The wild, bone-breaking life of Hollywood ‘fall guy’ Hal Needham (2024)

HalNeedhamwas born to be a stuntman. He was taking “crazy” risks as a teenager, long before he was leaping from planes, jumping from high-rise buildings and crashing burning cars in a screen career that would span 310 movies and 4,500 television episodes.

In the late 1940sNeedhambegan working as a tree-topper, scaling and pruning giant sugar maples in Arkansas. “I was always pushing the limits, going as far as I could. I would do all kinds of crazy things,” he once said. “They used to call me Squirrel, because I would get on the top of the tree, take off my harness and hang by my toes on a branch 50 feet up in the air.”

His collaborations with friend Burt Reynolds, with whom he made two Smokey and the Bandit films, Hooper, two Cannonball Run movies and Stroker Ace, are the stuff of cinema legend. In Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Brad Pitt played military veteran and stuntman Cliff Booth, who is the best friend of movie star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio).

Tarantino’s characters were inspired byNeedhamand Reynolds, with Pitt talking publicly about the “epic stories” ofNeedham, who broke 56 bones – including his back, twice – during his death-defying stunts. And now we have The Fall Guy, a Ryan Gosling blockbuster celebrating the art of the stuntman directed by former stunt ace David Leitch – whose career is following the path of his hero, Hal Needham.

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Needham, who was born in 1931, grew up in poverty as a sharecropper’s son in the hills of Arkansas. He hunted squirrels with a .22-caliber rifle to help feed the family. After his education ended at 13 – “I hated school, I could not keep up and knew I would make an ass of myself,” he remarked – he was written off as “too small and too dumb” to make something of his life.

Inside, though, he knew he had “the willpower” to succeed. After a spell of low-paid jobs in the early 1950s, he enlisted as a paratrooper. He was deeply frustrated at spending his three years in service stuck in America, despite begging his commanding officer to be sent overseas to fight in the Korean War.

His Hollywood break came about by chance, when an ex-paratrooper landed him a job on the television show You Asked for It.Needham’s first professional stunt was remarkable. He had to sit precariously on the landing gear of a 150 Cessna plane, before jumping out and knocking a man off a horse, as he was riding at full gallop.

Needham’s fearlessness earned him a job on The Spirit of St Louis, starring James Stewart. Needham’s air force training came in useful: he had to stand on the top of the wing of an old biplane as it was doing loops. “I thought, ’Wow. Look at all of the money I made. I think I will change jobs’. And that’s how I decided to be a stuntman instead of a tree-topper,” he recalled.

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The memory of childhood poverty stayed withNeedham, who had not even seen a movie until he was 10. Barely an interview went by in later life without him boasting about being “the highest-paid stuntman in Hollywood”. He talked about his pride at receiving a $10,000 bonus for successfully co-ordinating a dangerous stunt in a canyon featuring hundreds of marauding cattle trampling stagecoaches.

Needhamwas fully aware of the perils of stunt acting, especially in an era when safety on movie sets was often a sham. He once saw a stuntman killed during a “stirrup drag”, a sequence in which a rider falls off his horse, with his leg still in the stirrup, and is then dragged along by the animal.Needhamwatched helplessly as the stuntman was hurled into a fence post and died of severe brain injury. Years later, whenNeedhamwas the director on The Cannonball Run, a car crash went wrong and stuntwoman Heidi von Beltz was paralysed from the neck down.

When asked what he pondered on during risky stunts,Needham’s deadpan reply was: “I think about the residual I got coming”. He got paid for each take of a stunt that was filmed and would sometimes persuade friendly camera operators to tell the director they had missed the shot, so he would be paid extra for the re-shoot. “Ching-ching, ring it up,” he cackled, recounting the ruse in an interview with NPR.

He deserved his danger money. On the 1950’s CBS western TV show Have Gun, Will Travel he leapt 30-foot from a rock onto a moving stagecoach, without wearing any protective clothing. “The coach really looked small. It looked like a postage stamp,” he recalled. “They brought the coach, and I hit it right in the centre. But I broke through the top right up to my armpits, and that kind of shocked the folks inside the coach.”

Some of his greatest stunts were mind-bogglingly audacious. On Little Big Man, Arthur Penn’s 1970 film starring Dustin Hoffman and Faye Dunaway, he was one of a pair of stuntmen who had to vault from a sprinting horse onto a runaway stagecoach. “We then had to do a standing broad jump from the back of one horse to the back of the next one over 14 feet away,” saidNeedham. “There’s no athlete, I think, that can do that standing still.”

On White Lightning, a 1973 film with Reynolds, he raced a car off the river bank and onto a moving river barge. In the 1976 sequel, Gator, he had to hang from the side of truck racing at 60mph and leap off just before it rolled onto its side. AlthoughNeedhamwas a skilful driver – he had learned some tricks in steering speeding cars full of bootlegged alcohol through back roads in Arkansas – it was a stunt involving a car that nearly cost him his life.

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In the 1974 John Wayne film McQ,Needhamneeded to get a car to roll over as it sped through the bed of a dry lake. Using a ramp to cause the accident was out of the question because it would have been visible (in westerns, ramps could be hidden by cactus bushes), so he had to improvise. “We built a cannon 16 inches in diameter with inch-and-a-half-thick walls and welded it to the back floorboard behind the driver’s seat with the muzzle pointed toward the ground,”Needhamsaid.

In his 2011 autobiography Stuntman! My Car-Crashing, Plane-Jumping, Bone-Breaking, Death-Defying Hollywood Life,Needhamsaid that he put too much gunpowder in the homemade cannon. The explosion sent the car flying 30 feet into the air. When the stuntman crash-landed, he broke his back, shattered six ribs and punctured a lung. “Still, I had invented a real slick way of turning a car over,” he later joked.

He was always phlegmatic about the devastation his career wreaked on his body. “I’ve done stunts when I was hurting so bad I couldn’t hardly breathe and yet I would go ahead and do it,” he said. He would bathe in Epsom salts and pop Percodan pills by the fistful to deal with the pain. He once said that stuntmen knew that film companies did not want to pay compensation, so they kept quiet about minor injuries. “It was bad for a stuntman to have a reputation for being hurt, and worse yet to report it,” he said.

His memoir – which has eye-catching chapter titles such as ‘Bull____ Doesn’t Photograph’, ‘From the Outhouse to the Penthouse’ and ‘Busier than a One-Legged Man in an Ass-kicking Contest’ – is full of tales of the movie stars he met after making his debut on a “little bitty movie” in 1961 called The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come, which was a vehicle for country music singer Jimmie Rodgers.

In the next two decades, he filled in as the stunt double for James Stewart, Dustin Hoffman, Dean Martin, Kirk Douglas and Burt Reynolds. He did 10 movies with John Wayne, and says he taught the famously pugnacious Duke “the correct way to throw a punch”.

His most important Hollywood relationship was with Reynolds. He became Reynolds’s stunt double in the early 1960s after they met on the set of the TV series Riverboat. Their friendship grew and after divorcing Marie Arlene Wheeler in 1973,Needhamtook up Reynold’s offer to live temporarily in the carriage house of his Holmby Hills estate in Los Angeles.Needhamended up staying there for 12 years.

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It was a pretty macho friendship – they would sometimes communicate with middle-finger salutes – and between them they owned enough gold chains and medallions to fill a Fort Knox vault. Reynolds later said that ifNeedhamhad been a woman they would have had “the perfect marriage”. “We were two guys that thought that the other one was great and at the same time were happy to just have a mirror there,” he said.

Needhamfinally moved out so he could marry his second wife, actress Dani Janssen, the widow of Fugitive star David Janssen. Reynolds quipped that Dani was the first girlNeedhamhad dated “with an IQ over 70”. At the western-themed wedding, best man Reynolds and groomNeedhamarrived at the All Faith Community Church on horseback.

Reynolds helpedNeedhammake the unusual move from stuntman to director, persuading studio bosses to back Smokey and the Bandit in 1977. The film went on to gross more than £120 million and they had a ball making it.Needhamjoked that they wrecked more than 100 cars making the movie and its sequel.

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In 1979, they worked on the weird and wonderful stunt extravaganzaHooper, with Reynolds playing an ageing stuntman who wants to prove he’s still got it by hurtling across a chasm in a jet-fuelled car.“I enjoyed Hooper. I had so much fun with that. All the stunts were my idea. I thought I knew what would be spectacular and I got to poke fun with directors who were asses. It was payback. It was my favourite movie,” saidNeedham.

The pair went on to have their biggest commercial success in 1981 with The Cannonball Run, a frantic comedy about an illegal coast-to-coast car race, which starred Roger Moore, Farrah Fawcett, Jackie Chan and Sammy Davis Jr. Its worldwide success led to a sequel, Cannonball Run II (1984), which had cameo appearances by Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra.

Needhamspent some of his new fortune on buying a NASCAR team and he also funded the Budweiser Rocket Car, which was recorded travelling at more than 739 mph, a featNeedhamclaimed made it the first land vehicle to break the sound barrier. In 1986,Needham– who had once said he would never win an Oscar but would certainly be “a rich son of bitch” – was honoured, along William L Fredrick, with a Scientific and Engineering Oscar, for the design and development of the Shotmaker Elite camera car and crane, which markedly improved the filming of action sequences.

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Needham, who was 82 when he died of cancer on October 25 2013, lived a heartily full life, with enough adventure to fill three biopics. As well as his stunt work,Needhamworked as a bit-part actor. He was killed in the pilot of Star Trek, and was an extra in Blazing Saddles and Chinatown. His real life was also packed with incident. He once escaped the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia by sneaking over the Austrian border, smuggling out a waitress he had met in the process.

In his final years, as a retired Hollywood legend spending his time playing golf and living with third wife Ellyn Wynne, he lamented the fakery that computer-generated special effects had brought to stunts in movies. “That’s B.S. They don’t work,” he complained.

The Fall Guy credits list 95 people responsible for the fight co-ordination and action sequences in David Leitch’s film, including the first ever credited “Stunt Designer”. The list would have brought a smile to the face ofNeedham, a man who said his greatest achievement was having been “the No1 stuntman in the world for 10 years”.

The wild, bone-breaking life of Hollywood ‘fall guy’ Hal Needham (2024)


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