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A life on a roll

Stuntman-turned-director Hal Needham reflects on Hollywood career, Georgia ties

POSTED: March 6, 2011 1:30 a.m.
/For The Times

Stuntman Hal Needham crashes a car while jumping a river for the filming of a movie. Needham was the highest paid stuntman in the country from 1965 to 1975.

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The name Hal Needham may not immediately ring a bell, but his films certainly will.

He has worked on more than 300 movies, including "The Longest Yard," "How the West Was Won" and "White Lightning" as a stuntman and stunt coordinator.

During his career, he broke more than 50 bones. He even broke his back, twice.

The first time was while making history during a GMC commercial in the early 1970s. For the commercial, Needham was supposed to jump a canal in one of the company's trucks.

"I put a 15,000-horsepower rocket engine in the back of the truck. Nobody had ever done it before and I was afraid the rocket wasn't going to be enough to get me across," Needham said.

"As it turns out, it got me across and then some. Got me way in the air. When I landed, I weighed 29 times my weight. That was like dropping three tons on that seat.

"When I came down, I went through the seat and down to the floorboard and got a compression fracture. That's probably as close as I ever got to killing myself. One little mistake there and it's all over."

Taking risks was all in a day's work for Needham.

"One of my biggest bragging points is I never turned down a stunt," he said.

"If they wanted it, had enough money and enough time to rig it, I could do it. So I never turned down a stunt and I did some pretty hairy stunts."

Some people may call Needham a showoff, but there were times when his showmanship saved his life.

"On the set of ‘White Lightning,' I almost killed myself during a barge jump. I'd rehearsed the timing with the barge (captain) because I wanted to do it at 65 miles per hour," Needham said.

"As I was coming down the hill to hit my ramp, I thought ‘I'll give them something to see,' so I (floored the gas). When I got in the air, the barge was 20 feet further out than he was supposed to be, and I'm going ‘great God.'

"I hit and the front end of the car just welded itself to the end of the barge. I jumped out and the car hung on thank God. If I hadn't been a showoff and sped up, I'd a been dead sure as hell because that water was muddy, deep and swift."

His recently penned memoir, "STUNTMAN! My Car-Crashing, Plane-Jumping, Bone-Breaking, Death-Defying Hollywood Life," recounts many stories from his hair-raising career.

Needham, who turns 80 today, spoke Feb. 21 to a film class at Brenau University about his career and his book.

"My wife said, ‘You need to write a book.' And I said, ‘OK,'" Needham shared between laughs.

"The only thing is, I can't write."

Since "can't" was never a part of his vocabulary during his decades-long stunt career, wife Ellyn Needham knew he'd get the job done.

"The stories in this book, everyone asks to be told over and over again. That's when I said, ‘You've got to write a book,'" Ellyn Needham said.

"When he said he didn't know how, I said, ‘Yes, but you know the stories. Just write the stories.'"

He wrote it, she typed it and after spreading the pages out on their living room floor, they decided together what to include in the novel.

Although his stunt career is vast, Needham may be most well-known for his 1970s action films, especially "Smokey and the Bandit."

"At that time I was Burt Reynold's stuntman, I doubled him for 18 years and I lived in his guesthouse for 12. He came home one day and I handed him my script and said, ‘Partner I wrote a little script,'" Needham recalls.

"He started laughing and I said, ‘What the hell's so funny?' And he said ‘I didn't know you could write. For sure I didn't think you could spell.'"

Not bothered by the good-natured jokes, Needham asked Reynolds to take some time to read his work and give it an honest evaluation.

"The next day, he said, ‘Roomie, that's a pretty funny script. You find a studio that'll give you the money to shoot, I'll star in it and you can direct it.'"

At that time, Reynolds was Hollywood's top box office star, so studios were jumping at the chance for him to star in their films, Needham remembers. But fewer were willing to take a chance on a newbie director.

"They'd give me money for Burt, but they didn't want me to direct it," Needham said. "I didn't give up. I just kept knocking on doors until finally Universal (Studios) said they'd give me the money. And that was the end of my stunt days."

Although he enjoyed his stunt work, Needham says the larger paychecks and reduced safety hazards were enough to get him to retire as a stuntman.

"It's hard to get hurt saying, ‘Cut. Print,'" he said with a cat-that-ate-the-canary grin.

During location scouting for the film, Needham met Hall County resident Ed Spivia.

"Smokey and the Bandit was my first film and we shot it all right here in Georgia. I picked it on the advice of Burt. He'd shot ‘Deliverance' down here and met Ed and they got along famously. He said Ed knew the country better than anybody. Burt said, ‘Go down to Georgia and ask for Spivia.'"

Among the Georgia scenes included in the 1977 hit was one filmed in White County near Helen.

Shortly after filming, then-Gov. Jimmy Carter, set-up the Georgia Film Commission and asked Spivia, who was working in the state's economic development department, to be the group's leader.

"At that time in our history, Georgia had a pretty bad imaged nationally. It was a little red schoolhouse, Tobacco Road kind of image," said Spivia, who is currently the chairman of the Georgia Film, Video & Music Advisory Commission.

"Gov. Carter set up the commission to bring in the film industry to Georgia, to let them see what we had to offer for themselves."

Compared to other states, what Georgia had to offer was a lot better than what others brought to the table.

"They showed me everything I needed and provided security. Of course you have to pay for it, but you expect to pay for it," Needham said.

"A lot of states — and California's the worst — won't give you all those things. Georgia was the best back when I was making ‘Smokey' and ‘Deliverance' and all those movies. Then they dropped down, but now they're coming back, they're going to be the best again. They're gonna dominate the locations."

Needham knows a thing or two about domination.

"I devoted myself to trying to be the best stunt man in the world. I achieved that. I was the highest paid stuntman in the world for 10 years, from 1965 to 1975," Needham said.

"Most stuntmen in those days when I came in, they were categorized. If you were a cowboy, they wouldn't call you to do a motorcycle stunt. When I came in I decided that I'd do it all, so I went out and started practicing.

"Everything I didn't know how to do, I learned by practicing and it paid off."

 



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