So you think you had a tough week? Well, consider the one Hal Needham just had. On Monday he was shot in the back with an arrow. Tuesday he rolled his car over. The next day he fell 65 feet out of a tree. Thursday he was hit with a chair in a brawl and shoved down a flight of stairs. Friday Needham's horse fell on him. And that was not the end of it. Saturday afternoon he planned to go easy-riding near Burbank. He revved up his bike and took off, though not at all as he intended. Pranksters had chained the motorcycle to a pole. Needham nose-dived over the handlebars and crunched to the pavement.
Now if he were normal, Needham would have taken to bed—which presumably would be a safer place—but Needham is hardly normal: he is a movie stunt man. And after the week's abuse, he was not only $4,500 richer but also little the worse for wear—a claim which few Americans could make. Special equipment and practiced techniques protect him, but equally vital in Needham's trade is athletic talent.
Some of Hollywood's stunt men are former Olympians—men like decathlon superstar C. K. Yang and Dean Smith, a gold medalist on the 400-meter relay team in Helsinki. Vic Paul is a former Pacific Coast Conference fencer; Pete Peterson, a surfing champion; Mickey Gilbert, once a college rodeo standout; Merlin Olsen, an All-Pro defensive tackle for the Rams. Frank Orsatti once was a promising centerfielder in the Cardinal farm system. (His father, Ernie, took the reverse route, beginning as a stunt man doubling for Buster Keaton and afterward becoming one of the famed Gashouse Gang.)
Though most of these athletes' competing years are over, they continue in surprisingly vigorous training. Loren Janes, who was a college swimmer, diver and gymnast and the first civilian ever to compete in the U.S. Olympic modern pentathlon trials, is only slightly more enthusiastic than most stunt men. He runs between five and 15 miles daily and, when not working at the studio, spends four to six hours a day practicing stunting skills. His backyard is his workshop, a layout with an archery range, trampoline, 30-foot rope climb and horizontal and parallel bars.
Conditioning may harden the stunt man to all the abrupt stops, but it is sports equipment—football hip pads, ice hockey knee and elbow pads, Joe Azcue-model baseball shin guards—that softens the blows and makes them bearable. When Hal Needham did his head-over-heels motorcycle scene, he swathed himself in this sort of gear and wore, as well, two heavy leather-and-wool vests. Skidding over the pavement, he broke open his helmet and tore through both vests.
There is only a vague appreciation by the public of the stunt men's part in films and little understanding of the risks involved. Bob Rose, an ex-jockey who long ago turned to stunting and became a master of airplane routines, has a fairly precise formula to separate the sane stunt from the insane. He learned it from Houdini. "He had a theory that you had to engineer all aspects of every trick," Rose explains. "You had to figure a stunt to where the odds were 7 to 3 in your favor and to where your ability would take care of the three. That seemed a sensible gauge to me and I've always used it." Well, almost always. In 1917 Rose decided to buy an airplane. He looked around for a while, kicked a few tires and finally settled on an OX Jenny. He took it up for a checkout flight, landed, refueled and took it up once more. Rose was delighted with the plane and amazed that it was so easy to handle. After all, it was the first time he had ever flown anything.
It was Rose, doubling for Eddie Cantor in Strike Me Pink, who did a scene requiring such intricate timing that it is still regarded as one of the finest stunts Hollywood ever produced. Rose plunged from the top of a roller coaster rig and on the way down grabbed a parasol from a lady zooming by on the coaster. With it he wafted safely to the ground.
If the bravery—or, if you will, bravado—of stunt men is largely uncelebrated, actors often are awed by those who double for them. "I admire them for the same reason I admire Laver and Rosewall—because what they do they do with perfection," says Charlton Heston. "They are superbly conditioned athletes with extraordinary reflexes and ability to control emergencies. I know: I owe my life to one, Joe Canutt. We are close friends. When he introduces me to a stranger, he says, 'This is Chuck Heston. He does my dialogue.' Canutt saved me during a fight with battle axes in The War Lord. He usually doubles me, but this time the director kept me in the fight and had Joe double the actor I was supposed to be fighting. What happened was that I forgot to duck. Joe had started to swing his battle ax at my head; his momentum and the weight of the weapon were propelling him forward and there was no way he could stop. He saved me at the last instant by somehow falling over backward."
Had the scene been shot 40 years before, Heston might not have been so fortunate. At that time, stunt men were known for their "90-proof courage"—straight from the bottle. Walk-ons were used, men who came off the streets and said, sure, for five bucks they would gladly swing a battle ax at anyone.
It was not unusual in those days for a cameraman and a stunt man to drive the streets looking for comedy situations. Finding a fire or a construction site, the stunt man would leap into action, doing a half gainer from the building that was burning down or dangling by his fingertips from the one that was going up. Stunt men would fall from cars in Hollywood traffic and dodge through—sometimes even under—screeching sedans to get reel life drama. There are stories of streets being slicked with soap, causing dandy skids for stunt men—and unsuspecting motorists. These ad-lib scenes were not part of any script, but the footage, if it was exciting enough, would be spliced into movies. Stunting remained a haphazard occupation until late in the '20s, when three men—Richard Talmadge, David Sharpe and Yakima Canutt—began insisting on some common sense and precautions.