The dangerous life of a Hollywood stuntman

From directing "Smokey and the Bandit" and "Cannonball Run," to breaking 56 bones in his career as as a stuntman, Hal Needham has lived a life only Hollywood could create. In his new autobiography "Stuntman!," Needham spills his secrets.

Before getting into directing with the Coors-smuggling idea for "Smokey," Needham was one of Hollywood's premier stuntmen in the '60s and '70s, with 4,500 TV episodes and 310 movies. His book details how he rose from a hardscrabble life on an Arkansas farm to eventually owning the Skoal-Bandit Nascar team in the 1980s and building the Budweiser Rocket Car, the first to break the speed of sound. Here, Needham explains the problem he faced when John Wayne asked for help on "McQ," a 1974 cop film that owed much to "Dirty Harry," Steve McQueen and "Bullitt." — Ed.

One thing you shouldn't do if you don't know explosives is try to rig your own. We were in Seattle shooting McQ, starring John Wayne. Ronnie Rondell was the coordinator, and I was working as one of the stunt guys. He was talking to us about an upcoming stunt, and he didn't know exactly how to do it. Duke was in a car, being chased down the beach by heavies. As they exchange gunfire, Duke's MAC-10 submachine gun bullets riddle the heavies' car and driver, causing the car to turn over. Problem: how do you flip a car on a flat beach? Normally you'd use a ramp to drive one side of the car up, cut the wheels sharply, and presto, over goes the car. But you need bushes, another car, or something else to hide the ramp. We had nothing but a flat, sandy beach. Rondell told us to think about it.

A couple of days later I explained my plan to Rondell. He listened and said it sounded pretty complicated. We didn't know if it would work or not. He thought it was too risky to try for the first time on the set, so I decided to call home and have [stuntman] Gary McClarty and some of the guys rig it for me. I gave McClarty the following instructions: Pick up an old wreck of a car; it didn't have to run, just steer, because we could push it up to speed with another car. Build a small cannon, and make sure the cannon walls were at least an inch thick, so it wouldn't become shrapnel when I set off the explosion. Cut a hole in the back floorboard of the car, put the cannon in the hole with the muzzle pointed down, three inches from the ground, and weld it to the frame. Make sure it's welded good. Find three pieces of telephone pole three feet long that will fit inside the cannon. Bring some baling wire, a battery, a push button to fire the bomb, and five four- ounce black- powder bombs.

"I strapped myself in the beat-up car with a rotten lap belt. There was no roll cage in the car. I told the boys to push me 55 mph, blow the horn, and back off."

The following Saturday afternoon, I flew home and called McClarty. Everything was A-OK for a test the next morning. On Sunday five of us, with the test vehicle in tow, made our way to a dry lake outside L.A. There, we discussed how many bombs it might take to turn the car over. I told them that first of all, we should put in one bomb and see what happens. So we put one bomb in the cannon, slid a phone pole up against it, and then put a piece of baling wire under the pole to hold it in place. We used a long extension cord for the push button to fire the bomb, stood back a long way, and hit it. To everybody's surprise, the car lifted only about six inches off the ground. Now we really had a problem. One bomb damn sure wasn't enough. If we used two and it didn't work, then we'd only have two left. There were five of us with maybe a total of ten years' education among us, but we came to a decision: put all four bombs in. Little did we know that powder squares itself.

In went the four bombs, a phone pole, and a hunk of wire to hold it in place. One more thing you should know. When you blow the bomb that forces the phone pole down, it only travels three inches to the ground - and then the car becomes the projectile. I strapped myself in the beat-up car with a rotten lap belt. There was no roll cage in the car. I told the boys to push me 55 mph, blow the horn, and back off. Then I would cut the wheels sharply, throwing the car into a broadslide, and hit the button. McClarty was driving the push car. I signaled to go, and we started picking up speed. Soon I felt McClarty back off. The horn blew. I cut the car to the left and it went into a broadslide. I hit the button.

The explosion blew the car thirty feet into the air. When I opened my eyes in midflight, I was upside down and going backward. I knew this wasn't going as planned, and at any moment there was going to be one helluva wreck. The car landed on its roof, which caved in, jamming the doors. But the big problem was that I wasn't breathing. I saw that the back window had blown out from the impact, so I made my way to it.

Gasping for air, I crawled out from under the trunk of the pancaked car. At that moment the boys working with me on the stunt came skidding to a stop. I heard one say, "Holy shit, he's alive!" They rushed to me and laid me down flat. Still not breathing, I pointed to my mouth, and McClarty gave me mouth-to-mouth. With his help and my gasping, I was slowly sucking air into my lungs. Someone pulled up in his pickup and said, "Put him in here and I'll take him to the hospital." Another stuntman got in to hold me.

We made it in record time. Every white line on the highway felt as if we were running over a curb. McClarty went into the hospital and came out with a gurney and an attendant. I didn't know at the time that my back as well as six ribs were broken, and they were stabbing my insides. I just knew I was hurting. In my hospital room the doc told me I had a cracked vertebra, six broken ribs, and a punctured lung. I counted the missing teeth myself: three. John Wayne would have to finish the movie without me.

The guys in the push vehicle said I'd gone so high they'd almost lost sight of me through the windshield. McClarty said I was a bad kisser, and to never ask him to do that again. I asked McClarty how scary it looked. Without hesitation, he said it was a 10. I asked if it were a 5, would he do it? He said that if he had a car with a roll cage and he was wearing a five-point safety harness and a helmet, he would give it a shot. I said, "Good. Now get your butt on a plane to Seattle and tell Rondell you're my replacement." I suggested he use a lot less powder than I had. Here was the result. They used eight ounces of black powder. When McClarty rolled the car on the beach, he was doing 55 mph, and he flipped the car twelve times. He was unhurt; it just rang his bell for a few minutes.


Reprinted from "Stuntman! My Car-Crashing, Plane Jumping, Bone-Breaking, Death-Defying Hollywood Life," copyright 2011, by Hal Needham, with the permission of Little, Brown and Company.