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.