Today, if you visit Google’s search page, you’ll see artwork honoring a legendary woman who broke barriers in motorsports and in the movie stunt industry. Today’s doodle commemorates Kitty O’Neil, the most famous movie stuntwoman of the 1970s, on what would have been her 77th birthda. The doodle was illustrated by Meeya Tjiang, a Washington DC-based artist who, like O’Neil, is deaf.
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Kitty O’Neil was born in 1946 in Corpus Christi, Texas. She lost her hearing at five months old after contracting measles, mumps and chicken pox. O’Neil grew up as a competitive diver and was aiming to qualify for the U.S. Olympic Team. However, she broke her wrist and contracted spinal meningitis before the trials for the 1964 Tokyo Games. When she recovered, her focus shifted to even more exciting vocations.
By her mid-20s, O’Neil had become an off-road racer, competing in the Baja 500 and the Mint 400 during the early 1970s. Around the same, she was diagnosed with cancer, but that didn’t stop her. In 1976, she decided to become a stuntwoman, and was the first woman to join Stunts Unlimited, Hollywood’s leading stunt organization. She performed in several television series and films including The Bionic Woman and The Blues Brothers.
O’Neil’s most famous stunt was for a 1979 episode of Wonder Woman. As star Lynda Carter’s stunt double, O’Neil leapt off the top of the Valley Hilton hotel in Sherman Oaks, California. The jump off the 12-story hotel measured 127 feet, a women’s high-fall record. O’Neil later broke her own record by taking a 180-foot stunt fall from a helicopter.
O’Neil also set the women’s land-speed record on December 6th, 1976. Driving a custom-built three-wheeled land-speed car called the SMI Motivator, powered by a hydrogen peroxide-burning rocket engine, O’Neil blasted along the Alvord Desert in southeastern Oregon, averaging 512.710 mph across a two-way run.
But legend has it she could’ve gone faster. According to various accounts, O’Neil’s vehicle was limited to roughly 60-percent power, allegedly to allow her stunt partner, movie legend Hal Needham, to break the outright record and fulfill the wishes of their sponsors. However, Needham never even made a run.
Kitty O’Neil retired from stuntwork in 1982 and died in 2018 at 72 years old. O’Neil’s land-speed record was broken posthumously by Jessi Combs in August 2019, in an attempt that ended in a fatal crash.
Today, we’re remembering O’Neil’s fearless efforts to bring women into the world of racing and movie stunt work. Her influence is still felt today.