"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 résumés 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.