Friday, November 8, 2013

Hal Needham Passes On

Hal Needham, the stuntman who went onto direct motion pictures, died on 25 October 2013 at the age of 82. At one time he was reputedly the highest paid stuntman in the world.

Hal Needham was born on 6 March 1931 in Memphis, Tennessee. He spent his early years in Arkansas, and his family eventually moved to St. Louis. As an adult he worked as a tree topper before serving as a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division of the United States Army during the Korean War. After his discharge from the Army he returned to tree topping. It was while he was recuperating with a broken ankle that another former paratrooper found him work doing stunts in television.

He did stunts for the television series Mike Hammer before getting his big break serving as Richard Boone's stunt double on the popular Western series Have Gun--Will Travel. In the late Fifties he also did stunts for such shows as Laramie, Black Saddle, Coronado 9, and Hong Kong. He also served as a stuntman on such films as The Spirit of St. Louis (1957), The Big Country (1958), Thunder in the Sun (1959), and Pork Chop Hill (1959).

In the Sixties Mr. Needham performed stunts for the films A Thunder of Drums (1961), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), How the West Was Won (1962), Donovan's Reef (1963), McLintock! (1963), 4 for Texas (1963), Mail Order Bride (1964), Major Dundee (1965), In Harm's Way (1965), The Great Race (1965), Our Man Flint (1966), The Ballad of Josie (1967), and The War Wagon (1967). He received his first credit as a stunt coordinator on The Rare Breed (1966) and in the Sixties went onto serve in that capacity on the films Stagecoach (1966), Beau Geste (1966), Bandolero! (1968), Hellfighters (1968), Chisum (1970), and Little Big Man (1970). He also did stunts for the television shows Gunsmoke, Star Trek, The Big Valley, Laredo, and Mannix.

In the Seventies he did stunts for such films as Something Big (1971), The Culpepper Cattle Co. (1972), The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972), The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing (1973), White Lightning (1973), McQ (1974), Blazing Saddles (1974), Chinatown (1974), The Longest Yard (1974), W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings (1975), Gable and Lombard (1976), Gator (1976), A Star Is Born (1976), Nickelodeon (1976),  and Billy Jack Goes to Washington (1977). His last work in stunts was in the film The Sunchaser in 1996. In 1971 he founded the organisation Stunts Unlimited with fellow stuntmen Ronnie Rondell and Glenn Wilder.

Over the years Hal Needham also acted in various bit parts over the year. In the late Fifties he appeared in small roles in such shows as The Rifleman, Have Gun--Will Travel, The Restless Gun, Playhouse 90, Yancy Derringer, Dante, and Coronado 9. In the Sixties he appeared in the TV shows Riverboat, The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, The Rebel, Tales of Wells Fargo, Combat!, Laramie, Rawhide, Wagon Train, Daniel Boone, Laredo, The Wild Wild West, The Virginian, and Gunsmoke. He appeared in the films Shoot Out at Big Sag (1962), McLintock! (1963), The War Wagon (1967), The Devil's Brigade (1968), and Sometimes a Great Notion (1970). From the Seventies into the Eighties he appeared in the shows Mannix, Alias Smith and Jones, Mission: Impossible, Charlie's Angels, Simon & Simon, and Sledge Hammer. He appeared in the films One More Train to Rob (1971), The Culpepper Cattle Co. (1972), W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings (1975), The Cannonball Run (1981), Stroker Ace (1983), and Cannonball Run II (1984).

Hal Needham served as a second unit director on the films White Lightning (1973), The Longest Yard (1974), Take a Hard Ride (1975), and Gator (1976). With Smokey and the Bandit (1977) Hal Needham broke into directing. Over the years he directed such films as Hooper (1978), The Villain (1979), Smokey and the Bandit II (1980), The Cannonball Run (1981), Stroker Ace (1983), Cannonball Run II (1984),  Rad (1986), and Body Slam (1986). He directed a few television films, including Death Car on the Freeway and four TV movies loosely based on Smokey and the Bandit and its sequels.

While I never was a fan of most of the films Hal Needham directed, I have to admit he was a great stuntman, perhaps the greatest stuntman of all time. He introduced several innovations when it came to stunts in film and television. It was Mr. Needham who introduced the use of air bags on which stuntman could land would performing stunts involving jumping or falling. He also helped develop the the Shotmaker Elite camera car and crane, for which he won a Scientific and Engineering Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Among his other innovations were the air ram (a pneumatic device for throwing a stuntman through the air) and the nitrogen ratchet (a device used for whenever a stuntman is supposed to be thrown from a horse or a car). Mr. Needham's various innovations to stunt work were all designed to make stunts safer while at the same time keeping them spectacular in appearance.

Indeed, as a stuntman and stunt coordinator Mr. Needham created some of the best stunts on film. There was the sequence in Little Big Man in which he and another stuntman had to leap from the horses they are riding onto horses pulling a stagecoach, and then from horse to horse. For McQ he performed a stunt in which a car had to rollover on a beach, for which Hal Needham designed a cannon which could flip the car. Regardless of whether it was a Western or an action film Hal Needham could be guaranteed to provide stunts that were spectacular, but at the same time within the realm of reality. And he did all of it without the benefit of CGI.

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