Pyrotechnic Stunts:  Photographer Luc Viatour / www.Lucnix.beCredit: Photographer Luc Viatour /

In the world of movie and television there is a group of folks known as the unsung heroes.  These are the people who risk their lives to perform dangerous feats for the good of a show.  Stunts are unusual and difficult feats or acts requiring special skills which are performed for artistic purposes on film or even on stage.  Stunts are a major part of most action films.  

Today’s technology allows for many stunts to be computer generated; but before the advancement of such technology, actors performed stunts.  During the beginning of film, actors such as Buster Keaton were highly skilled at physical comedy.  It is such actors who are considered the pioneers of stunt performers on film.  Stunt performers are distinguished from daredevils by the context of performing for film rather than a live audience.  Some performers can be classified as both stunt performer and daredevil, such as Evel Knievel. 

Stuntmen and Women in the Movies 

In the first few years of the silent movie era, actors were required to do their own stunts.   Pearl White andStuntman and Actor Tom Mix:  photo courtesy of Fox EntertainmentCredit: photo courtesy of Fox Entertainment Tom Mix were just two of the actors who did their own stunt work.  Everyone part of Mack Sennett’s Keystone troupe were expected to take risks during filming.  Some actors such as Grace McHugh even lost their lives to their craft.  As movies became more and more popular, it didn’t long for a group of professionals to start doubling for the actors.  At first, it was mostly circus performers, race car drivers and cowboys who simply wanted to earn an extra buck or two.  Many of them learned the art of stunt work on the job.  

Since Westerns were prominent in the first years of filmmaking, it stood to reason stuntmen and women who could ride, fall from horses, jump from horse to horse or from horse to wagon, were in demand.  At about the time the movie industry began to accelerate, the ranching business began to decline.  This left many cowboys without work.  They soon turned to the movie industry.  Some of the riding extras and stunt-workers owned their own horses and boarded them in Los Angeles at the Sunset Corral. Standouts of that era include Hank Bell, Jack Montgomery, Bill Gillis and Jack Padjeon among others.   

George Orrison was also one such cowboy turned stuntman.  He was an expert horseman and proved his skills in television shows such as Bonanza, Gunsmoke, and Wagon Train.  He did stunts and falls in movies such as Cat Ballou, Four for Texas, Blazing SaddlStuntman and his Horse:  photo courtesy of the Library of CongressCredit: photo courtesy of the Library of Congresses, and Heaven’s Gate.  Clint Eastwood often requested Orrison for his films and Orrison doubled for Eastwood in films including Joe Kidd, Pale Rider, The Gauntlet, Escape from Alcatraz, High Plains Drifter, and Unforgiven.  Orrison’s final film was Space Cowboys, again working with Eastwood.  

Actors and stuntmen and women often became fast friends. As with Orrison, some stuntmen were requested by various actors for their films thus many stuntmen often worked with specific actors.  John Wayne was said to have like, among others, Rudy Robbins who went on to work with Wayne in Green Berets, Rio Lobo, and McClintock.  Steve McQueen was good friends with Bud Ekins.  While McQueen performed most of his own stunts, it was Ekins who performed the iconic motorcycle jump over a barbed-wired fence in The Great Escape.  Ekins also performed the major driving stunts in McQueen’s movie Bullit 

Stunts in the Movies 

On today’s movies, stunts are designed and monitored by stunt coordinators who sometimes do double duties as second director.  As with almost everything, advances in technology have increased the safety of stunts.  In the early films safety measures included putting a couple of mattresses under a contraption of two saw horses holding up boards topped with cardboard boxes for a stuntman to land from a forty-five foot jump.  Hal Needham who did stunt work in the 1950s and 1960s, developed a much better “catch” by introducing the airbag. Needham went on to direct and wrote a book about stunt work called “Stuntman!:My Car-Crashing, Plane-Jumping, Bone-Breaking, Death-Defying HollywoodStuntman from Early Years:  Photo courtesy of the Library of CongressCredit: Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress Life” 

The Western genre gave way to others and along with them, a more diverse group of stunt people.  Action films rUnsung Heroes:  Photo courtesy of the Library of CongressCredit: Photo courtesy of the Library of Congressequired more pyrotechnics along with driving specialists. Fist fights gave way to martial arts combats and sword fights.  These combat fight scenes are highly choreographed and rehearsed.  Stunt Coordinators of today use harnesses and high-tension aircraft wire to pull actors up or make them fly.  

The well-known stuntman Dar Robinson advanced Needham’s airbag with the use of a dragline cables called the decelerator for use with stunts requiring jumps from heights. Since late in the 20th century filmmakers have turned to computer graphic effects using fans, harnesses, blue-screen, green-screen and a wide variety of devices and digital effects instead of placing stunt people in dangerous situations.   

Some of today’s actors do many of their own stunts in the course of filming.  However, some stunts are simply too dangerous for the film company to allow the primary actor to complete.  There is a long list of actors who are known to do many of their own stunts. The list includes Daniel Craig, Carrie-Ann Moss, Keanu Reeves, Hugh Jackman, Jackie Chan, and Harrison Ford,  just to name a few.   

Stunt-workers have always been the unsung heroes, the ones who risk their lives to make a scene look real.  Broken bones and bruises are common place despite the advancement of safety measures. Civil rights and union rules dictate equality among stunt performers. 

The future of stuntmen and women is uncertain. The death of stuntwoman Sonya Davis while making A Vampire in Brooklyn coincided with advancements in Computer Generated Imagery (CGI) which makes filmmakers more likely to use CGI rather than take unnecessary risks.  However, audiences will probably not accept work which totally mimics video games. The marriage of the two is most likely to be prominent in the coming years.  Eastern martial arts films continue to emphasize actors performing their own stunts, such as works by Jackie Chan, Jet Li, and Tony Jaa. Just imagine all those marvelous stunts from well-known movies. No new records may be broken, but it is unlikely stunt work will completely leave the film industry. 



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