Posted by Susan Doll on February 18, 2013
This year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences presented honorary Oscars to AFI founder George Stevens, Jr., verite documentarian D.A. Pennebaker, and stuntman Hal Needham. While it is terrific that three worthy recipients were honored for their contributions, the only recognition they will receive at the actual awards ceremony on February 24 will be a brief announcement and a chance to wave at the camera from their seats. For the past four years, the Board of Governors has chosen to hand out the honorary Oscars at the Governors Awards dinner. Apparently highlights of the honorees’ long careers are shown to industry guests at this non-televised function instead of airing clips on the awards show.
I miss the clips that used to be such a major part of the Academy Awards show, and this year, the omission makes for a particularly bad idea, because who wouldn’t want to see the career highlights of stuntman extraordinaire Hal Needham. From falls to crashes, from galloping horses to soaring planes, Needham’s clip reel is bound to be more exciting than listening to a performance of another bland best-song nominee or more lame shtick from a badly chosen guest host.
Needham is a throwback to another time, when an ambitious working-class man could use his only assets—his wits and his body—to get ahead. Needham rose from stunt man to coordinator to second-unit director to director, becoming at one point the highest paid stuntman in the world. But, the price of success for a stuntman is measured in broken bones, not money. During a career that included 4,500 television appearances and 310 films, Needham has broken 56 bones. He also broke his back twice and had several teeth knocked out. All in a day’s work.
Born in 1931 in Memphis, Hal Needham was the stepson of a dirt-poor sharecropper in rural Arkansas. Their two-room house, which was home to two adults and five children, did not have running water or inside plumbing. When the family moved to Missouri a few years later, Needham found it difficult to keep up in school, because he did not get the necessary foundation back in rural Arkansas. He quit school after junior high and found work climbing to the tops of tress as a pruner for a tree service—a job Needham considered his first step toward becoming a stunt man. When he realized that there was little room for advancement, he joined the army during the Korean Conflict to become a paratrooper. After his discharge, Needham drove to California because his brother told him that it was the land of milk and honey.
Once in California, Needham returned to the tree-service business, but a chance meeting with Cliff Rose led to new ambitions. Rose was trying to break into the stunt business by gaining experience on the television show You Asked for It. Each week, the show featured stunts and exploits that viewers suggested via letter to the producers. Using another name, Rose regularly wrote to the producers requesting to see certain daredevil stunts, which he would then be hired to do. When a stunt called for three men, he asked Needham to join him. The stunt required Needham to stand on the wheel of a small plane as it flew about 18 feet above a running horse ridden by Rose. Needham was to jump from the plane and knock Rose off the horse. With no advanced planning, Needham had to guess when and how to jump, and the trio missed their mark for the camera. The plane circled around for a new pass, and the team got it on the second take.
Rose got his first job in the film business on The Spirit of St. Louis, the 1957 biopic about Charles Lindbergh directed by Billy Wilder. Rose brought in Needham because the stunt work required at least two men and two pilots. For the first stunt, the inexperienced pair asked for $2000, but Wilder agreed to $1000, which was still a lot of money compared to the tree-service business. The stunt involved a two-plane barnstorming gag in which Rose and Needham each stood on the top wing of a biplane while the planes looped and spun through the air. Then, the two leaped from plane to plane at the same time. In another part of the stunt, Needham hung upside down by his ankles from a rope ladder, while Rose stood straight up on the wing. For this part, Needham flew upside down for several minutes while the camera crew finessed the shot on the ground. After they finally got the shot, he pulled himself up and sat on the bottom rung of the rope ladder, too dizzy and disoriented to climb back up. He dragged himself up the ladder just before the pilot descended. For the next six weeks, the pair performed every stunt requested by Wilder, with Needham earning more in that time than he had in a year in the tree-servicing business. The experience brought him a new goal—to be a stuntman in the movies.
The stunt business consisted of a tightly knit group of coordinators and stuntmen, and Needham found it difficult to break in. In the meantime, he practiced stunts falls until he was given an opportunity on another film. Replacing well-known stuntman Chuck Roberson on the film Timbuktu, he was assigned to do a 40-foot fall from a prison tower by the skeptical coordinator. Needham had been practicing a new approach to the high-fall and decided that it was the perfect time to try it out. Instead of grabbing his stomach and falling forward to simulate being shot and killed, he threw his arms up, spun around, and fell backwards. Needham fell onto cardboard boxes that had been stacked on top of boards straddled across sawhorses. Mattresses were placed underneath. This was typical for stunt falls during the 1950s. The boxes cushioned and slowed down the falling body, which then hit the boards, causing them to bend and break. The boards absorbed much of the impact of the fall, before the performer landed on the mattresses. The story of his first official job for a stunt coordinator points up two aspects of Needham’s career: He continually designed new approaches to standard stunts, and he realized a need for better safety measures.
Roberson served as a mentor to Needham, whose big break came when he was hired to double Richard Boone on the television series Have Gun Will Travel. Within a few months, he was acting as the coordinator, working on 39 episodes per year for six years. The regular gig afforded him the opportunity to meet other coordinators who guest-stunted on the show, be creative with standard stunts, and draw together a new generation of stunt performers. He also worked on other television shows, including Riverboat, where he met a young actor named Burt Reynolds. The handsome actor wanted to do his own stunt fighting, causing Needham to roll his eyes. Though doing their own stunts is a frequent request—and claim—by many young actors, Needham knew from experience that it was generally a waste of time. Reynolds surprised him by doing a good job, which was the start of a close friendship.
After Have Gun Will Travel, Needham turned to feature films, landing jobs on several westerns, including John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and How the West Was Won. He worked on films with John Wayne, including The Undefeated, where he advised Wayne on how to correctly execute a certain punch during a fight scene. Everyone held their breath as they felt Wayne would be insulted at the suggestion, but he appreciated that the stuntman’s advice proved correct. Needham admired Wayne’s work ethic and the respectful way the big star treated the stuntmen.
In the mid-1960s, Needham advanced to stunt coordinator for feature films. When not working a regular gig, Needham and his posse of talented stuntmen met regularly to practice new gags, devise riggings, and take lessons on turning over cars or doing the bootlegger’s turn. They represented a new breed of stuntmen, who would elevate the role of stunts in the films of the 1970s and 1980s. In 1971, Needham teamed with friends and peers Ronnie Rondell and Glenn Wilder to create Stunts Unlimited, an exclusive organization of performers who sought to provide quality stunt work for the industry.
During the heyday of his career, Needham was responsible for advances in safety. When he saw an airbag used at a pole-vaulting event, he adapted the idea for stunt use. Instead of falling on cardboard boxes on sawhorses, he and his peers now dove onto airbags, which were not only safer but allowed for higher leaps. He invented the car cannon turnover, a device to make it easier to flip cars, and new and improved ram and ratchet systems, which are used to blow stuntmen forward or jerk them backward with a violent motion. In 1986, Needham and William L. Fredrick received a Scientific and Engineering Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for designing the Shotmaker Elite camera car and crane, a partially electric car combined with a camera-crane and generator.
In the 1970s, Needham was hired as second unit director as well as stunt coordinator on White Lightning, The Longest Yard, and Gator, all starring Burt Reynolds. As Reynolds’s star continued to rise, Needham’s fortunes became intertwined with that of his friend’s. And, for 11 years, the stuntman lived in the actor’s guest house in Los Angeles. In 1977, he showed Reynolds a screenplay for a low-budget action-comedy titled Smokey and the Bandit. When the star agreed to play the Bandit, a lovable outlaw who agrees to haul 400 cases of beer to a rodeo in 28 hours, Universal Pictures signed on to finance and distribute it. Smokey and the Bandit became the second highest-grossing film of 1977. Over the next few years, Needham directed a string of low-budget, high-energy action-comedies, which are generally dismissed by critics. Understanding that audiences came to see stars play into their star images, he encouraged his stars to ignore the screenplay and ad lib their lines and gags —a tactic used in contemporary comedies by Peter Billingsley, among others.
Hooper, which stars Reynolds as an aging stunt man unable to give up the exhilaration that comes the job, represents his best directorial effort. The semi-autobiographical film benefits from Needham’s insider perspective. The story turns on the fear of every stuntman—growing old as a new generation nips at your heels. It also boasts colorful performances by Sally Field, Brian Keith, James Best, Robert Klein, and John Marley. The camaraderie among the cast and the romanticizing of stuntmen as the last of Hollywood’s cowboys are irresistible if the direction is a little rough around the edges.
Unlike other stuntmen, Needham chose not to specialize in specific gags. He was as adept at stunt riding as he was in driving fast cars. Among his most epic stunts was a runaway stagecoach gag in Little Big Man. While standing on the bare back of one the horses in harness, Needham and another stuntman made a series of 14-foot standing broad jumps from one horse to another. If he missed, he would have been trampled by the horses and hit by the stagecoach. In White Lightning, Reynolds played a moonshiner who is chased by the police to a riverbank, where his character—as doubled by Needham—is supposed to jump a car onto a moving barge. In the rehearsals, the barge captain used three-quarters of the throttle to launch the boat for the jump. When the cameras rolled, the captain launched the boat with maximum throttle, which pushed it further out into the lake, resulting in a much longer jump for the car. As Needham realized this, he stood on the accelerator. The car soared through the air and hit the end of the ramp at about 80 mph. The nose of the car hit the barge and stood straight up in the air for a split second. Though not what everyone expected, the stunt looked unique, so the footage was used in the film.
Rolling vehicles was a typical stunt in car chases of the 1970s, and it was usually accomplished with the help of a ramp, like the pick-up truck rollover in Gator. In McQ, starring John Wayne, Ronnie Rondell and Needham staged a spectacular car rollover on the beach. Because the shot was planned for the flat beach, they couldn’t hide a ramp in the landscape. So, Needham invented a device dubbed the McQ Cannon. He and his crew built a cannon 16 inches in diameter and welded it to the back floorboard behind the driver’s seat with the muzzle pointed toward the ground. The cannon was loaded with a 3-foot-long telephone pole and a powerful black-powder charge. During a practice run, when Needham threw the car into a skid at 55mph, the crew hit the fire button. The car blew 30 feet in the air, landing upside down and rolling backward across the desert. When the car finished rolling, Needham couldn’t breathe, because he had broken six ribs, punctured a lung, lost three teeth, and broke his back. The actual stunt used in the film was performed by a crew member with a less potent powder charge.
The most expensive stunt Needham ever performed occurred when he was asked by the auto-safety industry to be the first human to test the effectiveness of the automobile airbag. For driving head-on into a concrete wall at 25 mph wearing nothing but a standard seat belt, Needham was paid $25,000.
In researching Needham’s career, I discovered that stuntmen and movie stunts are rarely the topics of serious scholarship. Stunts are not covered in film-history books, or in anthologies of criticism by noted scholars. I did uncover some interesting articles and individual reviews of movies that used spectacular stunts, but the lack of emphasis reminds me of the “stuntman’s paradox,” which was once described on the website of Stunts Unlimited. If a stunt is successful, it creates the illusion that the character performed it. If audiences are reminded in any way that they are watching a movie, they will remember that a star is playing the character, but think little beyond that. In other words, there is little awareness of the stuntman during the course of watching the film. According to the stuntman’s paradox, the more successful a stuntman is, the less they are known. Hal Needham’s life-time achievement Oscar as “an innovator, mentor, and master technician who elevated his craft to an art and made the impossible look easy” might seem a step toward overcoming the paradox. And, yet, without presenting the clips at the Academy Awards show to bring his work center stage, the veteran stuntman will remain “invisible,” especially to young audiences whose understanding of stunt work has been dulled by CGI.
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