20 Questions: Hal Needham

He was a paratrooper, a billboard model for Viceroy Cigarettes, he worked on ten films with John ‘The Duke’ Wayne, stunt doubled for Richard Boone in Have Gun, Will Travel, wrote the screenplay for and directed Smokey and the Bandit (and directed many other popular action films), and was the highest paid Stuntman in the movie industry for ten years. Along the way, he gives a bit of advice: “When they first light that match, hold your breath! If you inhale, you’ll suck in the flames.”

Indeed, we’d all be wiser to heed the advice of Hal Heedham. He probably will live to be 100, as he intends – just so long as he doesn’t inhale. His latest endeavor: author of Stuntman! My Car-Crashing, Plane-Jumping, Bone-Breaking, Death-Defying Hollywood Life (February 2011, Little, Brown & Company).

1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?

I don’t cry unless it’s personal. For me to cry while watching a movie is not going to happen, because, I know there are 50 crewmembers standing around watching the actors ply their trade. So, it makes it difficult for me to become so engrossed as to make me cry.

2. The fictional character most like you?

Rocky Balboa. He was the big underdog, a title he refused to accept. Dedication and hard work were his only hope. Dedication and hard work will overcome many obstacles.

3. The greatest album, ever?

Dino: The Essential Dean Martin. I have a home in Colorado on the Gunnison River. Listening to Dean, while watching the river roll by, nothing gets better than that.

Given a second choice, of course you can’t beat gettin’ down the road, truckin’ music. The song “Eastbound and Down” by Jerry Reed is, of course, a personal favorite.

4. Star Trek or Star Wars?

I worked as a stuntman on the Star Trek TV series pilot. But Star Wars had so much advanced film technology (not to mention a bigger budget) that I’d have to go with Star Wars.

5. Your ideal brain food?

My brain food is to have a major problem that needs a solution: How to rig a stunt, or to convince an actor why they should do my movie, etc. The tougher the problem, the better I like it. Once I’ve figured it out, there’s a great feeling of accomplishment.

6. You’re proud of this accomplishment, but why?

I am proud of the fact that I was the highest paid Stuntman in the movie industry for ten years, and some of the movies I directed, such as Smokey and the Bandit, Hooper and The Cannonball Run are still hugely popular with the fans and still make lots of money for the movie studios. Nobody thought I could do it with only eight years of formal education.

7. You want to be remembered for…?

I hope to be remembered for mentoring the future generation of stuntmen and fighting for the rights and respect that stuntmen and stuntwomen deserve for their contribution to the world of moviemaking.

8. Of those who’ve come before, the most inspirational are?

General Chuck Yeager (at that time he was a Captain) the first man to break the sound barrier; Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon; President Ronald Reagan who brought the country back to being a world leader. He challenged the Russians and won.

9. The creative masterpiece you wish bore your signature?

The Great Wall of China. When you see it and climb it in the middle of a winter snowstorm, with no one else around – it’s a masterpiece.

10. Your hidden talents.

I’m a great cook.

11. The best piece of advice you actually followed.

I doubled Richard Boone on Have Gun Will Travel for six years. One day, he sat me down for a little talk. He said, Hal, I know your not well educated, but you’re instincts are right on target. Thanks, Richard.

12. The best thing you ever bought, stole or borrowed?

I stole two six by six trucks, 55 gallon gasoline drums and a hand pump which I used to transport gas from the American Embassy in Prague, evading Russian tanks and troops, to deliver to 30 waiting taxi cabs at the International Hotel to be gassed up to transport 80 cast and crew members shooting the movie, The Bridge at Remagen, to freedom across the Austrian border.

13. You feel best in Armani or Levis?

Levis. Being a cowboy and a stuntman, people wouldn’t recognize me in Armani.

14. Your dinner guest at the Ritz would be?

The Duke, John Wayne. We spoke the same language. Movies, politics, horses, and all kinds of adventures. Having worked with Duke on ten movies, I found him down-to-earth when one-on-one, interesting always and knowledgeable. He could be funny, when he wanted to be. But, most of all, he was dedicated to the job at hand or the game he was playing (mostly chess). In friendship, he signed a picture to me – “You can count them on one hand, count me in.”

15. Time travel: where, when and why?

I have a great deal of respect for astronauts and even though I might not be time traveling to the past or the future – the launch must be some kind of rush. If they ever build a spaceship capable of going to Mars, I’d give everything I own to be on board. The sooner the better, I’m not getting any younger. Can you imagine looking back at Earth while parked on Mars? Wow!

16. Stress management: hit man, spa vacation or Prozac?

I don’t understand the question. I couldn’t be a hit man – I don’t look good in stripes. Never been to a spa and never used Prozac.

Photo by © Dana Patrick

17. Essential to life: coffee, vodka, cigarettes, chocolate, or …?

I smoke a pack of Marlboro’s a day and have been know to have an “adult beverage” which are essential for my bad habits. But, when I play golf and shoot in the mid- eighties, I feel ten years younger. That’s better than coffee, vodka or cigarettes!

18. Environ of choice: city or country, and where on the map?

I’ve had enough of country living: picking cotton, plowing fields, using a mule’s ass as a compass up and down cotton rows, chopping wood…

I live in a full service condo building in LA, with 24 hour valet and a concierge. The weather is great, too.

19. What do you want to say to the leader of your country?

You promised transparency. Haven’t seen it yet.

20. Last but certainly not least, what are you working on now?

Organizing my library which will one day be a gift, promoting my new book Stuntman! My Car-Crashing, Plane-Jumping, Bone-Breaking, Death-Defying Hollywood Life and… trying to figure out how to live to be 100!