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Stunt safety a priority for show business

Hal Needham says more precautions taken today than in the past

Stunt safety got a bad rap in 2010.

Late in the year, four people were hurt during rehearsals and previews of Broadway’s “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark,” including a stunt actor who fractured his skull and broke four vertebrae and an actress who suffered a concussion.

In December, a stunt driver suffered severe injuries in a truck-car accident that occurred on the shoot of “The Hangover Part II” in Thailand.

And in September an extra was struck in the head by a piece of flying metal during the filming of a stunt sequence on the set of “Transformers 3” in Indiana. She incurred severe brain damage.

Is this spate of recent high-profile mishaps just a statistical fluke? I called several stuntmen to get their views on whether sets these days are as safe as they could be — including Hal Needham, whose anecdote-filled book “Stuntman! My Car-Crashing, Plane Jumping, Bone-Breaking, Death-Defying Hollywood Life” will be published by Little, Brown in February.

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Needham, who says he broke 56 bones, “not counting bruises, cuts and sprains,” over the course of a career that spans 4,500 TV episodes and 310 features, believes sets are safer today than they’ve ever been.

“I think the stuntmen of my day were less prepared than young stunt guys are today,” he said, acknowledging that his own “let’s give it a whirl” school of stunts wouldn’t fly in today’s OSHA environment, where “you can’t fire a damn gun unless you tell everybody you’re going to.”

For stunt coordinator Eric Norris — who once had a close call when a truck he was driving on the set of “Walker, Texas Ranger,” the TV show that starred his dad, Chuck, accidentally became engulfed in flames — safety is always top-of-mind.

“I won’t do a stunt unless I know it’s safe,” said Norris, currently working on NBC’s Jerry Bruckheimer drama “Chase.” “If a producer tells me, ‘No, this is what we have to do,’ I’ll step away from the job.”

Still, despite all precautions, accidents happen. Jeff Habberstad, who coordinated stunts on “There Will Be Blood” and was a stunt player on actioners like “Live Free or Die Hard,” got badly burned over a decade ago filming a low-budget picture where bomb explosions “were bigger than they were supposed to be. We thought we had gone through everything on the checklist and every possible scenario, but I guess there was still more we could have done.”

Bob Brown, who worked on “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen,” stressed that sometimes it’s up to the stunt coordinator to lay down the law. “People are setting up some pretty radical scenarios these days. They seem to forget that stunts are inherently dangerous,” he said. “You’ve got to have the balls to go in there and say, ‘This is what I’m gonna need to make this look great and be safe.’ ”

For the most part, studios are listening. “I’ve never met a producer who told me no when I said it’s gonna cost tens of thousands of dollars to get all the necessary equipment,” Brown said.

Habberstad said he seldom tells producers and directors that something can’t be done but always tries to find a happy medium that meets everyone’s needs. “Generally, you can come to terms with the creative powers on a version that’s possible. Any scene that might seem impossible is open to interpretation.”

While precautions, checklists and expert advice about the feasibility of certain stunts can minimize on-set danger, the system is only as good as the people enforcing it, cautioned stuntman Gary Davis, who recently did stunts on a film where a communications breakdown could have led to disaster.

“We honestly expected the studio to pull the 1st a.d. off that show,” he said. “He never brought everyone together for safety meetings and never let anyone talk to the director,” Davis said. “Everybody should be talking. You can’t just tell the effects guy what to do, then go over and talk to the stunt coordinator and let them arrive at their own decisions and schedules.”

The crew on that picture ended up taking matters into their own hands. They discussed the timing of stunts and other precautions among themselves — and the stunt community was probably spared another major mishap in 2010.

Want to comment or suggest a column topic?Email peter.caranicas@variety.com

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