“I’m the unknown stuntman who made Eastwood look so fine.”
If you are like me and grew up in the 1980’s, you’ll probably recognize that line from the theme song to the t.v. show “The Fall Guy”. The show starred Lee Majors as a Hollywood stuntman by day who moonlighted as a bounty hunter at night. It was a fun, although pretty ridiculous show at the time, but it sparked my interest in learning about how movies are made and how stunts get performed.
This year saw the publication of not one but two autobiographies by real Hollywood stuntmen, and I enjoyed both of them in their own way.
“Stuntman! My car-crashing, plane jumping, bone-breaking, death-defying Hollywood life” by Hal Needham really says it all in the title. Hal Needham is a natural storyteller, as the following passage shows: “I wrecked hundreds of cars, fell from tall buildings, got blown up, was dragged by horses and along the way broke fifty-six bones, my back twice, punctured a lung, and knocked out a few teeth. I hung upside down by my ankles under a biplane in “The Spirit of St. Louis”, jumped between galloping horses in “Little Big Man”, set a world record for a boat stunt in “Gator”, jumped a rocket-powered pick up truck across a canal for a GM commercial, was the first human to test the car air bag-and taught John Wayne how to really throw a punch”. After an opening like that, how could you not keep reading?
Needham was a paratrooper in the Korean War and later worked as a tree-toopper before breaking into the stunt business in the late 1950s. Later on, he became the regular stunt double for Burt Reynolds, and even lived the better part of 12 years as a guest in Burt Reynolds’ mansion. The book is full of really entertaining stories of “old Hollywood”, in the days before computer-generated effects effectively replaced practical stunts. It is also an inspiring tale of someone sticking with a dream and ultimately rising up through the ranks. Towards the end of Needham’s career, he had established himself as the premiere stunt advisor in Hollywood and even directed a number of feature films.
The other stunt book published this year is “The True Adventures of the World’s Greatest Stuntman” by Vic Armstrong. Vic Armstrong performed stunts in some of the biggest movies in the 1970’s and 1980’s, including a number of James Bond films. He grew up on a farm around horses, and his horse riding skills proved valuable in the early part of his career. His uncanny resemblance to Harrison Ford earned him the position of Ford’s stunt double in the first three Indiana Jones films. When Harrison Ford injured his back during “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom”, Armstrong stepped in and filmed any scenes with Ford that didn’t require a head shot. He also was Christopher Reeve’s stunt double in the first two Superman movies. Like Needham, Armstrong graduated from performing stunts to coordinating them. Today, he works mostly as an action sequence director and a second unit director. Armstrong’s stories about working with Hollywood legends like Spielberg and Scorsese are fun, and it’s eye-opening to learn how much actual danger these stuntpeople put themselves in for the sake of a shot. Armstrong is a little bit younger than Needham and looked upon him as a mentor in the early part of his stunt career. He even has a chapter in his book called “Hal and Burt”.
If you’re a fan of practical effects and the men and women who risk their lives performing them, I’m sure you’ll enjoy the stories told by Hal Needham and Vic Armstrong.