Thursday, September 1, 2011

Non-fiction Fix: Hal Needham's STUNTMAN!

Thanks to a visit from Hurricane Irene, we didn't have power for 4 days. To a Video Junkie, that is pure hell and like being forced against your will into rehab. To ease the pain, I opened up one of these strange contraptions called books. Yes, we actually read books from time to time, although it seems we never stray too far from our comfort zone and stick to books about movies (with the occasional horror novel here or there).

Anyway, what better way to pass the time than to read the autobiography of famed stuntman/director Hal Needham.  As we mention in our review of DEATH CAR ON THE FREEWAY (1979), we are fans of the man and his contributions to motion picture history. Needham is quite the raconteur and the books 296-pages fly by rather quickly.  He starts by talking about his early life growing up in Arkansas, where his step-father was a sharecropper during the Great Depression.  It is truly a different world that most of us could never fathom (outhouses, yuck!).  After that he jumps into his family moving to the big city, him getting a job as a tree trimmer (which helped him greatly in Hollywood) and his eventual joining of the military as a Airborne Ranger.  All of his stories are fun reads and told in a very frank and funny manner.

Of course, the majority of the book is built around his move to Hollywood and the career choice that would eventually make him famous.  Needham details the first film he worked on (THE SPIRIT OF ST. LOUIS) and how he got his first big break on the TV show HAVE GUN WILL TRAVEL, where his tree climbing abilities got him the job of doubling star Richard Boone.  He also mentions working on a show called RIVERBOAT starring Darren McGavin, where he first encountered a young actor by the name of Burt Reynolds. This led to a great relationships both professionally and personally (Needham even lived in Burt's guest house for years after a divorce).  There are tons of great stories about working with the likes of Jackie Gleason, Jerry Reed, John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, and Burt.  And lots of great behind-the-scenes anecdotes about how the business works (and doesn't work).  For example, there is a totally insane story about Needham going over to Europe to be the stunt coordinator on THE BRIDGE AT REMAGEN (1969) and having to flee the country when the pesky Russians actually invade Czechoslovakia in real life.  There is even a wild story about his real-life encounter with the Skid Row Slasher.

The book does a have a few problems though, most significantly in its lack of details about Needham's directing career.  He is apt to emphasize his hits more than his misses.  MEGAFORCE, his biggest bomb, gets only one mention, while the aforementioned DEATH CAR ON THE FREEWAY and everything post-MEGAFORCE get no mentions at all.  I guess he was not "man enough" to talk about MEGAFORCE for its fans (sorry Tom).  He also jumps all over the place in terms of periods of his life.  Also, there are some sections on his NASCAR history where I started to tune out as that really isn't my thing.  Of course, these are only minor quibbles.  If you are looking for a lively read about a time in Hollywood when real people actually drove cars during stunts (his wreck planning for John Wayne's McQ is terrifying), this is definitely a must-read.

2 Reactions:

  1. I'm sorry to say that, but dishing on "Megaforce" would've been the No.1 reason for me to buy this. No dice.

  2. Funny you should mention that. I've had the book sitting here for over a year, unread because of exactly that reason.


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