Before digital effects could make impossible falls look easy, before high-tech equipment had to be in place before a stunt man did a complicated jump, before anyone had heard of an “air bag,” Hal Needham was flying through air, literally, by the seat of his pants.
The 81-year-old Needham, who inspired an action figure and legions of young stunt performers to follow in his footsteps, grew up so poor his family didn’t have indoor plumbing. For most of his childhood, he never saw a movie in a theater. But he found the guts leap off of all kinds of things and let himself be set on fire for two reasons — fun and money.
“I’d always been a good athlete and I liked getting paid what they paid you for stunts,” says Needham, who is to receive an Honorary Oscar. “In those days, they paid you per stunt so I’d try to do as many as I could.”
That goes for the punches, hits and falls Needham views as easy. The bigger stunts — the ones that made him a legend — were the ones he’d try to do just one time. But they didn’t always work out that way. Some “Little Big Man” stunts had to be repeated for 13 takes. Needham calls them the toughest he’s ever done,
“We were jumping from the back of one horse to another while they were running full out,” Needham says. “But, you know, I didn’t get scared so much as I would just concentrate on what I was doing and that kept me out of trouble — most of the time.”
It’s the sort of life story that made stuntman Jayson Dumenigo, who recently worked on “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn — Part 2” and “CSI: Miami,” want to brave a life of falls and fire.
“There’s always this great performance to what Hal (Needham) does,” Dumenigo says. “It makes you want to reach for that and I think he helped us gain a certain respect by going on to direct movies like ‘Smokey and the Bandit’ on top of being a high-paid stuntman.”
Veteran stunt performer Conrad Palmisano agrees on Needham’s impact.
“We weren’t taken as seriously before Hal came along,” he says. “But then you see this guy doing these unbelievable stunts, and directing movies like ‘Hooper’ and ‘Cannonball Run’ and it was just a game changer for anyone doing stunt work then — and now.”
Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award: Jeffrey Katzenberg | Honorary Oscar: George Stevens Jr. | Honorary Oscar: Hal Needham | Honorary Oscar: D.A. Pennebaker