Jeannie Epper, the Real 'Wonder Woman' Stuntwoman Jeannie Epper is featured in a documentary on her craft called Double Dare. Now 64, Epper did the stunts for Lynda Carter in the Wonder Woman TV show, among countless other jobs. She comes from a family of stunt artists; her father doubled for Errol Flynn.
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Jeannie Epper, the Real 'Wonder Woman'

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Jeannie Epper, the Real 'Wonder Woman'

Jeannie Epper, the Real 'Wonder Woman'

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(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Wonder Woman, Wonder Woman...

JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:

If you've ever watched Wonder Woman leap a tall building or seen big-screen actors engulfed in flames or dragged by wild horses and wondered `Just how do they do that?,' you'll have a chance to find out. A new documentary called "Double Dare," by Amanda Micheli, follows the story of two Hollywood stuntwomen and their tough careers in a male-dominated field. One of the women featured is veteran Jeannie Epper. She's the real Wonder Woman. She's performed in more than 120 films and television shows, though you wouldn't know it. At 64, Epper is still adept at throwing punches and surviving crash landings.

Jeannie Epper, welcome to the program.

Ms. JEANNIE EPPER (Stuntwoman): Thank you. I'm very pleased to be here.

LUDDEN: I watched "Wonder Woman" every week. Can you tell me how they did those jumps? She would jump up very high onto something...

Ms. EPPER: Yes.

LUDDEN: ...with one leg...

Ms. EPPER: Yes.

LUDDEN: ...back.

Ms. EPPER: I would stand on the edge of a building and step backwards and go feet-first into the air bag, and they would reverse the film.

LUDDEN: Is that a common thing, or did they figure it out for that?

Ms. EPPER: It's becoming more common. We actually did it on the Pizza Hut commercial last week. I had to have my hand on the piece of pizza in the double-dipping sauce, and then they jerked me backwards.

LUDDEN: How did you get the "Wonder Woman" job?

Ms. EPPER: This is a strange story. I actually had doubled Lindsay Wagner on the pilot of "Rockford Files," and Lindsay and I became really close friends. But we have different body types. I have big boobs, and she doesn't, but she wanted me to do "Bionic Woman." First two days out, I'm running and they're going, `I don't think so,' you know, because I've got these breasts moving and they were starting to shoot things like at 80 frames where you could tell. So I lost my job, and about a week later somebody called me up and said, `They're having a huge interview over at Warner Bros. for a double for "Wonder Woman." We want to have you come over; everybody has to come over in a bathing suit.' And the very first interview, I didn't get it. No, I didn't. I didn't look like Lynda. They picked somebody that had the face. But within a few weeks, I got a call. I knew how to be her. You have to blend. You can't be a stunt--you know, be Lynda, be me, be Lynda. It has to be a flowing movement.

LUDDEN: What was it like working with Lynda Carter those years on "Wonder Woman"?

Ms. EPPER: Lynda and I bonded fairly soon. I'm a watcher at first, and I want to know how actresses are going to feel about me. You got to remember this was an era where they were just barely allowing people to know there were doubles. For many, many, many years, all the actors and actresses said they did their own stunt work. But with Lynda, I didn't want to take a chance on messing up and losing my job, so I just watched, and I soon found out she was very pleased to have me there.

LUDDEN: So on the set, how do you--if you were going to be in a scene, or it was cutting back and forth between Lynda Carter and you, I mean, how do you coordinate that?

Ms. EPPER: As a rule, we try always to shoot with Lynda first, because I need to follow her lead, she doesn't need to follow mine. Once she's done her stuff and done the beginning of the running or the beginning of the jumping, then I take over.

(Soundbite of stunt sequence)

Unidentified Man #1: Roll it!

Unidentified Man #2: Action, Jeannie!

(Soundbite of breaking glass)

Unidentified Man #2: Run it.

Ms. EPPER: I think why it worked so well is I could move exactly like Lynda moved, and it was unlike I moved. I moved more like Lindsay Wagner, more of the jock, athletic kind of running. And I just learned to become Lynda. It's like an actor can adapt to character. You actually have to become an actress and you have to be able to know how to not look at the camera and yet not look like you're not looking at the camera, you know. If you're going to jump through a window or off of a building, you know you're not going to be really looking, because Lynda would run up to the edge, and then, you know, like, start to jump and they'd cut away and then have me jump. But you still have to do it so that you're not, like, jumping right into the camera.

LUDDEN: You come from a long line of stunt artists.

Ms. EPPER: Yes, I do. My dad was a stuntman, all my brothers and sisters, including myself, my children, my brothers' and sisters' children, and now the grandkids. And...

LUDDEN: Your dad was a s--a double for Errol Flynn...

Ms. EPPER: My father--mm-hmm, Errol Flynn, Ronald Reagan, Gregory Peck, anybody in that era of the, you know, '30s on up to the '50s, my dad would do their horseback riding, driving the teams, jumping off of horses, jumping over fences. He even worked on "Gone With the Wind" for Clark Gable, and did--you know the famous scene where they go through the fire?

LUDDEN: Uh-huh.

Ms. EPPER: He's the...

LUDDEN: Is this Atlanta burning?

Ms. EPPER: Yes. That's my dad.

LUDDEN: Did he want you to go into the business?

Ms. EPPER: No, he sent me off when I was about my granddaughter's age, 13, to Switzerland to be educated, because that's his home. And I spent two and a half years there learning how to be a lady, learning languages, learning how to darn socks and knit, sew, cook. I know. I came home and ran off and married a rodeo cowboy, first of all. But all in all, it all--it's all good.

LUDDEN: Were you in love with the business from watching it as a child, or...

Ms. EPPER: I was in love with the business as a child, but also because I loved my daddy so much, and we all did extra work and Dad, being a stunt coordinator then, was asked if he had anybody out of his six kids that was about nine, a little girl, that could ride a horse straight down the side of a cliff, and that...

LUDDEN: And there you were.

Ms. EPPER: ...would be me, yes. And that's where I got started with the idea that I might want to do more than just do extra work and standing in.

LUDDEN: What was one of the first things you learned?

Ms. EPPER: I learned to listen to people who knew more than I did. You're skilled up to a certain degree. I mean, I still don't know everything but now we hire stuntmen to do the rigging rather than the special-effects guys. Special-effects guys are still on the set, but stuntmen who've already performed these dangerous stunts that have become riggers now, they understand more. So I go to guys and I ask them, `What are we doing? What's the tension on the cable? How far are you going to jerk me? How much fire are you going to throw on me?' You know, you--I still ask a lot of questions, but I just knew that I loved it and wanted to do it, and I had a dad, remember, and three brothers at home that were ahead of me, that I could just listen to around the dinner table at night. You know, they'd all come home, and my mom would serve dinner and everybody'd be talking about how high--Tony did a high fall and how much fire Derry(ph) did when he got kicked through the window backwards. And that's not normal, is it...

LUDDEN: Well, usually your parents are telling you...

Ms. EPPER: ...dinner talk?

LUDDEN: ...`Don't do this. Don't do that.' I mean...

Ms. EPPER: My mother wasn't very thrilled. As my dad was training us, my mother would come out of the house and say, `John, you're going to kill my kids.' And he'd say, `Frances, go back in the house. I know what they can do.' And I mean, he did know.

LUDDEN: So can you share some secrets of the trade? I mean, how do you do all these things without getting hurt?

Ms. EPPER: Well, you practice a lot, high falls especially. You have to go down--what you see in the movie, practicing, learning, a foot and a half at a time. I mean, say the first time you do a fall, it's 15 feet, or 10 feet. See where your body is, see if you know how to turn over and get into the air bag without jamming your neck or twisting your lower back. And you just work up.

(Soundbite of stunt sequence)

Unidentified Man #3: And action!

(Soundbite of thump)

Unidentified Man #3: Beautiful!

Unidentified Woman #1: Whoo!

Unidentified Man #3: Beautiful!

LUDDEN: There are so many computer-generated special effects in movies these days. How does that change the stunt job?

Ms. EPPER: There's minuses and pluses to it. The minuses are that, you know, it is taking some work away from us. The pluses are is now you can put a cable on as big around as an inch, you know, and they can CG it out, so that safety factors for harnesses and things are great.

LUDDEN: So instead of really flying you get kind of carried through the air...

Ms. EPPER: Yeah.

LUDDEN: ...and it makes it look like you're flying.

Ms. EPPER: Yeah. But we did that in the early days, but we did it with piano wire.

LUDDEN: Ouch.

Ms. EPPER: So if you get a kink in the piano wire, you die. I mean, it's like you're a hundred feet up and it drops you. But I got to the point, where I would--every time I got on the piano wire and we did a few of our flying scenes on "Wonder Woman," the early--I think the very first season, we were on cables and wires. And I knew to look at them and make sure there was no kinks in them. They may want to protect you all they can, but you're the one hanging up there 20 feet, a hundred feet. You check it out.

LUDDEN: What's the most dangerous stunt you've ever done?

Ms. EPPER: I think the one that was probably the hardest on me physically was "Romancing the Stone," the mudslide. It took two and a half weeks to do that.

LUDDEN: Two and a half weeks to do that one scene?

Ms. EPPER: And it was really hard. We're in Mexico, and it's pouring down rain, and it originally was not supposed to be a rain movie, but it rained and rained and rained, and so the rain--then we had to start making rain, so every day that it didn't rain, we had to go get, you know, the big water trucks and make rain.

(Soundbite of "Romancing the Stone")

Mr. MICHAEL DOUGLAS: OK, let's make some time.

Ms. KATHLEEN TURNER: You bastard! Yaah!

(Soundbite of mudslide)

Mr. DOUGLAS: Whoa-ho-ho!

Ms. TURNER: Ahh! Ahh! Ahh! Aaaaahhhh!

Mr. DOUGLAS: Whoooaa! I'm telling you, this has turned out to be one hell of a morning!

Ms. EPPER: So the two and a half weeks of thumping my body was really hard.

LUDDEN: So you were actually--it was a real hill. I mean, how...

Ms. EPPER: It was real...

LUDDEN: How steep? How long?

Ms. EPPER: About 250 feet, and we had to do it in, like, 60-feet increments, and so they would lay a cargo net up against the cliff, and I'd have to literally grab it to stop myself, flying underneath it with the double for Michael Douglas coming behind me with his big boots on. And, you know, you do it over and over and over and over and over, and you know, your chances of getting hurt start to quadruple, maybe. You just need to make the movie, and you just become a robot, almost, at that point. Terry Leonard, being my stunt coordinator, knew. He look at my eyes and he goes, `That's it. You're not doing this anymore.'

LUDDEN: Were they done with the scene by that point, or...

Ms. EPPER: We had more than enough film.

LUDDEN: But he just said...

Ms. EPPER: So you know, everybody wants a little more if they can get it.

LUDDEN: ...`That's going to work. That's it.'

Ms. EPPER: Sure.

LUDDEN: Did you have bruises on your body by that point?

Ms. EPPER: Mm-hmm, and I started crying because I'm a people pleaser, and now I've got in this great movie and I don't want to mess up, and I want to do it as many times as it's going to take. So I put out the injuries and all that out of my head. I'm there to perform. And I wasn't injured, I was just worn out.

LUDDEN: What's the most serious injury you've ever had from doing this?

Ms. EPPER: I had my head cracked open once by an actress who was supposed to hit me over the head with a picture frame, and I said, `Take one step and hit me, but don't take any more,' because I was--the center of it was scored, you know, where the actual canvas was, but not the frame itself. And she took one step too many and cracked my head open. And the cameraman kept the camera on it because blood and blonde hair looked really good, and they didn't even use it in this movie. So you know, I...

LUDDEN: So you had stitches.

Ms. EPPER: I had eight stitches, yes. I got burnt once--my hair burnt off but not my face burnt.

LUDDEN: Ooh!

Ms. EPPER: The stunt went wrong.

LUDDEN: What happened?

Ms. EPPER: The first time we took a week to rig the stunt that--the beams would drop down on us and pin us.

LUDDEN: Burning beams?

Ms. EPPER: Burning beams. And then at the last minute, the director decided to do a hand-held camera, go up high and have the guys hold the beam, and when they dropped it, it turned and it pinned me under and it burnt my hair. I had a wig on. It burnt through the wig, but your hair burns in clumps, you know. It does--it sort of fries off. So those are--I mean, all considered for what I've done, those are fairly minor things. I know, you're looking at me like, `This woman's nuts,' but they are fairly minor things.

LUDDEN: You've been lucky.

Ms. EPPER: Yes, I've been blessed. I've been taken care of, yes.

LUDDEN: How long do you want to keep working?

Ms. EPPER: Forever, if I can. Look what I did last week. I did "War of the Worlds," where we did tons of flipping upside down in cages with Tom Cruise. Gee, that was a tough job. Tom does his own stunts on that particular sequence. And then I did a shot--they're doing some preshooting for the remake of "Poseidon Adventure." And they're doing some what they call gimbal shots, where when the ship tips over, they're tipping us off, and it's just people and things flying, like "Titanic." Remember when the Titanic...

LUDDEN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. EPPER: That's what we're doing on this. You know, you get hurt, but you try everything you can to stay away from everybody and the real pieces of furniture. And we did it and nobody got hurt. We don't just do it for the money. It's part of who we are. It's part of what keeps us alive. I mean, any athlete will tell you that. Any race car driver will tell you that. I mean, also anybody that does extreme sports or extreme anything, part of it is you feel so alive when you're doing it. It's risky. It's not for everybody. I don't recommend for kids to go out and try anything, because even the best of us get hurt and--horrible to say it--gotten killed.

LUDDEN: So it's fulfilling even though your face isn't known and your name isn't the first one they put on the screen.

Ms. EPPER: It is now.

LUDDEN: Jeannie Epper appears in the documentary by Amanda Micheli, "Double Dare." For more information about Epper and the film, you can visit our Web site at npr.org.

Jeannie Epper, thank you so much.

Ms. EPPER: Thank you for having me.

LUDDEN: Special thanks tonight to the American Film Institute's Silverdocs Film Festival. That's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jennifer Ludden.

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