Artisans introduces a new series — Where Are They Now? — focusing on living legends of the below-the-line world. Written by James C. Udel, a member of IATSE’s Local 80 Grips since 1993 and author of “The Film Crew of Hollywood,” these stories will profile retired or semiretired artisans whose work has left an enduring impact on the history of the movies.
Stuntman Gene LeBell might not have been around since Hollywood’s first fist fight, but his skill has transformed the genre.
Born in Los Angeles in 1932, LeBell was shipped off to a military school at age 6 by his full-time working mom after his father died in a surfing accident. The diminutive kid was bullied, finally responding by choking the offending cadet — a move he applied to Steven Seagal 52 years later while filming “Hard to Kill.”
After his mom remarried, LeBell was raised near L.A.’s old Olympic Auditorium. The athletic youngster tested himself with such self-imposed challenges as scaling 60-foot-high lighting stanchions to replace spent bulbs. LeBell was also a judo and grappling prodigy. Instructed through brutal tutorials by professional wrestlers and old-school masters, he developed adult skills by 13. He sparred with James Cagney while shooting “Blood on the Sun” in 1945, allowing the famous actor to dominate the 20-minute skirmish — which garnered rave reviews. It was LeBell’s first movieland lesson: Always let the star win.
LeBell transitioned from amateur to AAU national judo champ in 1954 and catapulted to national attention — but as a pro wrestler, playing Hank the Hangman; he made a living by losing every match.
A fight scene on the sitcom “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” earned LeBell his SAG card. He subsequently dominated auditions for the role of Mr. Kryptonite in the “Superman” TV series, which ran from 1952 to 1958; actor George Reeves, who played the Man of Steel, hired him on the spot after seeing his high-flying judo rolls and flips. The two became close friends, but the actor’s untimely death stymied LeBell’s chance for future speaking parts. Still, he continued to get regular stunt work on TV.
It was the long-running “Lassie” series that first tested LeBell’s mettle. Confused by William Beaudine’s direction, LeBell ended up being chomped by a 700-pound bear named Victor. “‘What are you doing?’ LeBell remembers the helmer lamenting. ‘We can’t have blood!’” Gaffer tape stanched the bleeding, and LeBell managed six more takes.
He worked on series such as “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.,” “The Big Valley,” “I Spy,” “The Munsters,” “Batman,” “Mission: Impossible” and “The Green Hornet,” to name just a few. Over his career, LeBell was bludgeoned, shot, run over, karate-chopped (he became friends with Bruce Lee) and drowned for $2,000 per week — earning more than most lawyers during those days. People called him the Toughest Man Alive.
His countless stunt appearances over more than 1,000 TV episodes and films range from Samuel Z. Arkoff B-movie cheapies to studio tentpoles such as “The Killer Elite,” “Planet of the Apes,” “RoboCop,” “Raging Bull” and “Rocky” (during which he warned Sylvester Stallone that the picture would surely flop).
Jerked by cables through walls on Velveeta commercials at age 80 (he’s now 85), the Stunts Unlimited member, who lives in Sherman Oaks and says he still takes in about $80,000 annually in residuals, reminded Variety that even with the rise of CGI, there’s one commodity in film that cannot be synthesized: human emotion. Interviewed in May while luxuriating in his hot tub at home,LeBell teaches that fear and failure are essential components of his art: “Without the possibility of failure,” he says, “there’s no believability to the stunt on-screen.”