows leading men to tell one of Hollywood's most venerable lies: I did all my own stunts on that picture.
"If they say that, they're lying," Janes swears. "The insurance companies won't allow it."
"The reason they have doubles." says Smith, "is because if some big star gets hurl, the studio's going to lose its bull." Kevin Costner, whose butt will never be lost as long as there are movies to show it in, was widely rumored to have performed his own stunts while making last summer's hit Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. When the credits rolled at the end of the movie, they listed 59 stuntpersons and only 37 actors. You didn't have to be Oliver Stone to figure out that Costner did not act alone.
The bigger the star, the greater the peril for his stunt double. "If you're doubling a hero and you jump from a horse to a moving train," Janes says, "you have to stand up in the saddle and dive 10 or 15 feet to make him look more like a stud." Action films need plenty of swashbuckling, and none needed it more than the 1981 blockbuster Raiders of the Lost Ark, in which Leonard—who was doubling for Ford in the part of Indiana Jones—gave the picture its action centerpiece, perhaps the most famous stunt in the history of the movies. Lowering himself under the wheels of a moving truck, Leonard allowed himself to be dragged hundreds of yards by a bullwhip lashed to the truck's undercarriage, then climbed heroically back aboard to surprise the villainous Nazi at the wheel.
"To me it wasn't a big deal—just another day's work," Leonard says. "Nobody knew Raiders was going to be such a big hit." The truck sequence was modeled on a stunt performed 42 years earlier by Yakima Canutt, the first of the great Hollywood stuntmen, in the classic Stagecoach.
"I had tried the same stunt two months earlier with a stagecoach and a team of horses in The Legend of the Lone Ranger, and I got run over by the rear wheel of the coach," Leonard says. "I got under those horses and there were 24 hooves pounding about a foot from my head. That was one of those moments you ask yourself, What am I doing here? Then one of the horses stepped on me and broke my handhold, and unfortunately the wheel ran over both of my legs." There were no broken bones, but Leonard suffered torn cartilage and ligaments in his left knee.
Also unfortunately, nobody went to see The Legend of the Lone Ranger. "People don't remember that stunt," Leonard says, shaking his head, "and I consider it one of the highlights of my career."
The insurance companies that bond all movie productions list stuntmen as professional athletes, which seems like a reasonable characterization until you try to imagine, say, a baseball player nostalgically describing the time the team bus ran over both his legs. The best stuntmen have the agility of defensive backs, the ingenuity of point guards and the anonymity of bullpen catchers. And they will play with pain.
"The mark of a good stuntman—the mark of a good athlete—is, when the play is broken, how do you perform?" Leonard says. "You're doing a car chase at 60 miles an hour in downtown L.A., and some drunk wanders out into the middle of the street. You have a heartbeat to make a decision: Do you cat the building? Do you hit the drunk? Do you try to stop and risk losing the shot?"
Like most top stuntmen, Leonard hears the heartbeat of a defining moment with almost perfect pitch. It is an instinct he developed as a football player, decathlete and professional rodeo cowboy. (He still competes in team roping in about 25 rodeos every year.) "Stuntmen have to be among the most diversified athletes in the world," says Leonard.
When he arrived in Los Angeles a quarter of a century ago, the era of the great Hollywood Westerns was beginning its long ride into the sunset. "When we were getting paid to play cowboys and Indians, that was the golden age for stuntmen," Leonard says. "It was a much more physical era. I'd say 60 percent of these stuntmen working today would be out of the business if Hollywood was still making Westerns." When the time came, many of the old cowboys were slow to make the transition to car chases. Some may have felt that, as Leonard says only partly in jest, "Car work is for sissies. Horse work is for men."
After the 1977 release of Star Wars, the first of the great special-effects blockbusters, it became obvious to a rising generation of stuntmen that there would be no going back from playing cyborgs to playing cowhands. "You have to change with the times, or you just fall off the edge of the earth," says Kramer, who used a Macintosh computer to design the schematics for the technically demanding stunts in Terminator 2 and Total Recall.
No one in the history of Hollywood was ever faster on his feet or slower to change his mind than Smith, who won a gold medal in the sprint relay at the 1952 Summer Olympics in Helsinki and has spent most of the past two decades waiting for the Western to come back. Though he didn't start running competitively until 1949, his final year of high school in Breckenridge, Texas, Smith placed fourth in the 100-yard dash at Helsinki after finishing in a virtual dead heat with three other runners. The following year Smith played wide receiver for the Los Angeles Rams in several exhibition games, but when the Rams traded him to Pittsburgh, he walked away from an NFL career rather than leave Hollywood.
"I had seen too many of them Western movies on Saturday and Sunday back in Texas," he says. "Ol' Roy Rogers and Gene Autry impressed me, and I wanted to be like them. I didn't really want to be a stuntman, but I was physical and had to use what I had." He doubled for Robert Red ford in The Sting (1973), Jeremiah Johnson (1972) and Three Days of the Condor (1975). The first time he ever jumped from the second story of a building onto a horse, in the 1981 movie The Legend of the Golden Gun, Smith stuffed a towel in his pants "so I wouldn't give myself a rupture," then jumped and landed so hard that he knocked down the horse.
Smith's head and heart may be trapped in the '50s, but his body looks more thirtyish than 60. He concentrated on being fit before fitness was fashionable. "Guys would get done working, they'd head to the bar," he says. "I'd go out and run in my boots." When he was well into his 30's, his hair graying prematurely, Smith still enjoyed taking on the fastest guy in town when he went on location. The crew bet heavily on Smith with the locals. He never lost. When he was 40, he ran a 9.7 100-yard dash.
Smith is still running as fast as he can, trying to stay in place while he waits for the cowboy movies to come back. He runs sprints and hurdles, and he trains his trick horses Sunday and Hollywood to smile, count and bow. "The Western movie was bigger than life," he says. "That's the difference between then and now, there ain't nothin' bigger than life now. The bloom is off the sage out here."
Hooper, the movie about a stuntman trying to make the adjustment from horseback to horsepower, ends with Sonny Hooper (played by Burt Reynolds) and a young stuntman named Ski confronting the stuntman's central dilemma. The two of them come to the edge of a chasm that they are supposed to jump across in a rocket-powered car, and with the cameras rolling Ski decides the car will never make it and says he wants to back out. "My life's worth more than a piece of film," he says.
"I'll tell you exactly what your life is worth," Hooper says. "Your life is worth $50,000. That's the price you put on it when you got behind this wheel." The director, hovering overhead in a helicopter, radios the two stuntmen that they face the only fate in Hollywood worse than death. "If you do not try to make this jump," the director says, "you'll never work in this town again." They jump.
Directors, with dark poetic visions that frequently include setting stuntmen on fire and dropping them off tall buildings into moving cars, can be particular obstacles to survival. "Everybody wants a car chase better than Bullitt" says Janes. "Often they ask you for stuff that's impossible. If I'm working with some director who hopes I die because it looks good on film, I just do it my way." Those directors are rare in Hollywood these days, but according to Steve Perry, who directed the stunt sequences in Lethal Weapon 3, all directors want to "create a little more jeopardy, enhance the danger."
Who said a coward dies a thousand deaths, a brave man only one? Stuntmen play the endless little boy's game of death and resurrection on multimillion-dollar budgets. "Everything a kid dreams of becoming—a cowboy, fireman, policeman, war hero—I've been all those things," Janes says. "I've been a pirate, swinging from ship to ship on ropes. I've been set on fire, I've done high falls. I've had a Boeing 707 run over me."
Well, there are job interviews and there are job interviews, but you have to wonder what the rèsumès for that audition looked like. What exactly do you say to someone to convince him you're the best person to be run over by a 150,000-pound Boeing 707 passenger jetliner? Do you make fawning small talk about the crop-duster scene in North by Northwest?
Janes, who competed in swimming, diving, gymnastics and water polo at Cal Poly and was the first civilian to compete at the U.S. Olympic trials in the modern pentathlon, let a 707 roll over him during the climactic chase in Bullitt (1968) while doubling for Steve McQueen. Janes was McQueen's stuntman for 22 years. The scene in Bullitt called for Janes to dodge the plane's front wheel as it thundered past him, then dive to the ground and try to stay between the wheels. "If they run over me, I'm dead, I'm squished," Janes says. "I told a pilot I'd just be a wet spot on the runway, and he said, 'No, no, the exhaust would dry you up.' " I went through seven pilots before I found one who would do it."
Janes flew out of the backseat of a convertible that was being driven into San Francisco Bay at 75 miles per hour in What's Up Doc? (1972), re-created the 60-foot fall that crippled skier Jill Kinmont in The Other Side of the Mountain (1975) and was set ablaze in director David Lynch's Wild at Heart (1990). Lynch wanted Janes to stagger around a bedroom engulfed in flames for almost a minute, touching eight spots in the room to set them all on fire. "You start to get warm, then you get hot, and 10 seconds later your flesh starts peeling," Janes says. "When your body perspires, it's like boiling in your own juice." Janes did it anyway.
There is an old line about a hard guy demonstrating his power by holding his hand over a flame until the flesh burns. Someone asks, "What's the trick?" and the man replies, "The trick is not minding." The same goes for stuntmen: The trick is not minding. "I know some of the things I do are going to hurt me," says Mic Rodgers, 39, who recently completed another tour as Mel Gibson's stunt double in Lethal Weapon 3. "Sometimes you get stunts in which you just have to muscle up and be willing to hit the ground hard. If you can do it without saying a word, then get up and do it again, you can sec the respect in the eyes of the other stunt guys. And that feeling is like an addictive drug. You have to be very careful you don't let it take control of you. You only get so many years to do this before you're just another old guy with a limp."
Rodgers has broken both his ankles at least twice, broken a hip while doubling for TV's Incredible Hulk and had two operations on a shoulder that he both fractured and dislocated doing a motorcycle jump. "Sometimes the shoulder pops out when I reach for my wallet." he says. Rodgers refuses to take shots for pain but concedes he is even more addicted to aspirin than to the respect of his peers.
Kramer broke his back four years ago when a stunt went wrong while he was doubling for Arnold Schwarzenegger in Total Recall. When Leonard broke his back jumping a horse through a window while filming The Wind and the Lion in the Arabian desert in 1974, he was so accustomed to pain that he kept working. "The X-ray technicians over there weren't too good, and they missed the vertebra I had cracked," Leonard says, "so I kept doing stunts until I also shattered my collarbone and dislocated my shoulder." He underwent the second of two hip-replacement operations last November. "I've got more titanium in me than most 747s," he says. He has torn up both his knees, broken most of his ribs and been knocked unconscious so many times that he can't remember, or wishes he couldn't. "I don't like to talk about the injuries," he says. "If you brag about 'em too much, people start wondering how you got so banged up if you're any damn good."
Some stuntmen stuff so much protective padding under their clothes that they walk around the set looking like defensive linemen, but there is a sort of unwritten code that discourages this. "I hate to hear a guy who's a total squid strutting around talking about the car hit he just did, when he was padded up like the Michelin Man," Rodgers says. "You rarely hear the guys who are total ground pounders talking about it."
Stuntwomen, on the other hand, frequently have to take their lumps with no protective padding at all. This is particularly true in action pictures, in which women tend to be portrayed as prostitutes, cocktail waitresses or cocktail waitresses hoping to become prostitutes. "When I have to fall down a flight of stairs, I'm usually in high heels and a miniskirt," says stuntwoman Lori Lynn Ross. "There's no room for pads, so we have to take more bumps and bruises than the men. You just have to accept the fact that it's going to hurt."
Many stunt actors say the physical pain is nothing compared with the nearly paralyzing fear that sometimes overcomes them the moment before they throw themselves into the abyss. "A veteran stuntman once told me that fear is a picture you've drawn in your mind of what the outcome is going to be," says Gary Hymes, stunt coordinator for Hook (1991) and The Untouchables (1987). "It's a preconception you have. If you're afraid of heights, it's because you don't trust yourself to hold on when you're leaning out over the ledge of a tall building. Once you understand that, you can change that picture, manipulate it to serve you."
Hymes's mind must have been one big Etch-a-Sketch as he balanced himself on a girder suspended from a crane at the top of San Francisco's TransAmerica Building, 74 floors up, for the 1984 movie Dreamscape. "That was before we had decelerators and descenders that allow you to come to a progressive stop," he says. "I did a backflip into neverland attached to nothing but an invisible wire, and I had a definite fear of heights going into the stunt. The fall wasn't that far—about 18 feet—but just coming to the end of that cable, which was only an eighth of an inch thick, was a clarifying experience."
Few stuntmen have more narrowly avoided being turned into roadkill than Janes, who has been run over by trains, planes, automobiles and once even a herd of cattle and survived it all without a single broken bone. Only modesty prevents him from carrying around a wallet-sized set of his own X-rays.
Janes has spent more time falling off moving trains than most people have spent riding on them. Doubling for McQueen in The Hunter (1980), he dangled from an electrical transformer on top of a Chicago El train, holding on by one hand as the train hurtled over real city traffic. During the climactic gunfight in How the West Was Won (1962), Janes was thrown off the same speeding train to his grisly demise twice, once face first into a saguaro cactus and the second time into a chasm. "It was 189 feet down, with a net at 45 feet," Janes says, "and I was going backwards." The net had been strung too tight, and when he hit it he bounced so hard he almost kept going to the bottom of the ravine.
Hurling himself 16 feet at a cactus from a train moving 30 miles an hour presented a different, far thornier set of problems. "You have to do it without thinking," Janes says, "if I stand there and say, Now's the time, it's already too late. And if I'm less than half a second off—early or late—I miss it, and I go 40 feet to rocks."
Like many stunts, this one seemed to have little to offer in the way of fun: If Janes failed, he would be smashed to pieces on a rock pile, and if he succeeded, he would go flying into a giant succulent and then be smashed to pieces on a rock pile. "And a saguaro cactus is not fleshy," Janes adds. "It's like a telephone pole."
Perhaps second only to speeding locomotives, the thing stuntmen least like to see bearing down on them are speeding cattle, an occupational hazard whose threat has waned as Westerns have receded from the big screen. While doubling for McQueen during the filming of Nevada Smith in 1965, Janes was supposed to crouch behind a corral gate after the movie's bad guy set off a cattle stampede with a gunshot. The cattle, however, had ideas of their own about how the scene should be played. Knocking down the section of fence behind which Janes was hiding, the entire herd suddenly came thundering right over him. "I got up three times and kept getting knocked back down." he says. "I knew if I lay there, I would be trampled, so the third time I let myself get hit in the stomach by a steer's head. When he hit me, he lifted his head to toss me, but I just hooked my elbows around his horns and wrapped my legs around his neck and hung on."
The steer carried Janes beyond the bright lights set up for the shot, then tossed him into the base of a tree, where he lay stunned for several minutes in the dark. Assuming the worst, the crew raced into the corral and began sifting the dirt, looking for Janes's remains. All they found were tattered bits of clothing. A crowd of high school students who had been bused in to watch the filming stood by in horrified silence.
After Janes finally was able to get to his feet, he walked back toward the lights in a daze. "When I came into the light, somebody said, 'There he is!' and everybody turned and looked," he says. "And then they started laughing. My clothes and my underwear had been ripped off my body, and I was naked. The only thing I had on were my moccasins and my gun belt."
Women didn't get their chance to be part of all that glamour until 1977, when the Screen Actors Guild ruled that a stuntman could no longer double for a woman if a qualified stuntwoman was available to perform the stunt. Janes once doubled for Debbie Reynolds during a stampede of 97 horses and mules in How the West Was Won, although he didn't fully accessorize his disguise until absolutely necessary. "When I had the bust pads on, the guys were grabbing them all day long," Janes says wearily.
Wardrobe is a perennial problem for stuntmen, even when they aren't working in drag. Janes wore a braided wig while playing an Indian who was being hunted by a fearsome dog in a 1976 television remake of The Call of the Wild. When the dog, a mix of Saint Bernard and German shepherd, finally caught up with him, Janes was sitting in front of a campfire, and on cue from a trainer, the dog leaped on Janes and they began to wrestle. The more they rolled around, the closer they came to the fire, until finally Janes's wig began to smolder. "That wasn't supposed to happen," he says, "so I wiggled myself back and rubbed my head in the snow. But as I was wiggling back, my legs got farther and farther apart."
Spotting an opening, the dog bit Janes in the, uh, lap, breaking the skin. "I let out a scream, and the dog started backing up," Janes says, "so I was pushing myself along the snow trying to keep up with the dog as it dragged me forward. The dog trainer was laughing so hard she couldn't say the dog's name to make him stop, while I was humping along on my back." When the trainer did finally manage to sputter a command, the dog began gently licking Janes on the mouth.
It is a measure of the sort of Boys' Life childhood from which Janes claims to have sprung that none of these adventures seemed unusual to him. Janes says that as a young man he hiked California's 212-mile John Muir Trail barefoot and alone. "It taught me independence," he says. "I'd live three or four weeks at a time with just a hunting knife. No clothes, I'd just wear an Indian breechcloth. I wanted to see if I could live off the land with nothing. I've jumped out of trees on deer and killed them; then eaten them raw. If I got cold, I'd have to figure out how to keep warm. I'd leap from tree to tree like a cat, with a copy of Edgar Rice Burroughs's Tarzan in my teeth."
On his 50th birthday Janes finished third in a half marathon in the hills near his Canyon Country, Calif., home, and 10 years later he still runs about 25 miles over mountain trails and rides a bike another 60 miles each week. Every night he swims a mile in his lap pool.
Janes got his big break in Hollywood the usual way, by teaching 12th-grade trigonometry and studying to be an opera singer. "MGM was desperately looking for someone in town who could dive 80 feet off a cliff for an Esther Williams picture," he says. "I had given several diving exhibitions at the school, so some of the kids who had parents in the industry went home and told them about me." He was given a week off from school to be in the movie (Jupiter's Darling, 1936), and soon other studios began calling. Within six months he had appeared in more than half a dozen films, abandoned his teaching career and resumed the life of a noble savage, swinging from tree to tree.
To keep pace with the dazzling array of special effects now routinely available to directors, stunt designers like Kramer have had to devise new ways of injecting excitement into movie staples like the car chase. "I love a good car chase, but there's got to be a reason a car flips," Kramer says. "There are some cookie-cutter stuntmen who don't really want to deviate from the norm, and you've seen it a hundred times. I want to hear the audience say, 'How did they do that?' If you're going to build a ramp to do a turnover, why not build it inside another car, cut that car in pieces so that it's just tacked together, then set off a gasoline explosion when the first car goes through it? Now you've got one car turning over and another car disintegrating in a fireball. That is realism."
Kramer got his first big break in 1978 when he was hired to ride a motorcycle 30 feet through the air in one stunt and, in another, lay the cycle down on its side at 45 miles an hour between two tractor-trailers rumbling past in opposite directions. He still has a soft spot for bike jumps, which is how he came to design the most spectacular stunt in Terminator 2, in which a motorcycle jumps through the second-story window of an office building and into a helicopter hovering outside. It might have been possible to do the stunt just as it appeared on the screen, but even the slightest error in speed or trajectory would have resulted in death for stuntman Bob Brown.
Kramer attached a cable to Brown, then sent him roaring through the glass on a Kawasaki 650 made to look like a Kawasaki 1000 police bike. "At 35 feet we snatched him back into a box catcher and let the bike keep going," Kramer says. "Then we went to a soundstage and did another cut, this time shooting the motorcycle and a dummy into a mock-up of the helicopter. Finally we got a cut of the actor jumping and grabbing the helicopter skid. Then we edited it all together."
In another motorcycle jump in T2—this one from an overpass down into a flood-control canal—the cable attached to the stuntman was too big to hide from the camera, so the edited film was sent to George Lucas's Industrial Light and Magic studio, where computers were instructed to isolate the color pixels that corresponded to the cable in each frame of film and electronically paint them so they perfectly matched the sky in the background.
The most dangerous, and therefore most seductive, stunt prop is the helicopter. It is seductive because of its extreme maneuverability, and dangerous for the same reason. One of Hollywood's most notorious tragedies—the death of three actors and a stunt pilot in 1982 during the filming of the movie The Twilight Zone—occurred when a helicopter crashed while attempting a stunt. Director John Landis and three others associated with the film, including special-effects coordinator Paul Stewart, were indicted in superior court for involuntary manslaughter. They were acquitted by a jury.
To create a variation on the standard car chase for Terminator 2, Kramer and director James Cameron staged a ground-level dogfight between a helicopter and a police SWAT truck that covered miles of freeway and, at one point, required the chopper to chase the truck under an overpass. "Before you fly a helicopter under an overpass, you drag it through to make sure the rotors fit," Kramer says. Stunt pilot Chuck Tamboro then flew through at almost a hover, and when he was convinced he could negotiate it safely, he came thundering through at 65 miles per hour, his rotors flashing like stilettos.
Kramer has doubled for Schwarzenegger in 10 movies and must train six days a week to approximate His Pumpitude's astonishing build. "I always work out for an hour or more a day, even if I have to get up at four in the morning," Kramer says. "Arnold taught me a lot about discipline. We'll work a 14-hour day on the set, and no matter how tired we are, Arnold and I go to the gym and train."
There is, of course, no training that can adequately prepare you to jump off the tailgate of a speeding truck, backward, and then land on the hood of another truck. That is exactly what Mic Rodgers was doing one afternoon in February on the set of Lethal Weapon 3. During one of the takes of this intricately choreographed stunt, the driver of the chase truck cased off on the throttle almost imperceptibly just as Rodgers was hurling himself into the void. "I couldn't cheat and look back over my shoulder," Rodgers says. "It was a leap of faith. I fired, and in a matter of milliseconds, I knew: This is wrong."
In the finished film Rodgers (as Mel Gibson) can be seen flying onto the truck, then struggling to keep from falling off. Because he is the hero, he is spared an untimely death. Later in the day Rodgers did several takes hanging from the side of the same armored car as it wove in and out of traffic. If he had forgotten the risk involved in this, he was reminded when the truck accidentally rammed a parked stunt car, which ended up nose first in a retaining fence.
The crew was racing to finish its work before the sun descended into nearby Chavez Ravine. In the distant hills that would frame this shot, the huge block-letter HOLLYWOOD sign glittered with what was left of the light. Rodgers had survived another day. As he climbed back onto the truck for the final take, the cameras began to roll, the set quieted, and the director uttered a single thrilling word.