We’ve seen them for years in every action film or television episode ever aired, but most of us would be hard pressed to name any of the stunt people in Hollywood today. It wasn’t Harold Lloyd dangling off the arm of a clock hundreds of feet above the air in Safety First (1923), but rather a stunt double by the name of Harvey Perry—a circus aerialist who had worked in films as a Keystone Cop. And in 1925, before he became a star, Joel McCrea was always picking up work doubling for actors because he could ride a horse. Trick riders out of the rodeos found a ready market in Hollywood for their expertise, as expensive studio actors were too valuable to risk during the chase scenes. Of course, no one would admit that the great stars of the day couldn’t ride a horse or fall off a cliff, so stunt people weren’t even given a screen credit for their work. After all, Hollywood has nothing if not an image to maintain.
Seventy years later, not much has changed. Yet stunt people do receive screen credit for their work; in fact they are members of the Screen Actors Guild and protected by the same rules as any actor. These days it’s the trick motorcycle riders, hot race car drivers and world class athletes who find themselves in great demand on movie sets. Yet while most of us know that it isn’t our favorite actors up there risking life and limb, stunt people still have to live with stars who insist they did their own stunts with no help from the pros. “For thirty years Burt Reynolds claimed he did his own stunts but everyone who doubled him knew differently,” comments Michael Haynes, president of the International Stuntmen’s Association in Los Angeles. “We don’t care if you have to sell your image as an action star. That’s okay. But what good does it do for Jamie Lee Curtis to say she did her own stunts in True Lies?”
Valued on set, but devalued in the publicity department, stunt people personify thrill-seeking, risk-taking mavericks. In reality, they are the precision professionals whose craft it is to seamlessly create and execute action which won’t impede a film—while at the same time making it exciting, feasible and workable. Haynes defines stunt work this way: “You get into the business because it’s your job to perform the act for the stars, so they don’t have to risk themselves; that’s what we do for a living. It’s an anonymous position. The first thing you were taught in the old days of doing stunts was to cover your face; hit the ground with your hands coming out to make sure the camera doesn’t see it’s not the star. After Hooper and “The Fall Guy” people thought there was a glamour associated with stunt work. These guys suddenly came to town to be Hollywood stars… but that’s not what stunt people do. You do your work and go home.”
Steve Buckley, stunt coordinator for the new ABC television series, “McKenna”—filming in Bend, Oregon—believes audience appreciation would benefit from understanding the true nature of stunt work: “People need to dismiss their own preconceived notions of who they think stunt people are…that we’re barbarian, animalistic, raw meat-eating type guys. They should realize stunt people try very, very hard to remain intact, to do their job. We’re not the daredevils or misfits of society, but rather highly trained, well educated, intelligent people doing a job that we know inside and out. It’s not a lark, it’s done with a very purposeful attitude. Before a gag happens there are weeks and weeks of preparation. So many lives depend on that; the pressure is tremendous. What I care about is sending my crew home to their families at the end of the day.”
As a psycho-physical intensive career, stunt work demands certain levels of ability along with a specialty expertise—be it skydiving or gymnastics or rock climbing—as well as a high level of trust. Ever cautionary coordinators tend to stick with hiring people whose work they know. For this reason, most stunt people either follow a relative into the business, or they get one of those rare lucky breaks. Luck, skill and determination remain the best tools to use to break into the business. “You break in by chance, because you look a certain way at the right time at the right spot,” cautions Haynes. “It’s very difficult to put people around you who you don’t know; you’re sure a certain guy can do the job, so you hire him. Why take a chance?”
Haynes advises stunt-wannabes, “If there’s anything else in the world you can do, do it!” Haynes has been in the business for quite a while, starting first as an actor, then exploiting his athletic background as a stuntman. “Stunts are more politically comfortable,” he remarks. “I don’t have to read for some 25-year-old who just got out of NYU last year and is asking about my qualifications.”
Bob Macdougall was an actor and martial artist trained in mime and tumbling when he began to choreograph stage fights for theater. Film work was a natural extension, and among his credits are Drugstore Cowboy, Northern Exposure and FTW (starring Mickey Rourke): “Stunt people are essentially craftspeople,” he feels. “They need discipline, have to stay in shape… it’s a matter of timing, savvy and broad awareness. It needs to be as right the first time as possible.”
“I’ve got to be in shape and as prepared as possible before ever going to the set,” insists J. Suzanne Rampe, who has worked in the industry for ten years. “When a director calls me in for a 25-, 40- or 60-foot high fall, I go in knowing chances are it’s actually 10 feet higher. There are so many variables; nine times out of 10 I’ve gone to the set and the 10-foot fall goes over a railing with three feet to clear jutting beams and a water fountain. I’ve got to be prepared for every contingency.”
The people who break in can find themselves in the enviable position of being paid well to do what they love. For Ron Sarchian, a Seattle-based stuntman fairly new in the business, the best thing about his career is that it is a continuation of being a jock in school. “It allows me to do what I want and for whatever reason, justifies being an adrenaline junkie… and it allows me to get paid for it.” Sarchain tries to satisfy producers’ needs in as many ways as possible—to that end, he trains as an actor in addition to his stunt work. “If a director or producer can hire one guy instead of two, it’s a bonus. Makes me more valuable.”
Where once Hollywood productions would include entire stunt crews in their budgets when shooting on location, shrinking economics now dictate a different approach to stunt work. If a Hollywood production is working on location, often only their stunt coordinator and key stunt personnel come out of Los Angeles; it is expected that stunt day-players will be hired from local talent at the location site.
“The quality is the same, but L.A. people don’t believe it,” insists Buckley, who believes the problem is environmental, not habitual. “People believe it when they are told there aren’t trained professionals outside of L.A., they don’t actually experience that problem.” David Boushey, co-founder of the United Stuntmens Association, headquartered in Seattle, is a member of the Hollywood Stuntmen’s Hall of Fame, and currently works as a stunt coordinator for the CBS series “Northern Exposure.” His extensive experience (including the films The Promised Land, Not on My Land and Imaginary Crimes) give him the background to emphasize the point: “It’s always been a situation where it’s assumed that people who do stunts only live in Hollywood and no one else outside of Hollywood pursues this area. The fact is there are a number of people who have been moving from the L.A. area to the Northwest and we now have more talent available to us than ever before.”
Los Angeles-based Haynes still believes L.A. is the center for stunt work. “The professionals come to L.A. to learn the profession from other professionals,” he says. “It’s rigging, it’s knowing where the camera goes, it’s having a talent; an expertise. People who make a living make it in L.A.” Other L.A. stunt coordinators like Chuck Picerni Jr., whose credits include The Hunt for Red October, Roadhouse and Just Cause (starring Sean Connery), aren’t even aware that there are stunt people or stunt associations in places like Seattle. He believes he’ll have to bring his whole crew up to Seattle when he works as the 2nd Unit Director on the film, The Claiming.
By definition, stunt work and doubling are anonymous jobs where recognition comes from within. There is no Oscar category for Best Stunt Coordinator; even if there was how would one compare the work? Most stunt people seem content to work their way up the ladder, from stunts to stunt coordinator to second unit director. “When I direct or produce my own show, then people will see my name,” says Michael Haynes. Those who crave the publicity work on their acting skills and learn the business of entertainment. And those who have worked steadfastly those 15 or 20 years to develop their craft continue to bring us the art of action.