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Black Stunt Workers

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By Yayoi Winfrey

While studying to be a doctor, Bufort McClerkins stumbled across a new career. Still in college, the Trinidad-born student joined the Screen Actors Guild at the urging of a fraternity brother and worked as an extra in movies on his summer break. He later became a stuntman, doubling for Mr. T on The A-Team for four years, for Danny Glover in Predator 2, and plummeting down four stories while on fire in The Towering Inferno.
Eventually, McClerkins became a stunt coordinator, then a second unit director on pictures like 1985’s To Live And Die In LA.
McClerkins was also active in promoting stunt work for black film crew. From 1974 to 1986 he was secretary-treasurer of the Black Stuntmen’s Association—the organization to which most black stunt workers belonged. It was dissolved in 1991.
A major turning point for black stunt workers occurred in 1967, when the TV show High Chaparral featured an episode with the all-black 10th Cavalry Buffalo Soldiers.
According to McClerkins, before black stunt workers became organized, members of the Stuntmen’s Association of Motion Pictures (SAM), the oldest stunt workers
association, “would paint down their (white) members (for black roles). There weren’t any blacks in (their group).”
The same mentality applied to gender. If the stunt called for a woman, a stuntman would don a dress and wig. Smaller stuntmen doubled for children. But because a lot of extras were needed for the Buffalo Soldiers segment, producers requested authentic black stuntmen. “They needed black people who knew how to ride horses,” says McClerkins.
The stuntmen were paid well and McClerkins estimates that “with 10 shooting days plus ‘bumps’ (additional money for wearing one’s own clothing)… with overtime they were probably making close to $100 a day, about $1,000 total.”
While happy to make money while “sitting around and riding horses,” the men were eager to pursue full-time stunt work, says McClerkins. “A lot of them had their own horses,” he adds. “One guy had some stables, The El Fig, right on the corner of El Segundo and Figueroa, and that’s where all the black cowboy stunts worked—shoveling (manure), throwing hay, shoeing horses; they learned what tack was, how to saddle a horse.”
A glut of old TV westerns like Gunsmoke, Have Gun, Will Travel, Cheyenne, Sugarfoot, Tombstone Territory, Wagon Train and Maverick kept them busy.
“If you go back into history, you’ll see on an episodic, they always had one episode with one black family that got on the wagon train,” McClerkins chuckles.
He loved his job, he says, because “stunt guys always had fun and since they’re making the actors look good, the actors looked up to them. They didn’t have to learn any scripts. No ‘cut, let’s do another one.’ Even if you got hurt, that was filmed and it really looked good,” he laughs.
“Actors say, ‘I do my own stunts.’ Well, no one in their rightful mind would let that happen,” says McClerkins, who broke a vertebra falling from a building in the TV show S.W.A.T. He once went through a car’s windshield, too. “I’ve got the gashes to prove it,” he proclaims.
A membership in the Black Stuntmen’s Association cost $15 to $20 a month and both males and females were admitted to the group, which had about 40 members. “We were the catalyst for the women’s group,” McClerkins says. “The Stuntwomen’s Association came about because of BSA.”
In 1991, the Alliance of Stunt Performers of Color (ASPC) was formed by Screen Actor’s Guild to request ethnic casting parity. They approached the networks and studios in an effort to place more stunt workers of color.
The following breakdown lists stunt workers available for work at that time by ethnicity:
• Black: 70
• Latino/Hispanic: 61
• Asian/Pacific American: 52
• Native American: 13
• White: 1,437
Compared to 25,436 days worked by whites that year, the entire group of minorities worked only 3,687 days as follows:
• Black: 1,396 days
• Asian/Pacific American:
1,243 days
• Latino/Hispanic: 735 days
• Native American: 313 days

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