Since this month is a Potpourri Month, I thought it might be fun to look at the career of stuntmen on television. I’m calling this one “Propourri” because you have to be well trained to do these types of stunts.
A stuntman or stuntwoman is a person who performs dangerous action sequences in a movie or television show. They have usually had extensive training to do these perilous moves safely. Sometimes they are hired as a team with a stunt crew, rigging coordinator, and special effects coordinator.
Stuntmen like Evel Knievel are daredevils who perform for a live audience. If someone fills in for a specific actor all the time, they are stunt doubles. So, what type of stunts do these professionals perform? Sometimes it’s car crashes, explosions, fights, or falls.
The first stuntmen to entertain audiences were performers who traveled around, often in circuses. Later these types of performers worked with Buffalo Bill and in shows that celebrated the Old West.
Today we are going to concentrate on television performers. Currently, stunt professionals must be certified to obtain the insurance producers need to obtain.
The Academy of Television Arts and Sciences now awards Emmys for stunt coordinators but there is no Oscar for this work.
Life-threatening injuries are not uncommon in this work and sadly, deaths do still occur. While most of my research found stuntmen killed in movies, I only found one relating to television. In 1985, Reid Rondell was killed in a helicopter explosion filming Airwolf.
I thought it would be fun to look at the careers of a few stuntmen from the golden age of television. Most of these men made their money in films, but all three of them had successful careers working on television shows as well.
Whitey Hughes was born in 1920 in Arkoma, Oklahoma. He grew up on a farm, so in addition to working with plows and horse teams, he learned to break horses with his father. When he was sixteen, the family moved to Los Angeles. After graduating from high school, Whitey became a Screen Actors Guild member in 1947.
Whitey began his movie career in 1946. During the fifties, he worked on a lot of western films. Hughes said that in the early part of his career, he often had to be a double for the leading lady. (We’ll come back to this subject later in the blog.) He did stunt work for a variety of actresses including Anne Baxter, Rita Hayworth, Barbara Hershey, Virginia Mayo, Stephanie Powers, and Lana Turner.
Speaking of women, one of the roles, Whitey loved best was being the husband of Dotti; they were married for seventy years.
During the fifties, Whitey worked on a lot of westerns including Cheyenne. In the sixties, you would see him on Rawhide or as Kurt Russell’s double on The Magical World of Disney. If you want to see him in action, the best show to watch would be The Wild Wild West; his crew did some amazing things on that show and Whitey coordinated the stunt work for 1965-1968.
The eighties found him in Fantasy Island, Wonder Woman, and BJ and the Bear while in the nineties he was part of Little House on the Prairie and The Fall Guy. His last work was in a movie in 1998. In 2009, Whitey died in his sleep. It is good he died peacefully; I can’t imagine the toll that this type of work took on his body for fifty years.
Hal Needham was born in 1931 in Memphis, Tennessee. He served as a paratrooper in the US Army during the Korean War. After the war, he worked as an arborist doing tree-topping services. He was also the billboard model for Viceroy Cigarettes while he was trying to establish his career in Hollywood.
Hal’s first big job was the stunt double for Richard Boone on Have Gun, Will Travel. From 1957-63 he was in 225 episodes. During the sixties, he would show up in many television series including Laramie, Wagon Train, Laredo, The Wild, Wild West, Star Trek, Gunsmoke, Big Valley, and Mannix.
Hal was the highest-paid stuntman in the world. That seems fitting because during his career he broke 56 bones, broke his back twice, punctured a lung, and lost a few teeth.
Needham was responsible for wrecking hundreds of cars, fell from many buildings, was dragged by horses, perfected boat stunts and was the first human to test the car airbag.
He revolutionized the work of stuntmen and worked to get his craft recognized and appreciated. He mentored up-and-coming professionals.
His career transitioned from a stuntman to a stunt coordinator to a second unit director to a director. In all, he would work on 4500 television episodes and in 310 films, according to imdb.com. He made his directing debut on a movie he wrote called Smokey and the Bandit with Burt Reynolds and would go on to direct Hooper and The Cannonball Run for Reynolds among other series and films.
In 1977 Gabriel Toys debuted the Hal Needham Western Movie Stunt Set with a cardboard saloon movie set, lights, props, a movie camera, and an action figure that could break through a balcony railing, break a table and crash through the window. They have become highly collectible.
Needham owned a NASCAR race team. He also set a Guinness World Record as the financier and owner of the Budweiser Rocket Car which is now on display at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum.
He also managed to win both an Emmy and an Oscar. Reynolds and Needham were close friends; Needham lived in Reynold’s guest house for 12 years and their relationship was used as the basis for the plot in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
Bob Herron was born in 1924 in California. When his parents divorced, he moved to Hawaii with his father. The swimming and high diving he did there was a boost to his stunt career. His mother married Ace Hudkins who was a supplier of horses to the movie industry. Herron helped his stepfather in this business before enlisting in the Navy.
In 1950 he began doing stunt work. His first job was on Rocky Mountain with Errol Flynn and he was shot off horses. This would be a piece of cake compared to his role in Oklahoma Crude where he fell 55 feet from the top of an oil derrick into a stack of boxes.
In the sixties, he began his stunt work on television. He was in Gunsmoke, I Spy, I Dream of Jeannie, The Man from UNCLE, The Girl from UNCLE, Star Trek, Mission Impossible, Get Smart, and Bonanza. He doubled for Ross Martin in The Wild, Wild West. During the seventies, he appeared on Petrocelli, Little House on the Prairie, Marcus Welby, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Rockford Files, Kojak, and Charlie’s Angels among other shows. He was still going in the eighties doing his stunts on Hart to Hart, Magnum PI, Remington Steele, the Dukes of Hazzard, Matt Houston, Airwolf, The A-Team, and MacGyver. Despite being almost seventy, he continued in the nineties on shows like Father Dowling’s Murder Mysteries, The Wonder Years, and Murder She Wrote.
I did smile a bit to see shows like I Dream of Jeannie and The Mary Tyler Moore Show on this list. The Jeannie episode is one where she brings her great-grandfather to Cocoa Beach to show Tony how to desalinate water and the Mary episode is one where Sue Anne falls in love with someone who doesn’t return the feelings. I guess it proves you never know where a stunt person will show up.
I don’t know how he managed to survive sixty years performing dangerous stunts but he must have been in amazing physical shape.
I did promise to come back to men having to double for women in the forties and fifties. Thankfully, that is no longer the case, and women’s numbers are increasing among the 3400 stunt performers in SAG.
Former gymnast Shauna Duggins did the hard fighting work in Jennifer Garner’s show Alias. Because pay is determined by union contracts, stuntwomen do not suffer from the pay discrimination that sometimes shows up in the industry. Stunt performers are paid a minimum of $1005 for one day of work and they can negotiate higher pay based on their experience.
Duggins was at the University of California Davis when she first thought about being a stuntwoman. She learned more about martial arts and spent hours working out in gyms after graduation. In 2000 she auditioned for stunt work in The X Files as Krista Allen’s double and got the job. Then she was in Charlie’s Angels for Kelly Lynch and Cameron Diaz.
It was after that movie that she got the role on Alias where she worked for five years. To protect these women, SAG has a 24/7 hotline for performers to phone if they feel they have been the victim of sexual abuse.
In 2018 Duggins won an Emmy after twenty years in the business. Her advice to young women who decide to make this their career: “train as much as you can in various skills. Go to different gyms with stunt performers, train with all of them and just learn from each other.”
I’m glad we took some time to learn about the tough and dangerous job these performers do. It was so interesting to learn a little bit about some of these industry stars.