October 26, 2013 – Hal Needham, one of the founders of Stunts Unlimited, and a top Hollywood stuntman has died. He was 82.
His best-known directing efforts involved 1970s Burt Reynolds action comedies, including “Smokey,” ”Cannonball Run” and “Stroker Ace.” He also directed Arnold Schwarzenegger in “The Villain.”
At one time the highest paid stuntman in the world, he was said to have broken 56 bones, broken his back twice, punctured a lung and knocked out a few teeth while working on 4500 TV episodes and 310 feature films. His work was admired by generations of filmmakers including Quentin Tarantino.
In a Twitter posting, Schwarzenegger calls Needham an icon.
Needham, a native of Tennessee, broke into show business as a stunt double for Richard Boone on the series “Have Gun, Will Travel.” Among the hundreds of films on which he did stunts were “Stagecoach,” “How the West Was Won,” “The Bridge at Remagen,” “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” and “Little Big Man.”
He became friends with Reynolds, who offered Needham the opportunity to direct “Smokey and the Bandit,” for which Needham had written the screenplay. Needham also directed “Hooper,” “Stroker Ace,””Street Luge” and “Rad.”
Needham received a Governors Award from the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences last year, where he was introduced by Tarantino, who said, “I have ripped off a lot of shots from you, and today I say, ‘Thank you very much.’” At the tribute, Needham called himself “the luckiest man alive and lucky to be alive.”
He developed numerous camera and production innovations, and won a Scientific and Engineering Oscar in 1987 for the design and development of the Shotmaker Elite camera car and crane. Among his other inventions were the air ram, air bag, car cannon turnover, nitrogen ratchet, jerk-off ratchet and rocket power.
Needham received an honorary Oscar last year.
A former paratrooper, Needham appeared in thousands of TV episodes and hundreds of movies, performing and designing stunts and new equipment to execute them.
Needham’s first break was as the stunt double for actor Richard Boone on the popular TV western Have Gun, Will Travel. Needham trained under John Wayne‘s stunt double Chuck Roberson and quickly became one of the top stuntmen of the 1960s on such films as How the West Was Won, The Bridge at Remagen, McLintock!, The War Lord, and Little Big Man. He doubled regularly for Clint Walker and Burt Reynolds. Needham moved into stunt coordinating and directing second unit action, while designing and introducing air bags and other innovative equipment to the industry. Needham told Adam Carolla during an interview that he lived in Burt Reynolds’ guesthouse for the better part of 12 years.
In 1971, he and fellow stuntmen Glenn Wilder and Ronnie Rondell formed Stunts Unlimited. Needham had written a screenplay titled Smokey and the Bandit and his friend Reynolds offered him the chance to direct. The film was a huge hit, and the two followed it with Hooper, The Cannonball Run, and Stroker Ace. Needham also directed the 80’s BMX cult classic film Rad.
Needham moved out of stunt work, focusing his energy on the World Land Speed Record project that eventually became the Budweiser Rocket, driven most notably by stuntman Stan Barrett. The team failed to set an officially sanctioned World land speed record with the vehicle, and their claims to have broken the sound barrier in 1979 have been heavily disputed. In the 1980s he was best known as the owner for the Harry Gant Skoal Bandit #33 car driven in the Winston Cup Series.
Needham received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Taurus World Stunt Awards. In 2012 he was awarded a Governors Award by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, where he was introduced by Quentin Tarantino.