Welcome back to The Evolution of Stunts, we are now onto part 4 of our in-depth look at the history and evolution of stunt performance in cinema. We travelled from 1900-1930 in Part One, explored the impact of John Wayne and Yakima Canutt in Part Two, and dissected the Hollywood epic in Part Three. Now we enter the 1960’s where the technology behind the stunts was about to receive a big upgrade…
As we discussed previously, the 1960s was a time of great change for the stunt profession. The Stuntmen’s Association of Motion Pictures bought together the top stuntmen of the time to deal with the studios, and they began to hire within themselves, utilising a Stunt Co-ordinator rather than an Assistant Director taking that role. This was further politicised during the ’60s with the formation of The Stunt Women’s Association in 1967, and the Black Stuntmen’s Association. These were set up to not only represent these minorities in the industry but to also stop all stunt roles going to white men. Of course, this is still an ongoing problem in the industry with many women complaining about “Wigging” (A male stunt woman donning a wig to double a female), but it did help put an end to “Paint downs” where white stunt performers were put in make up to double different ethnicities.
The changes to the profession weren’t just political. The technology used to achieve stunts went through a huge change. This change can be put down to the changing landscape of television and cinema. The ’60s saw the federal government in the US crackdown on violence shown on television, which meant that less action was allowed to be shown. This coupled with the fall in popularity of the Western meant that a lot of stunt performers were out of work, and those who had made a living with horse and western stunts had to learn new skills in order to still be employable. A lot of the old guard of stunt performers began to require, pathing the way for a new generation of stuntmen. Performers who had been cross-trained in multiple skills. These new stuntmen were open to new ideas, and new technology which could be used to create more impressive and dynamic stunts, whilst making them safer for multiple takes.
This new technology included Air Rams; a device which is used to simulate an explosion. The performer steps on a large pedal, and compressed air is used to flip the pedal up catapulting the performer through the air. This device was developed by veteran stunt performer Joe Yrigoyen.
The use of Airbags also became widely prolific in the ’60s. This was developed as a safety device in cars during the event of a crash but helped keep stunt performers safe when performing more and more thrilling car crashes. In fact, Hollywood stunt man Hal Needham was hired as the first human to test out an airbag in a car. Dar Robinson invented the decelerator, which used dragline cables instead of airbags to slow performers down when they were jumping from high up.
Bullet squibs were also developed, which not only made shoot-outs more believable and bloody but helped when stunt performers were trying to sell that they had been shot as they had something to react to.
These developments helped pave the way to the stunts that we are still seeing in the multiplexes today.
Special Mention: James Bond
We could hardly do an article about the evolution of stunts without mentioning James Bond, who arguably made the biggest dent in the cultural fabric of action cinema. Between the style, the fights, and the unbelievable stunts, James Bond had a huge impact on the stunt industry, and in particular the stunt industry in the UK. From Dr. No in 1962 to the present day James Bond has continuously pushed the boundaries of what can be achieved with stunts.
The 1970s ushered in a sort of renaissance for stunt performers. The decade started with the rise in popularity of Martial Arts movies. These were largely English dubbed movies produced in Hong Kong, which starred martial artists in the main roles. These performers wowed audiences with their athleticism and skill. The most famous performers to emerge were Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan. Lee starred in five feature films in the ’70s and became one of the decades biggest icons. Jackie Chan made his breakthrough as a leading man at the tail end of the decade in 1978’s Snake In The Eagle’s Shadow, which would prove to be the start of a long and illustrious career.
The new technology being developed was embraced and led to the surge in disaster epics and to car chase/crash films. These movies were some of the biggest hits of the decade and meant that the demand for stunt performers was once again at a high. These movies including The Poseidon Adventures, The Towering Inferno and Earthquake, were sold to audiences on the basis of their epic scale and amazing stunts.
A huge breakthrough came in 1975 with The Master Gunfighter, where stuntmen and stuntwomen started to receive credits for their work. This led to an increased interest in stunt performers from the public and even turned stunt performers such as Hal Needham into celebrities. Needham had trained under Chuck Roberson who was John Wayne’s stunt double. Needham became one of Hollywood’s top stunt performers and was a regular double for Burt Reynolds. In 1971, he formed Stunts Unlimited with fellow stunt performers Glenn Wilder and Ronnie Rondell. This was a closed group of elite stunt performers, where members were only invited on after a selection and observation process. Hal Needham had also written his own script and had convinced his long term collaborator and friend Burt Reynolds to star in it. Reynolds even offered Needham the directors role on the film. That film was Smokey and The Bandit.
The film was a huge hit, and Reynolds and Needham soon teamed up again on Hooper in 1978. This film directed by Needham, saw Reynolds play Sonny Hooper, who in the film is known as The Greatest Stunt Man Alive. This along with films such as The Stunt Man, Stunts, Hollywood Man and Texas Detour heightened public interest in stunt performers even more. Needham even had his own toy published based on Wild West Stunts. You can expect Needham’s popularity to peak once again when Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood comes out, loosely based on Needham and Reynold’s friendship. You can check out Brad Pitt and Leonardo Di Caprio as the leads in Quentin Tarantino's next film below.
This newfound interest in stunt work wasn’t all for the better. Many wannabes flocked to Hollywood to try their hand at stunt work. Many of these performers took to calling themselves professionals without any of the expertise or experiences. These were usually daredevils who were willing to perform stunts at a cheaper rate. You combine this with the hedonistic lifestyle of Hollywood in the ’70s, and the rampant use of drugs and the accident rate quickly began to climb.
If the development of technology in the 1960s had caused a boom in the stunt industry in the 1970s, the next big leap would threaten the livelihoods of many stunt performers. Find out more in the next instalment of The Evolution Of Stunts.
Were you inspired by the likes of Hal Needham and Dar Robinson? We’ve got a whole diary filled with courses to get you started on your journey into the word of screen action. You can find it HERE.