Among the true legends of Hollywood’s stunt profession, Mickey Gilbert has always performed a notch above the rest. The stunt double for Robert Redford from 1969’s “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” through 2018’s “The Old Man & the Gun,” Gilbert has more than 100 film and TV credits as a stunt coordinator and a second-unit director — all of which sprang from Western stunt work dating back more than half a century.
Born April 17, 1936, in Hollywood to Genevieve and Frank Gilbert, he learned to rope and ride amid the alfalfa fields of Van Nuys. Mentored by his father and an old cowboy named Buff Brady from Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, Gilbert quickly mastered all things equestrian. “Training in gymnastics with my dad when I was a kid gave me a vertical leap from the saddle that made the horse-to-horse transfer a sure thing,” he says.
Excelling at local rodeo competitions from age 13 through high school, he attended Pierce College in 1955 and won a national championship. Transitioning to professional rodeo, he earned $1,500 in prize money at age 17 and bought a small ranch for boarding horses.
A good-looking cowboy coming of age amid a boom in TV Westerns like “Hopalong Cassidy,” Gilbert was interested in becoming a screen cowboy when a chance meeting with director Edward Dmytryk got him work on the 1959 feature “Warlock.” Credited as an extra, Gilbert did a rope-wrangling bit in a saloon, lassoing a whiskey bottle from a gunslinger’s hand from a dozen feet away.
He married Yvonne Yrigoyen, daughter of big-time Western stunt boss Joe Yrigoyen, but it was a connection to actor Grant Sullivan that earned him a job on the series “Pony Express.” Using running mounts learned from Brady as the show’s signature stunt, Gilbert earned a SAG card while doubling most of the show’s actors for the difficult move.
After “Pony Express,” he returned to rodeo and ranching before finally taking work from Yrigoyen, on the feature “Alvarez Kelly,” released in 1966. He performed saddle falls and stirrup drags with back-flip flourishes in the action picture, and his talents were soon the talk of the town.
Gilbert was cast for Sam Peckinpah’s megahit “The Wild Bunch” in 1969. Surrounded by industry pros of top standing, he developed a combination shoot-off and stirrup drag for the opening bank robbery, which also featured him scooping up a bag of gold coins on the ground while leaning down from the saddle at a full gallop. The bit made him the director’s favorite. “Peckinpah used me so much in the picture,” says the stuntman, “that editor Lou Lombardo finally stated, “I know the guy is good, but even shooting him from behind he shows up as great.”
The same year, Gilbert handled stunt coordinator duties on “Butch Cassidy.” Doubling Redford while Howard Curtis subbed for Paul Newman on the famous cliff’s-edge “buddy leap,” Gilbert had the idea to use the 120-foot-high construction crane rigged over Paramount’s backlot pond that made surviving the shot possible.
From there, Gilbert worked steadily, racking up credits on such successful movies as “Little Big Man,” “Blazing Saddles,” “The Wind and the Lion” and “The Electric Horseman,” all on the way to putting together a stunt career that was second to none. Now semiretired and living in Nipomo, Calif., he succinctly sums up the difference between actors and stunt doubles.
“They shoot until it hurts,” he says, “and we shoot despite it hurting.”