If Hal Needham is a dinosaur, he is a flying dinosaur. In one of the most iconic careers in Hollywood history, Needham flew rocket-powered cars and trucks, every manner of conventional vehicle, and most pointedly, his body, through the air while producers, directors and fellow stuntmen and women held their collective breath hoping for two things: that he would survive and that they’d get the shot in one take.
They don’t make stunt people like Hal Needham any more, nor do they do stunts the way he did. CGI, safety standards and common sense have moved in where courageous, partly crazy and occasionally lucky guys like Needham matched their wits, ingenuity and bravado against new and increasingly dangerous challenges dreamed up by writers, producers, and frequently, the stunt pros themselves.
Though he broke 56 bones and his back (twice), Needham, now 80, has miraculously lived to tell if not all of it, then a very healthy portion in a memoir called, STUNTMAN!: My Car-Crashing, Plane-Jumping, Bone-Breaking, Death-Defying Hollywood Life.
Needham sat down with Below the Line recently to talk about his storied career.
Below the Line: You broke into the business doing stunts for 1950’s television shows. We understand your first stunt was simple and relatively harmless.
Hal Needham: If you call leaping off an airplane wheel and knocking a man off a galloping horse, “simple,” then I guess so. I was working as a tree trimmer when I met a stuntman named Cliff Rose at a root beer stand. He needed a partner for a stunt on the TV show, You Asked for It. I was to squat on the wheel of a Cessna 150 flying at 58 mph 18 feet off the ground while Cliff galloped a quarter horse at about 30 mph. Then I would jump and knock Cliff off the horse.
The first time we did it, it worked great. But the director called us over and said we had missed our mark by 30 yards so the stunt wasn’t in focus. I didn’t know what a mark was. I was just happy the horse didn’t fall on us. In fact, the horse was the thing we were most concerned about. We head no idea what the horse would do with an airplane chasing him. What if he stopped or bucked or veered off course at the last second. It turned out when the plane got close he wanted to race the thing. So we did it a second time and this time it worked perfectly.
BTL: That led to your first movie job starring James Stewart and directed by Billy Wilder.
Needham: That was The Spirit of St. Louis. Cliff got me that job too. All I had to do was climb out of the cockpit of a biplane and hang upside down from a ladder while the pilot made low passes over a crowd. Then I climbed onto the top of the wing and caught a bar on the underside of the lower wing of a plane flying overhead. Then we both jumped off and opened five parachutes in succession, releasing each chute after it opened, all from a height of 2,500 feet. We asked for $2,000 for each time we did it, and Billy Wilder was so incensed he said he’d do the stunt himself. So he did hook himself to the wing and go up and that impressed us enough to drop the price to $1,000.
BTL: What made you think you could do stunts like that?
Needham: My first job was as a treetopper, trimming tall trees. I was never afraid of heights and I was pretty athletic. I enlisted during the Korean War and was a paratrooper for three years. I tested new parachutes. I just always had the feeling that I wasn’t going to be a brain surgeon, so if I was going to make good money, I’d have to do dangerous things.
BTL: CGI certainly makes amazing stunts in movies less dangerous. What do you think of CGI?
Needham: I’m not a big fan of CGI, and not just because it takes work away from stunt people. I understand the business changes and things can’t stay the same. But they do things that are so impossible for a human being to do, when I watch it on screen, I know it’s not real and I lose interest.
BTL: One genre that’s been a mainstay for great stunts through the years has been westerns.
Needham: I love westerns. I thought True Grit was terrific and there were some stunts in there that were just the way we did it. The first TV show I got hired on was a western, Have Gun – Will Travel. I was working as an extra when they needed someone to double the star, Richard Boone, and climb a tall pine tree. When they saw me scramble up that tree – my nickname as a treetopper was “Squirrel,” – that was it. The next day they had me standing on top of a rock 30 feet off the ground looking down at a stagecoach racing towards me. I was supposed to jump off and land on the stagecoach roof, which was four feet wide and six feet long. From where I was it looked like a postage stamp. But I hit it, and in fact I went right through the roof up to my waist.
BTL: When you weren’t landing on stagecoaches you also did jobs for advertisers and insurance companies.
Needham: I got a call from Allstate when they were pushing to make air bags mandatory in cars and trucks. They had tested them on crash dummies but had never exploded one into a living and breathing dummy. They offered me the opportunity to be first. I said I’d do it for $25,000, assuming they’d find someone to do it for cheaper, but they took me up on it. They wanted me to drive into a concrete barrier at precisely 25 mph, which is the same as crashing head-on into another vehicle doing 50 mph. That wall won’t budge an inch. They tried to boost my confidence by showing me film of crash dummies being hit with air bags from every imaginable angle, but I didn’t find it very reassuring. I mapped the route to the nearest hospital and did the job anyway and sure enough, that wall pushed the front of the car back two feet, and the engine wound up approximately between the front seats. But the air bags worked – it was roughly like getting slapped hard on both sides of your face – and obviously an incredible number of people have been saved by them so I’m happy I did it.
BTL: What’s the worst accident you ever had, if you can call these accidents.
Needham: For a John Wayne movie called, McQ, we had to make a speeding car appear like it was being riddled with so many bullets that it flips over. The problem was, the scene was on a flat beach so there was nowhere to hide a ramp, which would be the normal way to have a car flip over. In a dry lake outside L.A., we took an old car and rigged it with a canon in the back seat pointing downward through a hole in the floorboard, with the muzzle just three inches from the ground. Then we stuffed a length of telephone pole into the canon and four-ounce black-powder bombs. There were five of us working on this thing and while there was plenty of cleverness out there that day, and no shortage of guts, we probably didn’t have 10 years of formal education between us. Let’s just say we used a little too much powder. When I threw that car into a spin and hit the button to fire the canon, that length of telephone pole blasted out the three inches into the ground and the car became the projectile. Like I said, it was an old junker of a car, all it had was a rotten lap belt, no shoulder harness, no roll cage, and when I opened my eyes I was 30 feet in the air, upside down and traveling backwards. The car landed on its roof, pancaked the doors shut and I crawled out the rear window, which of course had blown out. Then I rolled over and stopped breathing. My friend, Dave McClarty gave me mouth-to-mouth and they rushed me to the hospital where I learned I had a broken back and six broken ribs, a couple of which had punctured a lung. I also lost three teeth. McClarty did the stunt with a five-point safety harness, roll cage and helmet, and half the powder I had used. He fired the canon going 55 mph and rolled the car 12 times. The shot is in McQ.
BTL: In the 1970’s you became a successful director.
Needham: I scribbled out a script about a guy bootlegging a truckload of Coors beer and that became, Smokey and the Bandit. It didn’t hurt that I was close friends with Burt Reynolds who was the number one star in Hollywood at the time, and he agreed to star in it so long as I was the director. We both loved fast cars and, in time, we bought a NASCAR racing team, painted our car green, the colors of Skoal tobacco, one of our sponsor, U.S. Tobacco’s products, and we called the car the “Skoal Bandit.”
BTL: Did anyone in Hollywood in those days have a better time than you did? I just finished watching, Hooper.
Needham: Not that I’m aware of!
BTL: Hooper is another movie you directed and it’s about a community of stuntmen who split their time between going to work where they do amazing stunts, and partying pretty long and hard.
Needham: When we finished that movie, we had so many stunts that we hadn’t used, that I decided we would split the screen and run the credits down one side and run all the outtakes down the other. That was the first time that was ever done. The crew loved that because – you’d hear the audience saying, “Shhh, sit down!” People were sitting there and watching the outtakes and the credits.
BTL: Was Hooper the first time you used air bags for high falls?
Needham: We found a small air bag at a sports equipment convention. Pole vaulters were using them. I had the guy make me one that was several times larger. We actually got inside those things and watched how far the stuntman fell into it upon impact. We gradually increased the height we could fall from, and the size of the bag as well.
BTL: What were you falling into before that?
Needham: Cardboard boxes! We had a setup with sawhorses and several feet of layered cardboard boxes, and then mattresses on top of that. The most you could fall into those things was 40 or 50 feet. With the air bags, we quickly were doing falls more than 100 feet, and then 200 feet. On Hooper, A.J. Bacunas did a fall from a helicopter that set the record at 250 feet. A few weeks later, on Steel, he was trying to break his own record and the seams on that airbag ripped, and he fell through to the concrete and died. Records have a way of killing people.
BTL: How do you think you are leaving the stunt business?
Needham: Today’s stunt men and women are as smart and gutsy as we were. And they’re in a lot better shape. These guys today are amazing athletes. Of course, they have CGI to contend with. But they still know how to do it the way we did. There was a movie, Cellular, that had all real stunts in it. Maybe limited budgets will be good for the stunt business because what we do is certainly less expensive. I think in the long run, audiences will decide they’d rather see the real thing, and that’s us!