Hal Needham spent most of the 1950s and '60s falling off horses, wrecking stagecoach wagons and falling from really, really high places.
A Hollywood stuntman for more than four decades, he worked on more than 90 films, including some of the biggest Westerns of the 20th century: The Undefeated, Little Big Man, Stagecoach, How the West Was Won andShenandoah. He recounts his experiences filling in for Jimmy Stewart, Dustin Hoffman and Burt Reynolds in a memoir, Stuntman!: My Car-Crashing, Plane-Jumping, Bone-Breaking, Death-Defying Hollywood Life.
In an interview on Fresh Air, Needham tells Terry Gross about one death-defying leap he made on the set of the TV series Have Gun, Will Travel. He was supposed to jump from a 30-foot rock onto a moving stagecoach, without protection or padding. But things didn't exactly work out as planned.
"[The coach] really looked small. It looked like a postage stamp," he says. "They brought the coach, and I hit it right in the center. But I broke through the top right up to my armpits, and that kind of shocked the folks inside the coach."
There were basic safeguards on set even back then, Needham says — but they were about as rudimentary as it gets.
"When I started, they would take sawhorses — like carpenters use — and put pine 1-by-12's across the top, put some cardboard boxes on top [of those], and put a mattress or two underneath," he says. "And that's what saved you from being killed."
The boards, Needham explains, would bend about 6 inches before they broke, absorbing some of impact of the fall.
"Believe me, 45 or 50 feet into those was about all you could handle," he says.
Needham explains that it was he who introduced the now-standard airbag into the stunt industry after seeing them used at a pole-vaulting match. The bags — typically inflated with helium — allowed stuntmen to leap from higher distances. Needham, who also coordinated stunts and directed several movies, used the bags frequently in his own films.
"I [once] had a stuntman do a 250-foot-high fall off the strut of a helicopter," he says. "And they go higher than that nowadays."
When Needham wasn't free-falling onto wooden boards, he recalls, he was often performing dangerous stunts with horses. One of the most dangerous stunts he ever did, he explains, was on the set of Arthur Penn's Little Big Man, when he jumped from one moving horse onto the back of another — and then repeated the stunt.
"We did that three times, but we did the whole scene 13 times," Needham says. "Here's what's really hard to believe: We had to do a standing broad jump from the back of one horse to the back of the next one over 14 feet [away]. There's no athlete, I think, that can do that standing still."
Had Needham failed, he would have been trampled, he says — and not just by the horses, but by a 4,000-pound stagecoach.
"You couldn't fail," he says. "If you messed up, you were going to be in big trouble."
There was an upside, though: Every time Needham redid a stunt, he got paid again. And that could add up.
"Sometimes, if you had a good friend who was a camera operator, he'd say, 'Damn, I missed that,' " he says. "And then he'd come over and say, 'How's that, Hal?' And I'd say, 'That's fine by me.' "
In 1975, Needham transitioned from Western movies and entered the world of car stunts. He took lessons on turning over cars and going into skids. In the 1973 Burt Reynolds film White Lightning, it was Needham who jumped a car from a riverbank onto a floating barge.
But during one rehearsal, an error on the barge captain's part had left the target farther away than Needham had stipulated in practice. Needham knew immediately that something was wrong.
"When I was in the air, I said, 'This ain't going to be pretty,' " Needham says. "I hit the back of the barge with the front of my car, and it just stood it up in the air, and it just balanced right on the end. [Then] the back wheels were in the water. I was out of that thing in a heartbeat. ... Had that car fallen into the river — the river was muddy, deep and swift — I would have been down in Louisiana before they found me."
Still, he says, he never lost the confidence to perform a stunt again.
"I said, 'I have to rethink this situation and make sure I don't make that mistake again,' " he says. "But my confidence didn't wane from that. ... You just have to look it all over and clear up your mistakes and say, 'Lets go.' "