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."
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.