Decades before CGI allowed filmmakers to create exciting action sequences from the safety of the editing bay, men and women who were exceptionally brave, tough and a little crazy had to perform the stunts themselves—and wear the bruises and broken bones as badges of honor. Stuntmen jumped the cars, fell from the highest towers and tackled the bad guys from their horses. When it comes to the most influential, iconic and pioneering stuntmen of all time, the nearly indestructible Hal Needham is it—one of the greatest to ever walk onto a movie set. Here are his six greatest stunts.
What made Hal Needham possibly the greatest stunt driver of all time? A little bit of danger, he says. “There’s no such thing as a great stunt if there’s no danger involved,” the fit, wiry and energetic 79-year-old legend tells PM. “I’ve broken fifty-six bones, broke my back twice, punctured a lung and knocked out a few teeth.” Needham, who cut his daredevil teeth as an Army paratrooper, has doubled for stars like Charles Bronson, Dean Martin and Kirk Douglas and has appeared in and coordinated the stunts for thousands of TV-show episodes and films. His skills were in such high demand, he worked on five different TV shows in one day. Needham helped invent the tools of his trade, creating devices such as a cannon to flip cars and the Shotmaker, a revolutionary camera car that earned him an Academy Award. He eventually became the highest-paid stuntman in the world, helped launch the elite Stunts Unlimited organization and later owned the successful Skoal Bandit Nascar race team. But Hal Needham is perhaps best known for directing classic action-packed automotive adventures starring Burt Reynolds: Smokey and the Bandit, The Cannonball Run and Hooper.
Needham’s new book Stuntman!, My Car-Crashing, Plane-Jumping, Bone-Breaking, Death-Defying Hollywood Life—on sale Feb. 9—tells the story of how a sharecropper’s son growing up in Arkansas during the Great Depression eventually used his athleticism, determination and willingness to attempt practically any stunt to land himself in front of the camera and later in the director’s chair. The book is loaded with so many great stories; it’s tough to pick Needham’s best work. So PM sat down with Needham to discuss his six greatest (and most dangerous) stunts.
White Lightning (1973), Car Jump Onto River Barge
In White Lightning, (Trailer below) Burt Reynolds plays a moonshiner running from the police. And as he is chased to a riverbank, Reynolds jumps a car onto a moving barge. Needham was not only the stunt coordinator and second unit director on the film; he also doubles Reynolds for this stunt. “What I said to that boat captain damn near cost me my life,” he says. Unbeknownst to Needham, in the rehearsals, the barge captain had only been using three-quarters of the throttle to launch the boat for the jump. “Just before we made the shot, I wanted to calm down the captain so he was thinking straight,” Needham says. “I said okay captain, when I say go, firewall that thing.” The captain launched the boat with maximum throttle, and the jump became much longer than it had in the rehearsals. “I had planned on landing 20 to 30 feet up on the barge. So I thought, I’ll really give them a show. I just stood on the accelerator. I was planning on hitting the end of the ramp at about 60 to 65 mph. I just stood on the gas and I was probably doing 80 mph. If I hadn’t been a showoff, that car would never have made the barge.” The nose hit that barge and it popped up in the air, which practically welded the midsection of the car to the boat. “That river was so muddy and swift, if I hadn’t gotten brave on the way to the ramp, I’d have ended up in Louisiana—we were shooting in Arkansas.”
You Asked for It (1950–1959), Airplane-to-Horseback Tackle
Needham’s first real TV stunt was also one of his best. The scene, on the show You Asked For It, called for a stuntman to sit precariously on the landing gear of a flying plane and tackle a man riding a horse at full gallop. Needham was tapped to be the jump man squatting below the Cessna 150. “The rate of speed that we closed on that horse was unbelievable. That plane was doing about 58 mph, maybe 16 to 18 feet in the air,” he says. As the plane made its approach, the pilot was flying so low he had to “hang it on the prop,” controlling the plane with engine speed and pointing the nose high in the air. The pilot couldn’t see the horse below and Needham had to give him hand signals to help position the plane. “I had to jump 15 to 20 feet before I even got to him—and I had to catch him . . . and not the horse.” Once lined up, Needham jumped from the plane and sailed through the air, tackling the rider. “My main concern was to get at least one hand on that guy, so that it would look like I was pulling him off that horse. But the main thing was, don’t hit that horse. Because if I did, there could have been some kind of wreck.”
Little Big Man (1970), Jumping From Horseback to Horseback
Gator (1976), Pickup Truck Rollover
GM Pickup Truck Canal Jump
In the mid 1970s, General Motors was interested in creating an exciting 20-minute stunt film that it could show in its dealerships to keep customers entertained. Needham proposed jumping a pickup truck across a 140-foot-long canal, and GM signed on. He says, “We didn’t have enough room to just use the engine in the truck, so we mounted a 15,000-pound-thrust, hydrogen-peroxide rocket on the back.” Needham only had 50 or 60 yards to get the truck up to speed before the end of the ramp and knew he would have to be going at least 100 mph to get over the canal. “When my front wheels hit that ramp, I hit the rocket. It was so powerful that the back wheels couldn’t keep up with the thrust of the rocket and it left black marks from the back tires skidding. The nose of the truck just kept rising and rising and rising. I lost the ramp on the other side—couldn’t see it at all—I was looking at blue sky.” The truck landed tail-first and the force of the impact whipped the nose of the truck down so hard it bent the frame and blew out the windshield and rear window. Needham was hauled off to the hospital with his first broken back, a compression fracture. “This thing had a telemetry system we wired up in the cab . . .I pulled 29 g’s when I landed on the other side,” he says.
McQ (1974), Car Rollover
“I knew if we put two bombs in and it doesn’t work, we’d only have two left, so we put them all in. The lesson I learned on this one: Powder squares itself in power.” The crew pushed the junker car up to 55 mph and Needham threw the car into a skid. “When they hit the fire button it blew that car 30 feet up in the air and I was flying upside down and backward across the desert. The power of the cannon almost bent that car in half. I landed upside down when the car finished rolling—and I wasn’t breathing.” Needham managed to crawl out the back window of the car, received mouth-to-mouth from stuntmen Gary McLarty, and was carted off the to hospital. The doctor told Needham, “You have six broken ribs, a punctured lung, broken back.” And Needham himself counted three teeth missing. Since Needham was in the hospital, he enlisted McLarty to perform the actual movie stunt (with a lot less explosives onboard) and he rolls the car several times, emerging from the wreckage unhurt.
Follow us: @PopMech on Twitter | popularmechanics on Facebook
Visit us at PopularMechanics.com