DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
His is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. Hollywood stuntman Hal Needham, one of the most famous practitioners of his dangerous craft, died of cancer last week at age 82. Throughout his career, he did the kind of stunts that would end either with a spectacular shot or an ambulance. As we'll hear, one stunt with a four-door Chevy left him with a broken back, six broken ribs, a punctured lung and three missing teeth.
Hal Needham got his start in Westerns, in TV shows like "Laramie," "Laredo" and "Have Gun, Will Travel," on which he was Richard Boone's stunt double and the show's stunt coordinator. After many years of jumping on horses and stagecoaches and falling from great heights after being shot, he became renowned for car stunts, especially his work in action movies starring Burt Reynolds.
Needham was the stunt coordinator in "Gator" and "White Lightning" and directed "Cannonball Run," "Smokey and the Bandit" and "Hooper." His credits include 4,500 episodes of TV and 310 feature films. Terry Gross spoke to Hal Needham in 2011, when he had just published a memoir called "Stuntman!: My Car-Crashing, Plane-Jumping, Bone-Breaking, Death-Defying Hollywood Life."
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
Hal Needham, welcome to FRESH AIR. Now, what were some of the standard western stunts of the '50s and '60s, when you were making the westerns?
HAL NEEDHAM: Well, it had mostly to do with what we call a saddle fall, where you get shot and fall off the horse. We did horse falls, rearing falls, wagon wrecks, buggies and so on and so - a thing called a bulldog, where the bad guy's trying to get away, the good guy comes up behind him, jumps from his horse and then knocks the guy off the horse, and it normally winds up in a big fight. And we did high falls and some roping stuff and pretty well covers the major of them, anyway.
GROSS: Yeah. Now, one of your early stunts was for "Have Gun, Will Travel," and you were jumping from a rock about 30-foot high onto a stagecoach that was moving by.
NEEDHAM: Oh, yeah. Yes.
GROSS: And you're supposed to land on the top of the stagecoach as it rides by. Tell us what happened.
NEEDHAM: Well, first of all, that was my second stunt on "Have Gun, Will Travel." I got out there, and they said: Can you jump from that rock to the top of a coach as it's going by, as it's passing? I said: I think so. So anyway, the rock was 30-feet high, and the top of a coach is six feet long and four feet wide. They said: You want to see a rehearsal? I said why not?
They brought that thing under me, and I thought: I might have left my alligator mouth overload my (unintelligible) back end again because it really looked small. It looked like a postage stamp.
Anyway, they brought the coach through, and I hit it right in the center. As a matter of fact, I broke through the top right up to my armpits, and that kind of shocked the folks inside the coach.
And when they got us stopped, Boone came over and offered me the job of being the stunt coordinator, as well as his double on "Have Gun, Will Travel."
GROSS: So let me ask you, when you're jumping off a 30-foot-high rock onto a moving stagecoach, the top of which looks like a postage stamp because it's so relatively small from the height that you're at, what kind of mental calculation do you do to figure out when to jump?
NEEDHAM: You know, you can't say all right, when the coach get there, to that mark, I'm going to jump. You just have to look at it because you don't know how fast those horses are going to be running, anything else. It's just a thing that it's a clock inside of you that you say now, and you go. There's no way to set a mark or anything like that to leave the rock.
GROSS: Now on that stunt, was there protection for you? Like, if you missed the coach, was there padding on the ground?
NEEDHAM: Nothing. It would be impossible - first of all, they'd have to pad the road in front and behind, and the horses can't go through that, and over the side, they'd have to camouflage it. No, it's just too much of a problem. And if you say you can do it, they expect you to do it.
GROSS: I say this with the greatest of respect: I think you have to be crazy to be a stuntman like you.
NEEDHAM: I won't argue that point.
GROSS: OK. So one of the standard shots that you'd have to do is, like, you're the bad guy, and you're being shot, and you have to fall.
NEEDHAM: Uh-huh. You mean fall off the horse or fall off of what?
GROSS: Fall of a balcony, fall off a horse, fall off a rock. You've fallen off all of them. So say, like, you're falling, you're shot, you're falling off from a height. So when you started making Westerns, what protection was there for you to fall onto?
NEEDHAM: Well, when I started, and that's a long time ago, they would take sawhorses, you know, like carpenters use. They'd take those, and they'd put one-by-12, pine one-by-12s across the top, put some cardboard boxes underneath it and put a mattress or two on top of it, and that's what saved you from being killed because the boards would bend about six inches, and then they'd all break, and then the boxes would catch you. So that's what you had, and believe me, 45 or 50 feet off of that, into those, about all you could handle.
GROSS: It sounds so makeshift.
NEEDHAM: Oh, it definitely was. But, you know, that's all they could come up with at the time, and I'm going to be really braggadocios here. I'm the one that brought airbags into the stunt world.
GROSS: What's the highest jump you've done?
NEEDHAM: Hundred feet.
GROSS: You're saying one of the most dangerous stunts in Westerns - and if you've seen a western, you've seen this one - it's the stirrup drag, where a guy falls off his horse, but his leg is still in the stirrup, and the horse keeps galloping, dragging the cowboy across the ground, over rocks and brush and who knows what else. Why is that the most dangerous Western stunt?
NEEDHAM: Well, there's a couple of things. As a matter of fact, I saw one of our stuntmen get killed during a stirrup drag.
He had to go through the gate, the entrance to a ranch, and when he fell off the horse - you rehearse them so they'll go where you want them to go. Well, this horse didn't follow where he was supposed to go, and when he came to the gate, he swung around, the horse did, and it flung the guy way out to the side, and he hit his head on the post, a fence post, and killed him.
NEEDHAM: So that's the reason it's so dangerous, one reason. The other is when you fall off the horse and hit the ground, you're tied to the horse with a cable, to the stirrup, and when you hit the end of that cable, it flings you back under the horse's feet, his back feet, and so you've got to put one foot up against the horse's belly to keep yourself from being stepped on by his back feet. It's pretty dangerous.
Now, the way we get released, you have a release on your foot to the cable, and you just put a little wire up to your belt, and you pull that, and that's supposed to release you. If that doesn't work, you have a second release on, hooked with a cable, something back, way back by the camera, and that releases the whole saddle.
And if that doesn't work, you put two or three what you hope are your buddies on the fastest horses you can find, and they're called pick-up men. They get out there, and if they see you're in trouble, they're supposed to come in, stop the horse and get you loose. It's really, really dangerous.
GROSS: Were you ever hurt doing one of those yourself?
NEEDHAM: Thank God no, I never was. I have now done quite a few of them, and I just got lucky.
GROSS: So if you're just joining us, my guest is Hal Needham, and he is probably the most famous stuntman in Hollywood.
NEEDHAM: Can I say something?
NEEDHAM: Highest paid.
GROSS: And highest paid. That means a lot to you.
I was the highest paid stuntman in the world.
GROSS: I know that means a lot to you. And while we're on the subject, every time you have to redo a stunt because they didn't get the take they wanted, or the camera wasn't in the right place, you get paid again, right?
NEEDHAM: Ching-ching, ring it up.
NEEDHAM: And you know what? Sometimes cameramen, if you had a good friend that was an operator, camera operator, he'd say: Damn, I missed that. He'd come over. And then he'd come over and say: How's that, Hal? And I'd say: That's fine by me, you know.
GROSS: That's great. You wouldn't have felt that way about the most difficult stunts, though, right?
NEEDHAM: No, no, I was happy to see those gone.
GROSS: Right, all right. One of your most dangerous was for a Western, "Little Big Man," about Custer's last stand.
GROSS: And so describe the stunt that you had to do here.
NEEDHAM: Dustin Hoffman and his wife are heading West, and they're in a stagecoach that's got a six-up horse hooked to it. They get attacked by the Indians. The shotgun guard gets shot off the coach. The driver turns chicken, and he's up there huddling in the boot of the coach, hiding. So the horses run away.
A stuntman doubling Dusty got out of the coach, climbed up on the seat and jumped to the closest horse to the coach. I as an Indian came up on the outside and transferred from my horse to the one right next to him. Then he stands up and jumps from that horse to the back of the one ahead of him, and I follow him. Then he does it again off to the leader, and I followed him out there.
So we did that three times, but we did the whole scene 13 times. And 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 of 14 feet. And I'll tell you what: There's no athlete, I think, that can do that standing still.
GROSS: These are horses that are in motion. They're galloping, yeah.
NEEDHAM: Oh, they're runaway, runaway, yeah. A coach running away. When we training the horses to accept us jumping on their back and everything, the way we found we could jump the furthest was to get in motion, get in synch with the horse. So when he pushed off his back feet, we would use his momentum to get us that extra two or three feet so we could get to the next horse. It was the toughest physical stunt I ever did in my life, the toughest.
GROSS: Now, I hate to bring this up, but had you failed, you would have been trampled by the horse then.
NEEDHAM: Oh, well...
GROSS: Or run over by the coach, depending where you were.
NEEDHAM: You'd have had two, four or six horses run over you, plus a 4,000-pound coach, yeah. You couldn't fail. If you messed up, you was going to be in big trouble.
GROSS: So you worked with a lot of horses doing Westerns. You owned horses. You trained horses. Two of your most beloved horses were named Hondo and Alamo. And Hondo lost his life as a result of a stunt. He broke his leg doing a stunt.
NEEDHAM: Yep. That's right.
GROSS: What happened?
NEEDHAM: Well, you know, as a matter of fact, it was on "Little Big Man." I played the Indian that came down and 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, prior to me transferring. So he said come as fast as you can. I said all right.
And it was fall, and the hillside, the grass was all dead and everything. So here I come up-field 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 so he slid a long way, so do I. And I looked back, and I could see he was trying to get up, and I realized he had broken his leg. So I held him down.
Here's the part that I think is - shows how much I love the horse. We were way out in the country, and I said: Has anybody got a gun? When a horse breaks a leg, unless he's a thoroughbred or something, you destroy him, you put him out. So anyway, I said: Anybody got a gun? And the prop man said: No, I don't have one. And my buddy said, well, he had one in the car. So I said: Go get it.
And he came back and handed me that gun. You know, I could not shoot that horse, and the reason I had to shoot him, or somebody had to shoot him, they said: If you don't get a vet out here and verify that he had a broken leg before you kill him, you can't collect the insurance.
I said: Well, hell, it's going to take an hour and a half, two hours to get a vet out here. I don't want that horse to lay there suffering. Get me a gun, you know. So anyway, we wound up shooting him, and don't tell me a big man don't cry because I did.
GROSS: Did it change how attached you allowed yourself to become to your stunt horses?
NEEDHAM: No, you know, I made so much money with them, and I was such buddies with them, I'll tell you two stories if you'll let me. One was I had one of them, and I was just practicing a little bit, and a fell, and I came up, and I was in my backyard, and my wife is out there.
And I fell off this, and I was sitting there, I sat up on my butt, and I was just sitting on the ground, and he came up, and he put his head over my shoulder, and I scratched his chin, under his chin. My wife said: If you did that to me, we'd get along a hell of a lot better, you know.
NEEDHAM: So that's how - but also I have a thing in my book about when a horse - if I got two together, I kept those two together all the time so they'd become buddies. When you take one away, the other one would just pace back and forth in the corral until they worked up a sweat. Or sometimes if they're ill, a little ill, they've got a stomach ache or something, they'll do the same thing.
I've been known to go out in the corral, go out in the barn, take some hay and make myself a bed and get a tarp and just cover up and sleep with them, out there in the barn with them. When I do, they calm down immediately, you know, and they'll come over and sniff me, eventually they'll start eating the hay I'm laying on and things like that. You've got to have that rapport with them to understand them.
BIANCULLI: Hollywood stuntman Hal Needham, speaking to Terry Gross in 2011. More after a break, this is FRESH AIR.
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BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross, back with more of Terry's 2011 interview with Hollywood stuntman Hal Needham. He died last week of cancer at age 82. She spoke with him when he published his memoirs, titled "Stuntman!: My Car-Crashing, Plane-Jumping, Bone-Breaking, Death-Defying Hollywood Life."
GROSS: So you did so many Westerns. You did so may horse stunts. But later in your career, you became really famous for your car stunts. So let's talk about one of your stunts. This is one from "White Lightning," where you had to jump a car from land onto...
NEEDHAM: A barge.
GROSS: ...a floating barge. How far away was the barge from where you were?
NEEDHAM: That barge was supposed to be - because it was up against a bank, and then he was to be backing out into the water, and it's a long story. So I'll just cut it real short and say: I had him do it a couple times in practice, and I thought: OK, I want him about 75 feet out so when I hit my ramp, I would be doing about 70 miles an hour and knew I could hit this big barge, and everything would be good.
But what I didn't know is when we got ready to shoot it, I said: Captain, are you ready? And he said: Yeah. I said: OK, and when I say go, firewall that thing. And that means the throttle, put it all the way to the firewall.
Well, he did, and he was about 85 feet out. And so when I went out, when I was in the air, I said: This ain't going to be pretty. I hit the back of the barge with the front of my car, and it just stood it up in the air, and it balanced right on the back end. The back wheels were in the water. I was out of that thing in a heartbeat.
I mean, had that thing fallen into the river, first of all the river would be muddy, deep and swift. I had a couple of stunt guys out there with SCUBA gear on. I'd have been down in Louisiana before they found me. When I got on the barge where I was safe, I said: Oh, hell. I just fell down, laid down. But it didn't hurt me. It didn't hurt me.
GROSS: Now what kind of painkillers were used in the '50s and '60s when you were at the peak of your stuntman career?
NEEDHAM: 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.
NEEDHAM: When I'd go on location like maybe go down to Mexico or somewhere like that, we're doing three or four months down there, hell, I'd take a hundred with me because I knew I'd be the only one that had them so I could pass them out when the guys got hurt, and you work a lot when you're hurt if 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 like that stop you so you just take a Percodan and go to work.
GROSS: But that dulls your senses, doesn't it?
NEEDHAM: No. You know what? Now, I say no. I'm not a doctor but I tell you what, it didn't bother my timing and everything, not one iota. I could do the same things after taking Percodan than I could before I took them. It didn't bother me.
GROSS: I must interrupt here and say: do not try this at home.
NEEDHAM: No. No.
GROSS: No. Did you have an addiction problem to painkillers?
NEEDHAM: No. You see, I knew, my doctor told me, he said Hal, these things are addictive. He said don't get hooked on these. And I said OK. And my hand to God, and I never took a Percodan unless I was really hurting, and the minute I got over the hurt I quit taking Percodan. I had enough sense, I think, to realize that I didn't want to be an addict, so I just made damn sure I never took them. Even though I had them all the time, I never took them unless I absolutely had to. And I mean had to.
I've done stunts when I was hurting so bad I couldn't hardly breathe and yet, go ahead and do it. And if it were something that I couldn't perform unless I had the use of this leg or an arm or something like that that was really sore and hurting, then I'd take one.
GROSS: Now among the things to your credit are some inventions that have helped you and other stuntmen do your job, you know, effectively. For example, you came up with a way of people being blown into the air on the battlefield.
GROSS: Yeah. Tell us about the old way versus your way.
NEEDHAM: OK. The old way, special effects would dig a little hole in the ground, put a charge in it. Stuntman runs by, you set the charge off the stuntman and fling his body as far as it could, get all out of shape and everything. You can only fling your body so far. So I came up with an apparatus. It's only about three and a half inches high and about 14 inches square.
It's got a plate on top that's air activated. So when you step on that plate it triggers this activation of the air of the rim, and that top piece will throw you through the air. And the more pressure you put on it, the higher it'll throw you. That thing will put you 30 feet in the air if you want to go that high and if you can go that high.
So what you do is you hook the explosion on to that air rim so that when it activates the plate that throws you, it also sets off the charge. And believe me, it looks effective, and you look like you really got blown up.
GROSS: And what about landing on the way down?
NEEDHAM: That's your problem.
GROSS: Well, it's like working off of a trampoline or something. You learn to control your body. And the best way to do it is when you see a ground come up it's do what you call a tuck and roll. I always land with my right hand. I use it as a gauge. When it touch a ground I just tucked it under real tight, go right to my shoulder. Hell, I could just roll out and come right up on my feet.
NEEDHAM: Hollywood stuntman Hal Needham, speaking to Terry Gross in 2011. He died last week at age 82. More in the second half of the show. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.
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BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross.
Hollywood stuntman Hal Needham died last week of cancer at age 82. We're listening back to an interview Terry conducted with him in 2011, when he published his memoirs called "Stuntman!: My Car-Crashing, Plane-Jumping, Bone-Breaking, Death-Defying Hollywood Life."
GROSS: So as a stuntman, you've doubled a lot of people, including Burt Reynolds...
GROSS: ...who became a very good friend. You met him on the TV series "Riverboat."
NEEDHAM: That's right.
GROSS: Went on to be his stunt double and good friend. You lived in the carriage house of his house for many years.
NEEDHAM: I lived there 12 years in his guest house.
GROSS: So, in order to double somebody, whether it's Burt Reynolds or Richard Boone, the star of "Paladin," who you doubled for a long time, how close do you have to be to their size and to their figure?
NEEDHAM: Well, the closer you are the closer the camera can work to you. So for instance, James Arness on "Gunsmoke" was like 6'4, probably 230 pounds. And as a joke Andy McLaglen, the director who loved to put me on the spot and thing, said Hal, tomorrow I want you to double Jim Arness. I said get out, Andy. He said no. He wore a - he meaning Jim Arness - wore a hat that had a seven, eight inch brim on it. When I put that thing on I looked like a flying saucer with legs, you know what I mean?
NEEDHAM: But they put the camera way back so it could've been a trained chimpanzee out there and they would've known the difference.
GROSS: So before you became a stuntman did you see many movies with a lot of stunts in them? Like your parents were sharecroppers.
GROSS: You grew up, you know, in a rural area, probably weren't like...
NEEDHAM: Rural? Rural? That ain't even the right word.
NEEDHAM: I mean I was so far back in the mountains you had to pump sunshine to us.
NEEDHAM: Go ahead. I'm sorry.
GROSS: So there probably weren't a lot of movie theaters around.
NEEDHAM: I never saw a movie until I was 10.
NEEDHAM: No, you know, we had no electricity, no plumbing - indoor plumbing, nothing. I mean you couldn't get a - a model A Ford couldn't drive any closer than about three miles to our house because of big ruts and rocks and things. We were poor, I mean poor.
GROSS: So how did you break into Hollywood?
NEEDHAM: Quite by accident. First of all, I was, before I went into the military I was a tree topper. When I went into the military I was a paratrooper. When I got out...
GROSS: A tree topper, meaning you could climb to the top of trees and prune them or do whatever.
NEEDHAM: Yeah. Right. Tree topper, a climber, a tree climber, a tree topper. And then I got in the - I joined the military. I volunteered for the paratroops. I got out. I moved to Orange County. I met a guy there who was an ex-paratrooper who was trying to break into Hollywood. The first thing I did was with him. He got us a job. It was on a show called "You Asked For It." It was a request program and he wrote the request and we did the stunt.
And what it was, he was on horseback at a full gallop, obviously, and I was sitting out on a wheel of a 150 Cessna, and as we flew over I jumped out of the Cessna and knock him off the horse. That's where I got my first job. He got me my second job, which was "The Spirit of St. Louis," the story of Lindbergh's life, starred Jimmy Stewart. His and my job were to either stand on the top of the wing, an old biplane, double-wing planes, as they were doing loops and turns and things, or hanging - be on rope ladder, hanging that was me upside hanging by my ankles on a rope ladder, 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'll change jobs.
GROSS: So when you see special effects now that are using computer-generated graphics...
NEEDHAM: I hate it.
GROSS: Yeah. OK.
GROSS: I thought you might say that.
NEEDHAM: I hate it. You know what? I've seen film - and one particular comes to mind, a guy jumps off of a 250 foot dam and hits the water and they cut to the water and he bobs up like he's a duck or something, you know, and you go wait a minute. Give me a break. A guy would kill himself doing that. There's no way you could do that. And they - and just with cars and motorcycles and all kinds of things. And to me it takes all the reality out of the show. I just can't stand it. Because I grew up and even as a director, we never used that stuff. We did it for real.
And I can look at it on screen and say that's BS. That don't work. You can't do that.
GROSS: OK. Well, one more thing, it's still easy to see your work on television, because a lot of your western TV shows are being rerun, western movies are sometimes are on TV, your movies with Burt Reynolds. So when you turn on the TV and one of your films or TV shows is on and there you are risking your life doing a stunt, what goes through your mind?
NEEDHAM: I got a residual coming.
NEEDHAM: Boy, the more they show them the better I like them. As a matter of fact, "Smokey and the Bandit," you can't or I don't know where you live and - but in California and L.A., you can't go through the TV Guide one week without seeing that thing on.
NEEDHAM: I mean it runs all the time and every time I do I go oh, honey, we got another check coming, you know? So it's kind of nice. And not only that, being a little braggadocios, but I also own a percentage of the profits so that don't hurt either.
GROSS: Well, Hal Needham, it has been really great to talk with you. Thank you so much and thanks for all those great stunts you've done over the years.
NEEDHAM: Hey, listen, I appreciate it, lady, very much. And thanks for having me on.
BIANCULLI: Hollywood stuntman, Hal Needham speaking to Terry Gross in 2011; he died last week at age 82.
Coming up, children's author and illustrator, Tomi Ungerer. This is FRESH AIR.
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