(c) Paramount Pictures
When I was a boy, there were no such things as PCs, computer games or the Internet to keep me inside the house. For amusement, I had to go outside and play in a variety of locations that, thinking about it now, were a little bit dangerous – at roadsides and riversides, in derelict buildings and old sheds, and up on any roof or in any treetop I could manage to climb to. I imagine most boys in the 1970s played in places like these, but I had an advantage. I spent my boyhood on a farm, which was full of machinery sheds, hay-sheds, grain stores, slurry pits, silage pits, workshops and outhouses, and which was right next to a river and also right next to a busy road. Perhaps it was this potential for injury and death in my play-area that prompted me, like most pre-pubescent males in the 1970s, to resolve that when I grew up I was going to be a film stuntman.
Appropriately, when I went fishing one day at the age of nine and fell off the riverbank, into the river, the way I recounted the mishap to my school-mates later made it sound like how Paul Newman and Robert Redford had jumped off the cliff and into the river in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969). This feat of derring-do, one of the most famous in cinematic history, had actually been performed by the stuntmen Howard Curtis and Micky Gilbert. To be honest, the bank I fell off was only two feet above the water, and the water itself was only three feet deep, but in situations like these you’re allowed to use your imagination.
With comedic movies, when I became old enough to understand how films actually worked, I found myself less interested in the comic actors and actresses in front of the cameras and more interested in the writers behind them who’d thought up the jokes, sight-gags and funny incidents – people like Buck Henry, Mel Brooks and John Hughes. (And I had enormous respect for people who both wrote and performed comedy, like the Monty Python team, Woody Allen and Christopher Guest.) Similarly, I became less enamoured with action-movie stars when it occurred to me that, most of the time, they didn’t perform the breath-taking stunts featured in their films. Those were done by unsung stuntmen and stuntwomen, who therefore were the people I should admire. Indeed, I think if I’d been on the set of Raiders of the Lost Ark in 1981, with my autograph book, I’d have ignored Harrison Ford and made a beeline instead for Vic Armstrong or Terry Richards.
Incidentally, that’s a big reason why I despise the 2002 James Bond film Die Another Day, which made heavy use of CGI during its action scenes. It seemed a betrayal of all the stunt-work that’d distinguished the Bond movies during their previous 40-year history and an insult to all the stunt performers who’d contributed to them.
Last month, alas, Terry Richards died at the age of 81. For any male my age who grew up with an enthusiasm for movies, his CV as a stuntman and bit-player is a roll-call of fond memories – two Indiana Jones movies, one Star Wars movie, two Superman movies, six Bond movies (seven if you include the 1967 swinging-sixties spoof Casino Royale, but God, do you want to?) plus The Dirty Dozen (1967), Where Eagles Dare (1968), Brazil (1985) and The Princess Bride (1987).
It must’ve been frustrating for Richards that the role everyone remembers him for, the Arab swordsman in Raiders of the Lost Ark, is one that didn’t involve much stunt-work. In the original script, the swordsman had a lengthy battle with Indiana Jones, and so Richards worked for months beforehand on developing his sword-fighting skills. However, on the day that the fight was to be shot, Harrison Ford was laid low by a severe dose of ‘the shits’. Ford suggested to director Steven Spielberg that to keep filming brief, they should not have the fight. Rather, Indiana Jones could just let the swordsman show off for a few moments by twirling his sword around, then whip out his pistol and shoot him. In other words, one of the most famous sight-gags in the history of adventure cinema was the result of diarrhoea. At least in the subsequent merchandising bonanza Richards got his own action figure.
While I’m on the subject, here are a few more of my favourite stunt-people.
(c) United Artists
Born to a US ranching family in 1895, Yakima Canutt became a world-champion rodeo rider and by 1923 was involved in the fledgling motion-picture industry – inevitably playing cowboys in that instantly-popular genre, the Western. However, he’d had his voice ravaged by flu during a two-year stint with the US Navy and he realised he couldn’t continue as an actor when silent films gave way to the talkies, and so he started to specialise in stunt-work. Canutt ended up as stunt double for John Wayne, who claimed to have got many of his famous cowboy mannerisms – the strut, the drawl – from him. As a cowboy, after all, Canutt was the real deal.
His most famous stunt is one he performed in 1939’s Stagecoach, in which he leaps onto a team of horses pulling the titular stagecoach, then falls between them, gets dragged along and then disappears under the stagecoach itself. (This inspired the sequence in Raiders of the Lost Ark where Indiana Jones is dragged beneath a German truck.) Canutt later became a second-unit director and staged the chariot race in 1959’s Ben Hur. And despite sustaining injuries that required plastic surgery on at least two different occasions, he lived to the ripe old age of 90.
(c) United Artists
Bud Ekins was a champion motorcyclist as well as a stuntman. It was he – not Steve McQueen, as was believed for a long time – who rode the Triumph TR6 Trophy motorbike near the end of 1963’s The Great Escape, when McQueen’s character, pursued by half the German army, attempts to leap the giant fence that separates him from Switzerland. (The famously petrol-headed McQueen did ride the motorbike during the preceding chase and was keen to perform the jump himself, but the filmmakers talked him out of it.) That alone earns Ekins a place in the Ian Smith Stuntmen Hall of Fame, but he went on to do lots of other cool stuff. He worked with McQueen again in Bullitt (1968), driving that film’s iconic Ford Mustang 390 GT, and he was also involved in Diamonds are Forever (1970), Race with the Devil (1975), Sorcerer (1977) and The Blues Brothers (1980).
Every time I’m on board a cable car and see another cable car approaching from the opposite direction, I wonder if I’ll see Alf Joint perform a suicidal leap from the roof of one car onto the roof of the other – for Joint was the stuntman who doubled for Richard Burton in 1967’s Where Eagles Dare when Burton’s character had to hop cable cars close to the fearsome Schloss Adler, the mountaintop stronghold of the SS. Like many a great British stuntman, Joint’s CV is a roll-call of Bond movies (he made two), Star Wars movies (one) and Superman movies (three). He doubled for Eric Porter, playing Professor Moriarty in the acclaimed 1980s TV series The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, when the character plunged to his doom at the Reichenbach Falls; and for Lee Remick in The Omen (1976), presumably during the sequence when Ms Remick is pushed out of a hospital window and crashes through the roof of an ambulance passing below.
I also remember Joint well for being the man who dived off a vertiginously-high cliff, into the sea, during a 1970s’ TV advert for Cadbury’s Milk Tray. The Milk Tray Man was a Bondian character who’d perform all manner of death-defying feats in order to deliver a box of Milk Tray chocolates to a beautiful lady (with the final payoff: “And all because… the lady loves… Milk Tray.”) But I always thought it was a bummer that Alf had go through all this just to bring some chocolates to a girl.
Also involved in Where Eagles Dare was Eddie Powell, a stuntman who seemed to divide his time between James Bond movies – he made eleven, including 1983’s Never Say Never Again, the ‘rogue’ production with Sean Connery – and Hammer Films, where he was a stunt double for Christopher Lee in movies like The Mummy (1959), Dracula, Prince of Darkness (1966) and To the Devil a Daughter (1976). For that last film, he also did a ‘full body burn’ stunt during a scene where satanic forces cause Anthony Valentine to spontaneously combust inside a church. In addition, Hammer gave him a few acting credits, predictably eccentric ones, such as the lumbering, bandaged monster in The Mummy’s Shroud (1967) and the half-man, half-beast Goat of Mendes conjured up at a witches’ sabbat in The Devil Rides Out (1968).
(c) Hammer Films
Later in his career, Powell performed stunts as the titular, drooling, acid-blooded, multi-mouthed beastie in Alien (1979) and Aliens (1986). He took part, for instance, in the first film’s engine-room scene where the alien lowers itself upon the hapless Harry Dean Stanton.
Strictly speaking, I shouldn’t mention William Hobbs here as he’s not exactly a stuntman. He’s a fight choreographer, more precisely a sword-fight choreographer, and his work has enlivened many a swashbuckler over the years. He directed the swordplay in The Three Musketeers (1973) and The Four Musketeers (1974) and presumably had the difficult task of restraining Oliver Reed, who from all accounts threw himself into the movies’ fight scenes with the enthusiasm of a blade-wielding Whirling Dervish. He also worked on Roman Polanski’s Macbeth (1971), Ridley Scott’s The Duellists (1977) and Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985), for which he devised the samurai fights. I generally can’t stand the 1980 Dino De Laurentiis production of Flash Gordon, but the sequence where Sam Jones fights Timothy Dalton on a platform while spikes erupt at random points and at random moments through its floor, again overseen by Hobbs, is one of the film’s few good parts. I’m pleased to report that his Wikipedia entry says he’s still working today, on TV, arranging fights for Game of Thrones.
(c) United Artists
And now for a lady, the New Zealand stuntwoman Zoe Bell, who doubled for Lucy Lawless in the Xena: Warrior Princess TV show and for Uma Thurman in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill movies. Kill Bill: Volume 2 (2004) involved a stunt where a shotgun blast hurled Bell backwards – this did so much damage to her ribs and wrist that she spent months recovering from it. But there were clearly no hard feelings between Bell and Tarantino because for his next movie, 2007’s Death Proof, he cast her as herself. She plays a movie stuntwoman – called, yes, Zoe Bell – who turns the tables on Kurt Russell’s car-driving serial killer. Tarantino shares my disdain for CGI and insisted that all the vehicular action seen in Death Proof was the real deal, including a ‘ship’s mast’ stunt where Bell straddles the hood of a speeding Dodge Challenger R/T with only a couple of straps to hang onto. Since then, she’s done more gigs for Tarantino, both as a stuntwoman, in Inglourious Basterds (2009) and as an actress, in Django Unchained (2012).
(c) Dimension Films
Finally, no roundup of favourite stuntmen would be complete without mention of Vic Armstrong, who’s in the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s busiest stunt double. His filmography includes seven Bonds, three Indiana Joneses and three Supermen, plus a Rambo, Terminator, Omen, Conan and Mission Impossible. Back in his youth, his resemblance to Harrison Ford was so striking that Ford once quipped to him, “If you learn to talk, I’m in deep trouble.”
Furthermore, Armstrong’s brother Andy, his wife Wendy, and a half-dozen members of the younger generation of the Armstrong clan all work in the stunt / special-effects business too – meaning that if stunt-people were gangsters, old Vic would probably be Don Corleone.