NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - Hal Needham’s Hollywood career started in front of the camera, not behind it.
The director made six action comedies with his friend Burt Reynolds, including “Hooper,” two “Smokey and the Bandit” movies and two “Cannonball Run” movies.
But he began as a stuntman on television shows including “Have Gun, Will Travel” and “Mike Hammer” and on John Wayne westerns like “The War Wagon” and “The Undefeated.”
Needham, who recalls that storied Hollywood life in his book “Stuntman!,” spoke with Reuters about broken bones, stars he knew, and the 1970s car chase craze he helped create:
Q: TV stuntman to feature director is not your typical career trajectory. How did you do it?
A: “I‘m the only stuntman that ever did. It’s a matter of being dedicated to your job, regardless of what I was doing, even when I was an extra in the background. Normally on a set I’d have two or three titles. I was a stuntman, a stunt coordinator and I was a second-unit director. That advanced me up the ladder. On ‘Little Big Man,’ jumping from horse to horse on the stagecoach, it was a tough stunt and being the boss I said, ‘I think I’ll do that one.’ On ‘The Longest Yard,’ I directed all the car chases and doubled Burt at the same time.”
Q: You must have spent a lot of time in hospitals.
A: “I’ve had 56 broken bones. I did a stunt where I put a rocket in the back of a pick-up truck that cost me a broken back. It was a GMC commercial. That took me out for about a week. When I was working on (the beach chase in) ‘McQ,’ I broke my back and six ribs, punctured a lung, knocked out some teeth. While I was in the hospital, a producer called and said, ‘I got a job for you Monday.’ I said, ‘I’ll take it.’ I was eating Percodan like they were going out of style.”
Q: Apart from “True Grit,” which has some great ones, you really don’t see horse stunts anymore. Is it a dying art?
A: “They died out in the mid-70s. I think it’s a shame because I love westerns. From the 50s to the 70s, westerns ruled the roost.”
Q: What was John Wayne like?
A: “I loved Wayne. I did 10 movies with him. He was so dedicated and such a good guy. He was demanding but if you did your job, he’d reward you for it. He loved stuntmen because his whole career was around action and westerns. He was a legend -- was and is.”
Q: Many fans consider your directing debut, “Smokey and the Bandit,” the high point in a wave of CB radio and car chase movies that included “Convoy,” “Vanishing Point,” and “Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry.” What was the appeal of that genre?
A: “We were poking a little fun at the police. People love Sally Field flipping the bird at a cop and getting away with it. I loved having a little fun with the establishment.”
Q: So it was part of Hollywood’s anti-establishment theme that followed from “Bonnie and Clyde” and “Easy Rider”?
A: “That’s part of it. Where mine are different is they’re not violent. We had a lot of action but we didn’t kill anybody.”
Q: Burt Reynolds, your old roommate, was the world’s No. 1 box office star for several years. Who do you think among contemporary actors has that kind of charisma?
A: “We talk occasionally. He’s down in Florida. Burt was the most underrated performer. He was a born comedian. I don’t see anybody out there like him. He was in a class all by himself when it comes to doing action comedy.”
Q: Any recent movies you admire? And are you an Academy voter?
A: “Yeah. I liked ‘True Grit’ a lot. I liked that little girl in it (Hailee Steinfeld). It’s got pretty good action and it’s pretty authentic. I haven’t seen ‘The King’s Speech.'”
Q: What’s the favorite among your movies?
A: “‘Hooper,’ because it’s about a stuntman. It gave me latitude so I didn’t have to do it in continuity. There was no continuity. I just had to dream up a lot of good stunts. At the end I went down to Alabama to an old college campus. They were going to tear it down and I said, ‘Let me do it for you, boys.’ I must have blown up 20 or 25 buildings.”