The Stuntmen’s Assn. began with a barroom brawl 35 years ago. A dozen sailors and marines were battering and bloodying each other when Mickey Rooney stormed off the set of “Everything’s Ducky,” vowing, “I’m not coming back unless you get some pros in here.”
For their big fight scene, the producers had hired a saloonful of extras, but only two professional stuntmen, Loren Janes and Dick Geary. “People were really hitting each other, and a number got hurt. It was a mess,” Janes recalled.
In a way, the brawl mirrored the chaos in the film industry in 1961. “The major studios and the moguls were fading away,” Janes said. “Independent producers and directors came into town to make movies and rented space in the studios. But they didn’t have a clue who was a professional stuntman compared to an extra or a wannabe, a glory-seeking daredevil off the street.”
A former nationally ranked college diver and gymnast, Janes had made his first splash in movies – an 80-foot dive off a cliff on Catalina – in MGM’s 1954 Esther Williams watercade “Jupiter’s Darling.”
“All your top stuntmen were as well-known to the studios as John Wayne was to the public, and each studio had their favorites,” Janes said. But by the ’60s, “the new heads of the studios didn’t know a stuntman from a grip.”
For six months, Janes and Geary met for dinner and between takes to discuss the dangers on the set. “We figured we’d make it very simple – the Stuntmen’s Assn. of Motion Pictures & Television – so that when all these independent producers and directors wanted to get professionals to coordinate and do their stunts, they’d know where to come.”
Then Janes, Geary and a half-dozen others “sat down and picked out all the names of the really top professional stuntmen in the business.” More than 40 gathered for that first meeting in the Screen Actors Guild board room in 1961; six of the invited charter members were on location.
Since the stunt players were already members of SAG, and they couldn’t form a separate union within a union, the Stuntmen’s Assn. had to be a fraternal organization. “We’d also share safety ideas to work it into a more professional group of people,” Janes noted. Today the org has 131 members, nominated and voted on by the membership.
But in 1970, top stunt coordinator Hal Needham, later a feature film director, split from the association along with 14 younger stuntmen to form Stunts Unlimited, which has since tripled its original membership.
In 1980, legendary fall-guy Alan Gibbs fell out of Stunts Unlimited to organize the Intl. Stunt Assn. By ’92 the original Stuntmen’s Assn. had spawned so many professional progeny that veteran Tony Epper formed the National League of SAG Stunt Performers to unite all the groups, including the Stuntwomen’s Assn., United Stuntwomen’s Assn. and Drivers Inc., under one umbrella for common goals such as safety.
A key purpose of the stunt organizations – unwritten in their charters – is hiring within their ranks. Many of the stuntmen work as stunt coordinators, and 42 have qualified as members of the Directors Guild of America, helming second units.
One charter member described his first job as a coordinator on a TV Western. “When it came time to hire individual stuntmen, I hired all the big stunt coordinators around so they could see I knew what I was doing. In return, I got to work with them. You cultivate your contacts and show the people that you’re sincere and know what you’re doing.”
But it’s about more than cultivating paydays. In the middle of a stampede, or when performing a 200-foot fall, cannon-rolling a car at high speed or exploding out a window on fire, a stuntman wants to make sure those around him know what they’re doing.
The process of selecting who knows what they’re doing has been formalized from the informal charter days of the Stuntmen’s Assn. 35 years ago. Membership still is by invitation only, according to president George Marshall Ruge. Five members must sponsor a working stuntman, including one main patron who spearheads the process.
“All the sponsors have to have witnessed your performing of stunts or coordinating shows or second unit directing in actual situations. They can’t just write a letter for somebody. They have to know that person,” Ruge said.
And there is a financial requirement, Ruge added: “You have to be a working stuntman. You have to be the real thing.” The association is reluctant to give figures, but in dollars, the real thing must earn an income close to $100,000 a year in stunt work – not acting or as an extra – to qualify for membership. According to SAG, the earnings of the top stunt performers are in the upper 3% of the membership.
When Bob Minor joined the Stuntmen’s Assn. in ’72, “I had to make at least $20,000 on stunts alone, without working extra.” That year, he stunt-doubled for 12 actors on one movie, WB’s “Come Back Charleston Blue,” “even a set of twins that fell out of a skylight. One of the twins fell out of the skylight and landed. They cut the film. I went back up, took the position of the second twin, fell out of the skylight a totally different way, and when they edited it together, you have two guys falling out of the skylight, and they are both me.”
The stunt coordinator, Max Kleven, was impressed. Minor became the previously all-white stunt fraternity’s first black member.
The association’s 16-man board reviews an applicant’s working record and votes. Three blackballs ends the application. Last year, 13 passed the board’s scrutiny and were admitted to a year’s probation, during which they will be working with and for the other members. After that year, there is a vote of the general membership, and the prospective member needs 75% to join the fraternity.
Each generation has had its specialists, as stunts and the movies themselves evolved. In the beginning it was the cowboys and rodeo champions.
“In the ’60s, it was the drivers, especially the bikers and motocross racers,” Chris Doyle said. “Then it became the guys who were proficient in martial arts and acrobatics,” not just for the kung fu flicks, but to stage the more elaborate fights with windmilling high kicks and somersaults audiences now expected.
“Now it’s the riggers,” the specialists who can rig and execute the high falls of both stunt performers and equipment, said Doyle, who has coordinated a string of action series for Stephen J. Cannell.
And in the future, both the veteran cowboys and younger riggers agree, second unit directors and stunt coordinators must know how computer-generated images can create and combine several stunts and special effects into spectacular scenes.
But as in the past, each stunt coordinator on a given picture or TV show hires within his own association for the most part, unless a star has a regular stunt double associated with another group or a particular specialty is needed.
Minor, second VP of the Stuntmen’s Assn., was the coordinator on TriStar’s “Glory” in ’89. He also recruited from Stunts Unlimited, the Intl. Stunt Assn. and Independent Stunts to cast the 30 troopers of the all-black 54th Massachusetts Regiment who were blown up via air rams, trampolines, mini-tramps and Russian Swings during the film’s climactic charge. There is a plaque from those stuntmen commemorating Minor’s “Glory” coordination in the association membership room.
And the daring chances the stuntmen take beget memorable stories. John Moio, the association’s third VP, badly sprained his leg in a stunt for an action TV series shot in San Francisco. Stunt coordinator Al Wyatt nevertheless scheduled him to work the next day.
“I couldn’t even walk,” Moio said. But when he hobbled onto the location the next morning, Wyatt was explaining in detail to the young director why the character in the next scene should have a bad limp.