Hal Needham is the coolest guy in the room. He damn well better be—he’s the only guy there who has jumped out an airplane onto a horse, or fallen 60 feet from a tower, or driven a Trans Am at top speed off a pier onto a moving boat. He’s also the only guy who has hung out with John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Sally Fields, and Burt Reynolds, and he’s definitely the only guy who drove a mock ambulance across the USA at 100+ miles per hour and faced down the Russian army upon its invasion of Czechoslovakia.
Tired already? Hell, Hal ain’t even warmed up yet.
Stuntman! is Hal’s autobiography, and it’s packed full of anecdotes about these events and many, many more. I’ve got no reason to doubt a word he says: stuntmen are crucial to movies, especially action films and Westerns, and Hal establishes his cred early and often. And then he establishes it again. And again. And again. And—but that’s the bad part, we’ll get to that later. Let’s talk about the fun stuff first.
There’s plenty of fun stuff, too, especially for boys like me who love to read about boys like him. Need a cattle stampede? Hal can tell you how to do it. Need to run a stagecoach through it? He’ll tell you that, too. Want to have a stunt rider jump from a horse onto the stagecoach, drive it through the stampede, crash it and trap the helpless passengers underneath as two thousand head of cattle go thundering by? Here you go.
Or maybe you’d rather blow up a German army jeep, throwing the driver 30 feet. Or wait! Why throw him clear? Why not set him on fire? Hal’s done all that too, and if he is to be believed—and again, I see no reason to doubt him—his ideas about how to do stunts differently from the way they’d been done before has led to real improvements in visual spectacle, not to mention safety. For example, a buried launching pad, similar to the type used by gymnasts for vaulting, allows a stunt man to be hurled farther by an explosion without having to put himself any closer to the detonation. It’s all a matter of angles and timing.
Hal spends the opening couple of chapters briefly reviewing his childhood and early years as a paratrooper and handyman, but he seems as bored with it as he knows we are—after all, we’re reading a book called Stuntman!, not one called Tree Surgeon! Pretty soon the scene shifts to Hollywood, where a combination of determination and chutzpah earns Hal his first gigs as a guy who gets blown up, shot down and bowled over for a living.
From the start, Hal’s ingenuity is on display, as are his elephant-sized huevos. For his first high fall, a 40-foot tumble in a movie called Timbuktu, Hal wanted to do something different. “At that time, everyone doing a high fall always came off headfirst, so they could see the landing pad,” he tells us. But Hal decides that “I’d ‘take’ the imaginary gunshot, spin around, and come off backward.” Is there any doubt that this was a universally admired decision? “As I landed the entire cast and crew broke into applause. Every one of the stuntmen came to me and complimented me on one hell of a high fall.”
This is just one incident, but it brings us to one of the weakest elements in the book: Hal’s overwhelming smugness. The tone of this memoir is relentlessly glib, as the reader is guided from one success to the next. The self-satisfied tone remains constant throughout. Sure, the stories are fun, but there are so many of them and they are piled on so thick that before long, one incident starts to blur into the next. The lack of any kind of pattern to the chapter breaks doesn’t help any: it reads as if an editor said to Hal, “Just break off every fifteen or twenty pages, and start a new one.”
Publicity material for the book compares the experience of reading it to that of listening to a guy telling stories over drinks. Fair enough, but what they don’t tell you is that the guy becomes a crashing bore when every one of his stories ends with: “And that’s why I’m so great!” I’d have given a lot to read something along the lines of, “Boy, that was a real screw-up on my part.” Never happens.
An even bigger disappontment is the near-total lack of insight into what this guy has done for a living over the past however many decades. Anybody interested in getting a sense of what it feels like to do these crazy stunts—in following the mindset of someone who gradually moves from dangerous stuff to really dangerous stuff to ridiculously dangerous stuff—is going to be disappointed. Hal’s no-nonsense approach goes something like: “This was the stunt. This was how we did it. This was the next stunt. It was a doozy! This was how we did it.” I’m paraphrasing, but you get the idea. Such a clinical approach might have helped Hal Needham in his long career in the movies, but it makes for mighty uninspired reading.