DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Friday means StoryCorps. The Oscars will be handed out this weekend, just at a time when the Academy is facing heavy criticism for a lack of diversity. And that is an all-too-familiar story for stuntmen Willie Harris and Alex Brown who tried to get into the movie business in the 1960s. They quickly realized that studios would not be hiring black stuntmen, so in the evenings they would practice on their own, falling onto mattresses and stunt driving in rental cars. Recently, Harris and Brown came to StoryCorps to remember how they finally broke in.
ALEX BROWN: When we were starting, anytime they had a stunt to do with a black actor in it, they would paint these white guys in the blackface, and this was 1968, '69.
WILLIE HARRIS: We wanted to prove that black guys can do stunts, but we couldn't get anyone to train us. We had to train our own self.
BROWN: We had to learn how to fall. You had to learn how to throw punches.
HARRIS: I remember being at this park every Wednesday night, and when we would get out there, the LAPD was already parked watching.
BROWN: Yeah, to see what we going to do. They used to think that all these black guys doing jumping jacks and throwing punches out there - they thought we were...
HARRIS: We was the Black Panthers, we was militants and all of that.
BROWN: And they found out, well, we just trying to get into the motion picture business, and over a period of years, the production managers began to let a few of us work. But, you know, you get on the set, they get to calling you, you know, the big N and watch your back.
HARRIS: When you went to work in the morning, you didn't know if you was coming home in the evening if you was a black stunt-guy.
BROWN: You was always a little apprehensive about who you're working with because, you know, you can get some of them that was still - didn't buy into the fact that we wasn't going away. So you subject to get hurt. What motivated you?
HARRIS: I was already an angry young man when I got to Hollywood. For me, growing up in Mississippi amongst the Ku Klux Klan, you had no respect, and I always said, whatever I get involved in when I get the hell out of Mississippi, I was going to be dynamite. The county that I grew up in had a black representative from Mississippi, and he asked me, what you've been doing since you left Mississippi? So I told him that I was doing stunts, and he asked me, would I like to come to Mississippi and be honored at the state Capitol. You know, my mom has passed on, but if my mom could just see this, standing here in this podium and speaking to this white audience. And I look out the window, and you see all of these oak trees that remind me how many blacks been hung on them. We stood in that same spot, and if we hadn't have been stuntmen, we wouldn't have been there.
BROWN: No, we wouldn't.
HARRIS: Ain't that something?
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GREENE: Wow. Retired Hollywood stuntmen Willie Harris and Alex Brown at StoryCorps in Los Angeles. They were original members of the Black Stuntmen's Association, and they spent decades working in Hollywood. That interview is archived at the Library of Congress.
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