Veteran Hollywood stuntman and second-unit director Conrad E. Palmisano was once buried alive for a scene in 1977’s “It Happened at Lakewood Manor.”
With his only source of oxygen coming from a small garden hose connected to him underground, he gave strict instructions to the surrounding film crew: “Bury me once, bury me good. I only want to do this once.”
It’s this mix of levelheaded cool and keen mental focus to which Palmisano, who’s worked most recently as a stunt double in CBS’ “The Big Bang Theory” and “Transformers: Dark Side of the Moon,” credits his success.
“When you start out in this career you think to yourself, this can’t hurt me, it can only kill me,” he deadpans. “Digital technology has made it much safer to perform stunts than it was two decades ago. Back then, you basically took your life in your hands.”
But while a slew of honors are presented each year by stunt biz insiders — Taurus World Stunt Awards and the Stuntmen’s Assn. of Motion Pictures Awards among them — the SAG Awards and Primetime Emmys are the only major kudofests to feature a category for stunt coordination.
As the Oscars continue to overlook their contribution to film, are stunt performers — responsible for some of the most memorable scenes in movie history, from “Ben-Hur’s” chariot race to “Bullitt’s” famous car chase sequence — getting their fair shake of industry praise?
“Stunt performers get people into movie theaters every year and we deserve credit for that,” says Palmisano, current chair of the SAG stunt and safety committee. “We perform part of the art and that should be acknowledged.”
On a certain level, Armstrong believes the Academy is vainly holding fast to the long retired notion that film is pure fantasy.
“In the 1940s and ’50s, stuntmen were all hidden,” he says. “Everybody wanted to believe that Errol Flynn did his own sword fighting and that Laurence Olivier did his own horseback riding. Today that’s all changed. Because of videogames and the Internet, every 8-year-old knows of the existence of professional stuntmen and stuntwomen.”
Stunt coordinator Jane Austin (“Titanic,” “Scream 3”), who’s served on the national boards of both SAG and AFTRA, is confident that at some point in the future the Academy will give into the collective push to include a stunt category on its roster.
“We’re delighted that SAG has put us in the category,” says Austin. “My personal feeling is that this is a step closer to achieving recognition and acknowledgement at the Oscars.”
“SAG and the Emmys have honored us, so it’s only time before the Oscars relent,” agrees Palmisano. “It will happen.”
But not every stunt performer is vying for Oscar’s attention.
“I like the anonymity,” declares legendary stunt driver and stunt coordinator Gary Davis. “If my actor wants to say he’s doing the stunt he should be able to do so. My job is to make him look good, not to take bows.”
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