Articles & Notes — October 26, 2013 at 1:48 pm

Legendary stuntman-director Hal Needham dies at 82, stars offer condolences

hal_needhamHal Needham, a stuntman who dazzled Hollywood for years before directing his pal Burt Reynolds in such films as “Smokey and the Bandit” and “The Cannonball Run”, has died. He was 82.

Needham, who received a honorary Oscar in November at the Governors Awards, died Friday in Los Angeles after a short battle with cancer, THR reported.

“RIP Hal Needham, legendary stuntman, stunt coordinator and director. Truly one of the greatest ever,” producer Gale Anne Hurd tweeted.

“I had great pleasure of working on Cannonball Rally 2. One day Needham he got really pissed off about a certain stunt at this lake,” actor-singer Branscombe Richmond recalled on his Facebook page.

“He walked into this lake with his $1000 boots on, just to make a point. After a second take, all was good, and he started walking to the next set, when Burt Reynolds said: your boots sound funny buddy, you might scare our all-star cast with those soggy $1000 out of tune boots.. Hal and everybody started laughing,” Richmond wrote. “Thanks Hal Needham, than you and your family. And thanks for letting us be a part of your stunt family”.

Reputed to be the highest-paid stuntman in the movies, Needham garnered his first directing job in 1976 with “Smokey and the Bandit” after he approached Reynolds (he often doubled for the actor) with a yarn about a good ol’ boy and his trucker friend who must transport a load of beer across state lines. Reynolds loved the idea, and the stuntman found himself in the director’s chair – and a screenwriter to boot.

With ladies man Reynolds at his wisecracking best and propelled by hair-raising vehicular stunts, “Smokey and the Bandit” was a runaway box-office hit, raking in more than $126 million as the second-highest grossing movie of 1977. The action comedy also spawned two sequels and a series of telefilms.

Needham followed up with Hooper (1978), starring Reynolds with Sally Field. A story of a great Hollywood stuntman, it was stirred by Needham’s own adventures and featured 30 of Hollywood’s top stunt performers.

“I know one thing; I’ll never win an Academy Award. But I’ll be a rich son of bitch. And that’s what it’s all about,” Needham once told the Los Angeles Times.

Needham though, did win an honorary Oscar. “I’ve never been presented anything this prestigious in my life,” he said after hearing he would be saluted at the Governors Awards.

Needham often ended his films by showing humorous outtakes during the credits. He eschewed “serious” film talk: “Directing, it’s a snap,” he once said.

As a stunt performer and coordinator, Needham worked on more than 30 films, including The Spirit of St. Louis (1957), How the West Was Won (1962), Our Man Flint (1966), Little Big Man (1970), Blazing Saddles (1974) and Chinatown (1974).

Needham’s third foray into feature directing was The Villain (1979), inspired by Warner Bros.’ popular Roadrunner cartoon. The Western parody starred Kirk Douglas, Ann-Margret and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

“Hal Needham was a great stunt coordinator, director and an icon. I’m still grateful he took a chance with me in The Villain. I’ll miss him,” Schwarzenegger tweeted Friday.

Needham also was the second-unit director on action scenes for The Longest Yard (1974) and White Lightning (1973).

The co-founder of Stunts Unlimited and a mentor to young stunt performers, Needham earned the Academy’s Scientific and Engineering Award in 1986 for the design and development of the Shotmaker Elite camera car and crane, which allows filmmakers greater versatility in shooting action sequences. (He also won an Emmy Award for inventing the devices.)

Needham said that during the course of roughly 300 movies and 4,500 television episodes, he broke 56 bones, including his back twice, punctured a lung, dislocated a shoulder and knocked out a bunch of teeth.

“I had to have a shoulder operated on, and that bothers me a little bit, but basically I’m in good shape,” Needham told THR in November.

Needham met Burt Reynolds on the late 1950s NBC series Riverboat. “I doubled him there and then moved over to Gunsmoke, and then he moved to the big screen and I doubled him for 14 years,” Needham told THR.

Needham was the stunt coordinator for Shenandoah (1965), Bandolero! (1968), The Bridge at Remagen (1969), The Undefeated (1969), Nickelodeon (1976), A Star Is Born (1976) and many other features.

He was ingenious and ambitious in his stunt daredeviltry: “For Little Big Man”, he turned the standard jump from a stage into a much more elaborate affair. He leaped from his horse to a coach, then proceeded to do three consecutive jumps – to the wheel horses, to the swing horses, and finally to the lead animals.

Needham was a pioneer in developing rocket-powered vehicles for stunts. In one escapade, he was required to sail a tuck, aided by rockets, across as 112-foot drainage canal.

His only protection was a seatbelt and harness. The truck had no roll cage. The vehicle landed past the canal, reaching a height of nearly 25 feet. Needham broke his back but considered it worth the effort – since more than 25 fellow stuntmen came to watch, a salute to his prowess.

At the time, Needham also created the boat jump record when he flew 138 feet over a Georgia swamp in Gator (1976), another Reynolds film.

His first vehicular stunt was of a more serious nature. Needham was the first human hired to test the effectiveness of automobile safety air bags. Wearing just a standard seat belt, he rode 20 mph lead-on into a brick wall. He subsequently testified before congressional committees on the safety of air bags.

For sheer relaxation, Needham had a need for speed. In 1977, he traveled 619.9 mph in an attempt to break the land speed record.

After accepting his trophy at the Governors Awards, Needham told the audience during his acceptance speech: “You know, you’re looking at the luckiest man alive. And lucky to be alive.”

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