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."