It’s the end of yet another big, loud, and crazy summer movie season, and if you’re anything like me you don’t remember anything about any of the movies you watched during the last four months besides a bunch of action scenes. In other words, you don’t really care about all the brilliant subtleties of Christian Bale’s interpretation of the Batman archetype as much as you want to see Batman jump ten stories and kick a criminal in the ding-ding. Yet for whatever reason the stuntmen and stuntwomen that make the craziest parts of your favorite movies possible barely get a mention in the credits. Is it fair that Tom Cruise gets top billing in a movie where a rocket get shot at his face, but the actual professional stuntman who took a rocket in the face gets a brief mention in the credits? No, and that’s why this article is going to recognize some of film’s greatest and least-recognized stunt performers.
One of the top names in stunt performance during the 1970s, Hal Needham was attracted to danger and excitement all his life. Leaving his first career as a treetopping logger to serve in the Army’s paratrooper corps during the Korean War, Needham discovered a knack for parachuting and other aerial stunts which led to his first film role as a wing-walker in 1957’s Spirit of St. Louis. He enjoyed the experience so much he spent the next nine months trying to break into the stunt business, including a performance on TV show “You Asked For It” where he parachuted onto a galloping horse, knocking the rider out of the saddle. Eventually Needham found a job as stunt double on “Have Gun, Will Travel” which soon led to a number of stunt roles in Westerns such as "McClintock!" and "How The West Was Won."
Needham is best known today as the writer and director of "Smokey and the Bandit", starring close friend Burt Reynolds (Needham once said he slept in Reynolds’ guest house for more than a decade) and a number of other silly movies with awesome stunts ("Hooper", "The Cannonball Run"), but his most important contribution was most likely his introduction of airbags and other safety equipment to the stunt industry, some of which he designed himself.
Unassuming-looking Englishman Victor Monroe Armstrong is in fact the world’s most accomplished stunt double, having stood in for Chris Reeves’ Superman, Timothy Dalton and George Lazenby’s James Bond(s), and most famously Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones. At the time Armstrong resembled Ford so closely that he was able to fill in for several non-stunt sequences after the actor suffered a back injury, and off the set the Jones film crew often mistook him for Ford until they heard him speaking with an English accent, leading Harrison to famously tell Vic “If you learn to talk I’m in deep trouble!”
Like many stunt performers who got their start in the sixties and fifties, Armstrong came into stunt work by way of his horse-riding skill: the chief stuntman for the Gregory Peck/Sophia Loren thriller Arabesque sought quality horses for the picture from Armstrong’s family farm and immediately recognized the young man’s skill with horses, hiring him on as a stunt rider on the spot. Vic’s horsemanship served him throughout his career—one of his most famous stunts was the jump from a horse onto a German tank during "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade"—but like many long-term stunt performers, he mostly works as a stunt coordinator and action unit director, especially known for his work on the Brosnan-era James Bond films.
As a young girl in New Zealand, Zoë E. Bell was a dedicated and talented athlete, active in gymnastics, track and field, dance, SCUBA diving, and Taekwon-Do, and her stunt career began with a literal lucky break—her father, a doctor, was treating a stuntman for a head injury sustained in a local film and came home with a phone number for Bell to contact. After a few appearances in New Zealand TV series, Bell hit it big as the stunt double for fellow Kiwi Lucy Lawless in “Xena: Warrior Princess,” and then bigger as the double for Uma Thurman in the Kill Bill series. While Bell was originally intended to double Thurman only for “crash-and-smash” scenes (“Basically, I would just be falling on my ass”), Tarantino decided that Bell’s height and physique made her an ideal fight double as well, so after a crash course in wushu-style sword fighting, Bell hacked and slashed her way through a number of action scenes. Tarantino was so impressed with her performance and personality that he cast her as herself in his 2007 grindhouse stunt film "Death Proof".
Henry Blight “Toby” Halicki was a skilled mechanic, brilliant businessman, fearless driver, and cult film maker whose extremely small body of work (only five films) is still notable for their classic and striking car stunts. Halicki was owner and operator of his own auto body shop before he was out of high school, and had expanded into two other businesses and local real estate by the time he was 21. By 1974, Halicki had amassed an enormous car collection, a lot of friends and favors among the local government, and more cash than he really knew what to do with.
A sensible, boring person would have just kept on amassing money and cars forever, maybe at some point running for Congress. H.B. Halicki was not a sensible or boring person, so he decided to write, produce, direct, and star in his very own stunt movie, "Gone in Sixty Seconds".
If you bought "Gone in Sixty Seconds" looking for the sort of revolutionary performances in acting and scripting that characterized the best of 70s independent film-making, you should probably try and get your $4.99 back, because Halicki kept the budget manageable by employing his friends and family as cast and crew and the non-car-chase scenes are laughably bad. Much of the film is improvised (not so well) and frequently Halicki had his camera crew film unrelated traffic scenes or random incidents (including a train derailment) which he later inserted semi-randomly into the film to fill it out.
What made the film famous (or infamous) is the climactic 34-minute chase of Halicki in his ’73 Mustang Mach I “Eleanor,” the longest chase scene in movie history, which spanned five cities, damaged or destroyed 93 cars from Halicki’s collection (including some donated cars that were accidentally wrecked which he later had to buy), and culminates in a 30-foot-high jump over a 128-foot gap that compacted ten vertebrae in Halicki’s back, leaving him with a slight limp for the rest of his life. Halicki’s promising career as stunt performer and director came to a premature end during the filming of "Gone in Sixty Seconds 2" when a safety cable suddenly sheared, crushing him under a telephone pole.
Yakima Canutt (born Enos Edward Canutt and not actually from Yakima) originally made a name for himself in the Northwestern rodeo circuit, earning the title of World’s Best Bronco Buster at seventeen and continuing on to win numerous awards and recognitions all across the West. Inevitably, Canutt attracted the attention of the early Hollywood film industry, and appeared in almost fifty silent films alongside famed cowboy entertainers like Tom Mix and mainstream movie stars like Douglas Fairbanks. Unfortunately for “Yak,” his acting contract expired just before the rise of the “talkie,” and a bout of flu during his time in the Navy had left his voice rough, scratchy, and generally unmarketable.
Undaunted, Canutt fell back on his stunt riding experience and began introducing more and more rodeo riders and techniques to 1930s Hollywood. He took the safety devices and sleight-of-hand tricks developed from years of rodeo performances and adapted them for the big screen, allowing cowboy stunts to be performed cheaper, safer, and fancier. With his close friend John Wayne, Yakima developed a system of “screen fighting” where performers could appear to trade savage bare-knuckle blows without ever touching each other—the fundamentals of his technique are still in use today—and was instrumental in developing the roles of “stunt coordinator” and “action unit director.” Yakima Canutt survived some twenty years of dangerous stunt work and continued directing and coordinating action scenes for twenty years more, eventually dying of natural causes at the age of 90. Many still consider him to be the world’s finest stuntman.
Although no professional association for female stunt performers existed until 1968 and the creation of the Stunt Women’s Association for Motion Pictures (SWAMP), a handful of skilled, courageous, and spirited women had been working as stunt doubles for men and women since the earliest years of film. Chief among them was Rose August Wenger, a “tomboy” from Cleveland who joined the Miller Brothers Wild West Show at seventeen. When the company abruptly shut down, Wenger found herself marooned outside of Venice, California, where she and the rest of the rodeo cast was hired into the film business for an individual payment of eight dollars a week. Soon she was appearing in a billed role as a cowgirl in between rodeo performances, often appearing with her lover Hoot Gibson (who she eventually married, largely because it was cheaper to book one room for the both of them than two).
Rose Gibson (as she now called herself) found her greatest role as a stunt double for actress Helen Holmes in the long-running action-adventure serial "The Hazards of Helen". Gibson doubled for 49 episodes before Holmes fell ill and the studio offered Rose the chance to play the lead—she did so well that Holmes’ contract was cancelled and Gibson became the new “Helen.”
The studio ensured continuity by billing their new actress as “Helen Gibson,” a name she eventually officially adopted, and for the next 70 episodes she planned and performed some of the most exciting stunts of the silent-movie era. Sadly, The Hazards of Helen was to be the peak of her career, and after a misfortune-plagued attempt to set up her own production company, she was relegated to bit and character roles for the remainder of her film career.
One of Europe’s premier vehicle stunt specialists, French motocross champion Remy Julienne has worked on more than 1400 films, including six Bond movies and the celebrated British car-caper film "The Italian Job". Julienne revolutionized the filming of cars in action scenes as well as the training and coordination of stunt drivers. He’s particularly known for his insistence on cars behaving and performing realistically—sustaining damage from jumps, turning and braking within their real-life limits—even while having them perform astonishing stunts, such as the 60-foot jump crested by a Mini Cooper for The Italian Job.
Unfortunately, Julienne’s career suffered after a tragic accident in 1999 took the life of a stunt driver under his supervision, and while he eventually showed that the production company was primarily responsible for the performer’s death, he has found less success with other companies. His two sons Michel and Dominique carry on his work as renowned stunt drivers.
Sammo Hung, Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Chow Yun-Fat, Stephen Chow—chances are that if you’ve heard the name of a Hong Kong or Chinese action star other than Bruce Lee, he or she has at some point been trained, directed, or choreographed by the legendary Yuen Woo-Ping, a Guangzhou-born martial artist who is arguably one of the most influential directors on the planet. Yuen’s two 1978 films, "Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow" and "Drunken Master" launched both the massively popular “kung fu comedy” genre and the career of Jackie Chan, who would become an important and respected stunt choreographer in his own right.
His influence on martial arts stunt presentations (particularly on the use of “wire fu”) is almost impossible to overstate, and it’s difficult to find a Hong Kong action film that doesn’t make use of at least one of his cinematic techniques.
Yuen Woo-Ping’s fame was so notable in martial arts cinema that he was recruited by the Wachowski brothers as stunt coordinator for "The Matrix". While Yuen personally felt that his advice was ignored and undervalued, the film’s success made his name in American cinema, and he was hired for the three sequels and brought on to direct the multinational "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and the explicitly American "Kill Bill". Yuen also appeared in many of the films he directed or choreographed, often as a comedic bit character—American audiences may recognize his face from his brief, self-parodying part as a homeless martial-arts genius/scam artist in 2004’s "Kung Fu Hustle", a kung-fu comedy that in many ways was an overt homage to Yuen’s pioneering films in the genre.
Truthfully, nearly any member of the Epper family could justifiably appear on this list—Switzerland-born patriarch John Epper entered the stunt business in 1926, and at least 15 of his descendants followed him—but Jeannie Epper earns pride of place both from the length of her performance career (she’s been actively participating in stunts from 1965’s “The Big Valley” to the unreleased 2012 thriller Flight) and her role in organizing and promoting female stunt performers.
As Lynda Carter’s stunt double in the “Wonder Woman” TV series, she was the best-known member of the otherwise practically invisible stuntwoman community, allowing her to take a role in the foundation of trade association SWAMP, which negotiated better pay and better roles for female stunt performers in an era where stunt doubles for women were still more often than not men.
While the great majority of aging stuntmen were able to transition easily into roles as directors and choreographers, Epper ran headlong into one of Hollywood’s many glass ceilings, and to some extent she regrets never being allowed to “graduate” to a coordinating position. On the other hand, there aren’t many 70-year-old stunt performers of either gender, and when interviewed by the PBS documentary "Double Dare", Epper expressed a certain satisfaction with her career, saying “I’ve been doing stunts for almost 50 years. It’s all I really know, outside of being a mom and a grandma. Retirement’s not for me.”
Next: Stars and their Stunt Doubles
Often considered the finest stuntman in American movie history, Dar Robinson set more than 21 records for jumps and free-falls during his 19-year 36-film career, all without breaking a single bone in his body. A “high-fall” specialist, Robinson got his start as stunt double for Steve McQueen’s character in "Papillon" in a hundred-foot dive into the sea, and accomplished feats such as the highest free-fall (meaning without wires or parachute, aiming for an airbag) from a helicopter (331 feet), the highest free-fall from a building (220 feet), and one of the highest wire-assisted falls from any structure (a stunning 1200 feet from Toronto’s CN Tower).
Given a rare featured role in Burt Reynolds’ Stick as albino assassin Mokey, Robinson capped the movie with a stunning fall from a penthouse condominium to a bare concrete—nowhere to hide an airbag—while the camera holds focus on him for a full five seconds. The secret was a Robinson-designed wire rig called a “decelerator” that allowed performers to free-fall longer than usual before quickly and safely slowing them to a halt.
Tragically, Robinson’s life ended only a year after the release of Stick in a freak motorcycle accident for the forgettable flop "Million Dollar Mystery". After filming the main stunt, Robinson was filming a high-speed pass for second unit footage when he unaccountably missed his braking point and skidded straight off a cliff. The three films he was working with at the time of his death—"MDM", "Cyclone", and "Lethal Weapon"—were dedicated to his memory, with the closing credits of "Lethal Weapon" referring to him as “one of the motion picture industry’s greatest stuntmen.”