Stars pull off stunts

Insurance bills rise with risks

“I live for myself and I answer to nobody,” quipped Steve McQueen, the 1960s leading man who jumped a 60-foot fence on a motorcycle in “The Great Escape” just to flaunt his favorite hobby on film.

But in today’s Hollywood, where a slip off a snowboard or a slide along the retaining wall of a racetrack can derail a project, McQueen would be answering to a long line of lawyers, producers and studio heads before he even turned the ignition switch.

Indeed, Jason Priestley’s recent crash into a wall during a practice run for a car race highlighted the realities of insuring actors with a penchant for “XXX” lifestyles.

These days, “The Fast and the Furious” refers as much to thesps and angst-filled producers as it does to Universal’s hit actioner.

“If it’s stress release for somebody to fly their Steerman biplane upside down going 150 miles an hour at 50 feet off the ground, the question I have to ask is, ‘Is this something that anybody knows about?’ ” says Brian Kingman, senior VP of AON/Albert Ruben, an insurance brokerage firm specializing in contracts for most of the major studios as well as the majority of primetime TV productions.

Kingman and his colleagues say actors’ participation in sports offscreen and their growing desire to do their own stunts onscreen are becoming a worry — and a factor at the negotiating table. In fact, the tussle between insurance underwriters, studio execs and actors over liability issues can even make or break a film’s budget.

Insuring Priestley, who had been making a career out of cameos in small pics such as “Cherish” and “Die Mommie Die” — while he continued to race — could have meant an impossible seven-figure deductible or premium, a devastating bite out of a modest budget.

Les Unger, national motorsports manager at Toyota U.S.A., says his annual Pro/Celebrity Race at the Grand Prix of Long Beach, Calif., has served as an entry point into the world of amateur racing for thesps such as Patrick Stewart, Goran Visnjic, Mark-Paul Gosselaar and Lorenzo Lamas.

Unger, however, says Priestley was racing at a level far above the average amateur celeb.

“Jason was very, very serious about what he wanted to do,” he says. “But what happened to him can happen, and has, to anyone.”

It certainly almost happened to Harrison Ford, when the longtime aviator was forced to make an emergency landing of his Bell 206 helicopter in a dry riverbed during a 1999 training flight out of Van Nuys airport.

A flight instructor at that airport says the lure of flight should never be confused with hard-earned experience.

“A lot of these millionaires think it’s a neat little toy,” he bristles. “They figure if they can afford a $3 million helicopter, they might as well learn to fly it. It’s definitely a power trip.”

Fellow flyboy (and auto racing enthusiast) Tom Cruise even took a page out of McQueen’s book of cool by featuring his Pitts Special 5-2B stunt plane in a post-Oscar interview with Barbara Walters. A publicist’s dream come true, Cruise’s craft provided the perfect macho backdrop, while the noisy take-offs buzzing outside the hangar muted Walter’s tougher questions.

“More and more, it does become a dangerous situation,” says Norm Wallerstein, senior VP of bond company World Wide Film, who tells Variety his company will no longer insure actors who fly — unless they’re accompanied by a licensed pilot.

So how do filmmakers ensure the ship won’t go down with a reckless star?

Kingman points to an affidavit known as the Hazardous Activities Questionnaire, which has expanded in recent years to encompass talent’s dangerous predilections. The detailed questionnaire is accompanied by a physical exam, determining the actor’s risk factors as well as his physical health.

“There are consequences if they do not disclose that information,” says Kingman. “If an actor is not forthright in disclosing a material fact about what they’re going to be up to and it goes so far as misrepresenting facts, then they could be personally liable.”

Such was the case when River Phoenix died of a drug overdose in 1993, shutting down production of the film “Dark Blood” and causing his contracted role in “Interview With the Vampire” to be recast.

CNA Reinsurance, which held insurance contracts on both projects, eventually sued Phoenix’s estate, claiming the actor had, by taking large doses of illegal drugs, breached a signed contract to keep himself away from general harm.

Soon after, activity clauses prohibiting specific dangers surrounding an actor became standard in entertainment insurance contracts.

“You deal with it the best you can,” Kingman wearily adds. “You deal with them one at a time.”

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