Hal Needham: Stuntman & Burt Reynolds director was last year’s Honorary Oscar recipient
Veteran stuntman and stunt coordinator Hal Needham, whose stunt-work movie credits ranged from John Ford Westerns to Roman Polanski’s crime drama Chinatown, and who directed a handful of popular action comedies starring Burt Reynolds, died on Oct. 25 in Los Angeles. Needham was 82. (See also: “Stunt performer Hal Needham among the recipients of the 2012 Honorary Oscar.”)
Born in Memphis, Tennessee, on March 6, 1931, Hal Needham began his long Hollywood stuntman career in the mid-’50s. A former tree trimmer and paratrooper, and a motorcycle and car racer, Needham performed stunts in both big-screen and small-screen Westerns, such as John Ford’s 1962 classic The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, starring John Wayne and James Stewart; the all-star 1963 Best Picture Academy Award nominee How the West Was Won; and the television series Have Gun – Will Travel, doubling for star Richard Boone.
“When I came in, Westerns were the big thing, so I did horse falls, transfers, bulldogs, big fights,” Needham told The Hollywood Reporter last November. “… But then all the Westerns stopped, and I was capable of doing car stunts, motorcycle stunts and high falls. I could do it all. I worked every day. I never turned down a stunt.”
Highest paid stuntman in Hollywood
Purportedly the highest paid stuntman in Hollywood, Hal Needham kept himself busy performing and/or coordinating stunts in a variety of movie genres and TV shows. Among his best known movies are Blake Edwards’ The Great Race (1965), starring Jack Lemmon, Natalie Wood, and Tony Curtis; Arthur Penn’s Western Little Big Man (1970), with Dustin Hoffman and Faye Dunaway; and Polanski’s aforementioned neo-noir Chinatown (1974), with Dunaway and Jack Nicholson.
On TV, Hal Needham doubled for the likes of Gary Lockwood in Star Trek, Christopher George in Mission: Impossible, and Burt Reynolds in Riverboat, Gunsmoke, and Dan August.
Needham’s film stunt work came to an abrupt halt in 1978, the year after he switched to directing movies. His last two efforts at that time were Colin Higgins’ comedy hit Foul Play, starring Goldie Hawn an Chevy Chase, and the Burt Reynolds star vehicle The End, directed by Reynolds himself and co-starring Sally Field.
According to the IMDb, Needham would return only once more to feature film stunt work: Michael Cimino’s crime drama The Sunchaser, starring Woody Harrelson.
Off screen, Needham’s most notable “stunt work” was his officially testing the effectiveness of car safety air bags. He would later testify in the U.S. Congress about the experiment.
Hal Needham director: Three of Burt Reynolds’ biggest hits
Hal Needham met Burt Reynolds when he doubled for the actor on the late 1950s television series Riverboat. Their stunt worker / star association would continue for another two decades.
After doing assistant director work on Reynolds’ White Lightning and The Longest Yard, Needham turned full-fledged director after coming up with the basic storyline for the eventual 1977 blockbuster Smokey and the Bandit, starring Burt Reynolds and Sally Field in a sort of lowbrow comic version of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear: instead of transporting nitroglycerin, trucker Reynolds transports beer across state lines much to the annoyance of highway patrolman Jackie Gleason.
Though hardly a critical favorite, Smokey and the Bandit was enthusiastically embraced by North American audiences. Featuring tons of stunts involving cars, trucks, and whatever else moved, the film grossed $126.73 million (approximately $457 million today), thus landing in fourth place on the domestic box office chart that year, trailing only George Lucas’ Star Wars, Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and John Travolta’s Saturday Night Fever.
Next in line for director Hal Needham was another successful Burt Reynolds and Sally Field pairing, Hooper (1978), an action comedy about an ace Hollywood stuntman. Lambasted by critics, Hooper grossed $78 million in North America (approx. $268 million today). According to The Hollywood Reporter, at the time Needham “took out ads in the trades, highlighting his films’ negative reviews but puncturing them with a shot of a wheelbarrow filled with money.”
Needham’s next effort was not only a critical but a box office bomb as well: The Villain (1979), a cartoonish Western starring Kirk Douglas, Ann-Margret, and Arnold Schwarzenegger in his first important film role.
Released in 1980, Smokey and the Bandit II was a sizable hit – though its gross was less than half that of the original. A bigger hit was The Cannonball Run (1981), a no-brain action comedy featuring a no-holds-barred race and an all-star cast that included Burt Reynolds, Farrah Fawcett, Dom DeLuise, and Jackie Chan.
Stroker Ace, however, bombed in 1983, collecting only $13 million (or about $33 million today). That marked the beginning of the end of Needham’s directing career and Burt Reynolds’ film stardom. Not helping matters was the box office disappointment Cannonball Run II the following year.
Hal Needham directed his final feature film in 1986: the B movie Body Slam, with Dirk Benedict and Tanya Roberts. The lowbrow comedy quickly disappeared from view.
Hal Needham: Second stuntman to receive Honorary Oscar
“I know one thing; I’ll never win an Academy Award,” Hal Needham once told the Los Angeles Times. “But I’ll be a rich son of bitch. And that’s what it’s all about.” Needham was wrong – at least when it came to the first half of his statement.
In 1986, he received the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Scientific and Engineering Award “for the design and development of the Shotmaker Elite camera car and crane, which allows filmmakers greater versatility in shooting action sequences.”
Twenty-six years later, at the Academy’s November 2012 Governors Awards, Hal Needham became the second stuntman ever to receive an Honorary Oscar. His sole predecessor was Yakima Canutt, among whose credits coincidentally was John Ford’s 1939 Western Stagecoach – Needham was a stuntman in the 1966 remake.
According to reports citing Needham himself as a source, during the course of his career as a stuntman he broke 56 bones, punctured a lung, dislocated a shoulder, and lost an unspecified number of teeth. At the Governors Awards, he must have been quite serious when he said: “You know, you’re looking at the luckiest man alive. And lucky to be alive.”
Needham’s honor notwithstanding, the Academy has repeatedly refused to create an Oscar category for stunt workers.
Hal Needham quotes via The Hollywood Reporter.
Hal Needham photo: Larry D. Moore CC BY-SA 3.0.