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 book Stuntman!, My Car-Crashing, Plane-Jumping, Bone-Breaking, Death-Defying Hollywood Life—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
In the 1970 Arthur Penn film “Little Big Man,” starring Dustin Hoffman and Faye Dunaway, one stunt pushed Needham’s athletic ability to the edge. In the scene, he and another stuntman leap from their galloping horses onto a runaway stagecoach. After they land, the two men begin a series of long jumps from the bare backs of one stagecoach horse to the next, until they reach the lead horses. Each leap was a standing broad jump of approximately 14 feet. He says, “The only way it could be done was to get in time with the horse and as he pushed off his back legs…you jumped. We used the power and momentum of the horses to propel us that extra 3 or 4 feet.” They did 13 takes of that jump series so that the director could get the shot from multiple angles. “It took us two days to shoot the damn thing. And we (the stuntmen) made a lot of money. But it was scary. If you didn’t make it, you’d have six horses and a 4500-pound stagecoach running you over.” Part of Needham’s job involved training those horses to accept men leaping onto their backs. “We worked with the horses for six months to get them ready. And we trained 18 horses so we could make multiple back-to-back runs,” he says.
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
In the 1974 action film McQ, starring John Wayne, legendary stunt coordinator Ronnie Rondell and Needham stage a spectacular car rollover on the beach. In those days, a ramp was used to pitch the cars into a rollover for movie stunts. But since this shot was planned for the flat and desolate beach, they couldn’t hide a ramp with bushes or shrubs; it would look too odd. So Needham invented another way to flip cars: With a device later named the McQ Cannon.”We built a cannon 16 inches in diameter with inch-and-a-half-thick walls—because I knew what was going to happen inside that cannon—and welded it to the back floorboard behind the driver’s seat with the muzzle pointed toward the ground.” The cannon was loaded with a 3-foot-long telephone pole and a black-powder charge. “The idea was to throw the car in a broadside skid and hit that cannon,” he says, forcing the pole down and the car to rollover. “The crew prepared for a rehearsal of the stunt on a dry lakebed outside Los Angeles with a beat-up sedan and brought along five 4-ounce powder bombs. On the static test, they loaded in one of the charges. And the explosion only lifted the car up 6 inches. So for the real run they made the cannon more potent.
“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.
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