Hollywood 'Stuntman!' Reveals Tricks Of Trade
Hollywood 'Stuntman!' Reveals Tricks Of Trade
Hal Needham spent most of the 1950s and '60s falling off horses, wrecking stagecoach wagons and falling from really, really high places.
A Hollywood stuntman for more than four decades, he worked on more than 90 films, including some of the biggest Westerns of the 20th century: The Undefeated, Little Big Man, Stagecoach, How the West Was Won and Shenandoah. He recounts his experiences filling in for Jimmy Stewart, Dustin Hoffman and Burt Reynolds in a memoir, Stuntman!: My Car-Crashing, Plane-Jumping, Bone-Breaking, Death-Defying Hollywood Life.
In an interview on Fresh Air, Needham tells Terry Gross about one death-defying leap he made on the set of the TV series Have Gun, Will Travel. He was supposed to jump from a 30-foot rock onto a moving stagecoach, without protection or padding. But things didn't exactly work out as planned.
"[The coach] really looked small. It looked like a postage stamp," he says. "They brought the coach, and I hit it right in the center. But I broke through the top right up to my armpits, and that kind of shocked the folks inside the coach."
There were basic safeguards on set even back then, Needham says — but they were about as rudimentary as it gets.
"When I started, they would take sawhorses — like carpenters use — and put pine 1-by-12's across the top, put some cardboard boxes on top [of those], and put a mattress or two underneath," he says. "And that's what saved you from being killed."
The boards, Needham explains, would bend about 6 inches before they broke, absorbing some of impact of the fall.
"Believe me, 45 or 50 feet into those was about all you could handle," he says.
Needham explains that it was he who introduced the now-standard airbag into the stunt industry after seeing them used at a pole-vaulting match. The bags — typically inflated with helium — allowed stuntmen to leap from higher distances. Needham, who also coordinated stunts and directed several movies, used the bags frequently in his own films.
"I [once] had a stuntman do a 250-foot-high fall off the strut of a helicopter," he says. "And they go higher than that nowadays."
When Needham wasn't free-falling onto wooden boards, he recalls, he was often performing dangerous stunts with horses. One of the most dangerous stunts he ever did, he explains, was on the set of Arthur Penn's Little Big Man, when he jumped from one moving horse onto the back of another — and then repeated the stunt.
"We did that three times, but we did the whole scene 13 times," Needham says. "Here's what's really hard to believe: We had to do a standing broad jump from the back of one horse to the back of the next one over 14 feet [away]. There's no athlete, I think, that can do that standing still."
Had Needham failed, he would have been trampled, he says — and not just by the horses, but by a 4,000-pound stagecoach.
"You couldn't fail," he says. "If you messed up, you were going to be in big trouble."
There was an upside, though: Every time Needham redid a stunt, he got paid again. And that could add up.
"Sometimes, if you had a good friend who was a camera operator, he'd say, 'Damn, I missed that,' " he says. "And then he'd come over and say, 'How's that, Hal?' And I'd say, 'That's fine by me.' "
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In 1975, Needham transitioned from Western movies and entered the world of car stunts. He took lessons on turning over cars and going into skids. In the 1973 Burt Reynolds film White Lightning, it was Needham who jumped a car from a riverbank onto a floating barge.
But during one rehearsal, an error on the barge captain's part had left the target farther away than Needham had stipulated in practice. Needham knew immediately that something was wrong.
"When I was in the air, I said, 'This ain't going to be pretty,' " Needham says. "I hit the back of the barge with the front of my car, and it just stood it up in the air, and it just balanced right on the end. [Then] the back wheels were in the water. I was out of that thing in a heartbeat. ... Had that car fallen into the river — the river was muddy, deep and swift — I would have been down in Louisiana before they found me."
Still, he says, he never lost the confidence to perform a stunt again.
"I said, 'I have to rethink this situation and make sure I don't make that mistake again,' " he says. "But my confidence didn't wane from that. ... You just have to look it all over and clear up your mistakes and say, 'Lets go.' "
On his stunt horse Hondo, who lost his life performing a stunt on the set of Little Big Man
"I played the Indian who jumped from my horse to the horse pulling the coach. The director wanted a shot of me coming off the hillside prior to that shot. So he said come as fast as you can. It was fall, and the hillside grass was all dead. ... So here I come just as fast as Hondo could run, and in a blink of an eye, I was sailing through the air. He had stepped in a gopher hole and broke his leg. And I looked back and I could see he was trying to get up. So I went back and ... I held him down.
"We were way out in the country. ... They said if you don't get a vet out here and verify that he had a broken leg, then you can't collect the insurance on him. And I said, it's going to take two hours to get a vet out here. I don't want that horse to lay there suffering. Get me a gun. So anyway, we wound up shooting him, and don't tell me a big man don't cry."
On what he always carried with him on set (don't try this at home)
"Percodan. Carried a bottle with me all the time. When a stuntman got hurt, they'd call Hal and tell him to bring his Percodan. When I'd go on location — maybe Mexico or something like that — hell, I'd take 100 with me. Because I know I'd be the only one who had them. So I could pass them out when the guys got hurt. You work a lot when you're hurt when you're a good stuntman, because you're going to be hurt quite a bit. And you can't let a sore leg or a bruise or something stop you, so you just take a Percodan and go to work."
On how he got started in the stunt business
"By accident. Before I went in the military, I was a treetopper. [He pruned trees.] When I went in the military, I was a paratrooper. I got out, I moved to Orange County, and I went back into the tree business and broke my ankle. And while I was healing up, there was a little root-beer stand close by and I'd go over and have some. There, I met a guy who was an ex-paratrooper, who was trying to break into Hollywood. And he got us a job on the show called You Asked for It. It was a request program, and he wrote the request and we did the stunt. He was on horseback in a full gallop and I was sitting out on the wheel of a 150 Cessna, and as we flew over, I jumped out of the Cessna and knocked him off the horse. That's how I got my first job. He got me my second job, which was The Spirit of St. Louis starring Jimmy Stewart. My job was to either stand on the top of the wing of an old biplane as they were doing loops ... or hang on a rope ladder, hanging by my ankles, and then transfer from the top of one wing to the bottom of another one. And that was my second job and I said, 'Wow. Look at all of the money I made — I think I will change jobs.' And that's how I decided to be a stuntman."
On current special effects in movies
"I hate it! ... A guy jumps off of a 250-foot dam, and it cuts to the water and he bobs up, like he's a duck. And you go, 'Wait a minute. Give me a break. A guy would kill himself doing that. There's no way he could do it.' And it just — with cars and motorcycles and all kinds of things. To me, it takes all of the reality out of the show. I just can't stand it. Even as a director, I never did that stuff. We did it for real. I can look at it onscreen and go, 'That's B.S. That don't work. You can't do that.' And so I lose all interest in the film."
My Car-Crashing, Plane-Jumping, Bone-Breaking, Death-Defying Hollywood Life
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Thirty Feet High, Upside Down and Going Backward
The explosion must have been second only to the A-bomb. A cannon placed in the floorboard and loaded with four black powder bombs shot the four- door Chevy thirty feet in the air and folded it in half. When I opened my eyes in midflight, I was upside down and going backward. I knew this wasn't going as planned and at any moment there was going to be one helluva wreck. The car landed on its roof, which caved in, jamming the doors. But the big problem was that I wasn't breathing. I saw that the back window had blown out from the impact, so I made my way to it. Gasping for air, I crawled out from under the trunk of the pancaked car. At that moment the boys working with me on the stunt came skidding to a stop. I heard one say, "Holy shit, he's alive!" The hospital confirmed that I had a broken back, six broken ribs, and a punctured lung. I counted the missing teeth myself: three. John Wayne would have to finish the movie without me...
Murder? Suicide? Burt Reynolds?
After spending eleven days in the hospital, I walked into the house I was sharing with Burt Reynolds all humped over, because my ribs couldn't find their connecting points. Burt told me that if I ever intended to amount to anything I would have to straighten up. Even knowing how much those broken ribs were going to hurt, I couldn't keep from laughing. I thanked him with a middle finger salute and went upstairs. Burt never missed a chance to throw in a funny line, but you'd think he'd have been more sympathetic seeing as how I helped him dodge a possible murder rap during the filming of The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing. I was the stunt coordinator and doubling Burt in the movie, and he was starring with Sarah Miles, who was married to A Man for All Seasons screenwriter Robert Bolt at the time. About halfway through the shoot, Sarah's business manager, David Whiting, came to visit her on location in Gila Bend, Arizona. Burt's birthday was coming up, so I had decided to rent a hall and celebrate with some barbecue, a little music, and a lot of booze. The Sunday morning I was preparing for the party, a crew member told me that David's dead body had been found the previous night facedown near a pool of blood in Sarah Miles's room. When Burt showed up at the hall, I repeated what I'd heard. He asked what I was going to do about the party. I thought about it for a second and answered, "I'm sure not going to invite the dead man." Right or wrong, I forged ahead with the party.
Needless to say, it wasn't much of a success, as everybody stood around drinking and gossiping about whether it was suicide or murder. The next morning the air was full of suspicion. Sitting by the pool on a rare day off, I started hearing rumors that the sheriff was going to arrest Burt for murder — something about some supposed love triangle. I raced out to the set to tell Burt and the director, Richard Sarafian, what was happening. We met in Burt's motor home. When Burt heard an APB might be put out on him, he was in shock. Sarafian was concerned about what his star was going to do. I suggested Burt go to Utah, the film's next location, so he could buy some time to hire legal counsel and stay out of the slammer while the law attempted to extradite him to Arizona. Burt agreed. How would he get there? I told him to lie down in the back of his motor home and hang on. I knew the way to Utah... and as it turned out, our great escape was unnecessary as Burt was never charged...
Cannonballing Coast to Coast in Thirty- two Hours
There was another time we blew across the state line, keeping our eyes peeled for the police. I was behind the wheel of a modified Dodge van that had its interior ripped out and was semi- equipped to look like an ambulance. It had red emergency lights on the roof and "TransCon MediVac" painted on the side. I had stuffed a full- blown 440 wedge engine under the hood and added two extra gas tanks capable of carrying ninety gallons. I'd also mounted three filler spouts, one for each tank, to be able to fill them quickly. It was the perfect vehicle for our team — me, the great car journalist Brock Yates, his pretty brunette wife, Pam, and Dr. Lyle Royer, whom I had met in a bar on the Sunset Strip — to compete with in the Cannonball Run. The race had been run a number of times. The drivers would disguise themselves and their vehicles to be less conspicuous — as if that were possible, racing from coast to coast at a hundred- plus miles an hour. The vehicle covering the distance in the shortest amount of time was the winner, and the prize was a trophy and bragging rights until the next race. The only rule they had was that there were no rules.
The first car in the cross- country race left the starting line in Darien, Connecticut, at 9 p.m., followed every fifteen minutes by the next in line. We left at 1:45 a.m. and headed west, with Brock driving. The traffic was bumper-to-bumper. I told Brock we couldn't win at this pace, so I hit our red lights. Now I knew how Jesus (or was it Moses?) felt when he parted the Red Sea. The cars ahead moved to the side of the road, and we left New York City in our wake. Around 4 a.m. we were blowing through New Jersey, gobbling up miles in record time. I looked in the mirror and saw headlights way, way back there. Brock told me to back off to about eighty and see if they got any closer. Sure enough, the car closed the gap and turned on its red lights.
We pulled over. Brock and I, both dressed in orange-and-white ambulance attendants' jackets, got out and walked back to meet the police. One officer asked, "Where are you heading? It's a long way to a hospital in that direction." Brock casually replied, "California." "Why?" the officer asked. "That's where the patient has to go," I said. The officer looked confused. "Why California?" he asked. "You'll have to ask the doctor. We're just drivers," Brock said. Brock and I led the way to the ambulance door and opened it. Pam lay strapped to a gurney with an oxygen mask on and IV needles taped to her arm. The Doc, who was wearing a white coat, handed the officer a clipboard with a UCLA Medical Center form filled out. The officer looked down at it, obviously confused by the jargon. Explained the Doc, "She has a lung disease." The officer appeared suspicious. "Why didn't you fly her?" "She couldn't tolerate the altitude," the Doc said impatiently. "We can't even take the northern route... too high. Have to head to the south." We could see them mulling over the dilemma. If they delayed us and something happened to the patient, it would be on their heads — which is what Brock and I were counting on. Finally one said: "Okay, go ahead, but keep your speed down. Emergency or not, you're going way too fast. You're endangering half the state."
After they left, we jumped in the van and Brock turned to Lyle and said, "Nice going, Doc," as I mashed the gas and asked that engine for all it had. And the idea for a movie was born: What if we put Burt Reynolds, Dom DeLuise, and Jack Elam as the Doc in the van — with Farrah Fawcett as the patient — and had them race across the country on the big screen against Cannonballers Terry Bradshaw and Mel Tillis in a stock car, Roger Moore doing James Bond in an Aston Martin, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis, Jr., dressed as Catholic priests in my Ferrari, Jackie Chan in a rocket- powered Subaru, a couple of good- lookin' ladies in a Lamborghini, and anyone else willing to challenge the law...
Bootlegging Coors from Texas to Hotlanta
High speed played a part in the Smokey and the Bandit movies, as did Jackie Gleason (Sheriff Buford T. Justice), but to the day he died I don't think he ever knew my name. When things were hunky-dory, he called me "Pally," and when he was unhappy, it was "Mr. Director." While I was preparing to shoot the first Smokey, Jackie called and said he had a few questions about the movie and wondered if I could come over to his hotel to discuss things. An hour later I rang his doorbell, wondering how this was going to work out. The Jackie Gleason we all knew answered the door dressed in slacks and a sports jacket with a red carnation in the lapel. I stuck out my hand and introduced myself. Invited in, I took a seat, and we made small talk for a few minutes. Then I told him I had been working all day and sure could use a drink. He apologized, and we moved to the bar. He fixed the drinks, and we toasted to a good shoot. I told him how much I'd enjoyed watching him on The Honeymooners. I think he had a story about every episode, and we drank a toast to each one. That's a lot of episodes.
Finally I told Jackie I had to get up early for the first day of shooting. As I headed for the door he said, "Now, don't you be late." I promised I wouldn't and said goodnight. On the way back to my hotel, I wondered what he'd wanted to talk to me about, because not one word had been said about Smoke. The next morning I arrived on the set and found Jackie sitting in his chair, legs crossed, wearing the same clothes as the night before. He might not have taken his clothes off, but he had removed his shoes, because now they were on the wrong feet. As I approached he said, "Hi, Pally," raised his coffee in a salute, and tipped over backward. He got up laughing and said it was time for him to get dressed and made up. As I got to know him better, I learned that all he wanted was some company and a drinking partner...
Excerpted from Stuntman!: My Car-Crashing, Plane-Jumping, Bone-Breaking, Death-Defying Hollywood Life, by Hal Needham. Copyright 2011 by Hal Needham. Excerpted with permission of Little, Brown and Co.