Talking with former stunt man Hal Needham
Best known for directing those high-octane '70s and '80s comedies "Smokey and the Bandit" and "Cannonball Run" (starring his old pal, Burt Reynolds), Hal Needham spent much of his early Hollywood career getting knocked down, dragged along, blown up and generally treated like a rented mule (he is, after all, the son of Arkansas sharecroppers). He recalls it all in "Stuntman: My Car-Crashing, Plane-Jumping, Bone-Breaking, Death-Defying Hollywood Life" (Little, Brown; $25.99). Needham spoke with us from Los Angeles.
You're almost 80. What prompted a book now?
Well, I sat down one day and said, "I've done quite a few things in this business, maybe I should put it all on paper." I have a local bar up here on Sunset, where my golfing buddy and I will stop to have a drink, and we'll sit outside and smoke, and a lot of people will come by and say, "Mr. Needham, can I have your autograph?" And I'll sit there for an hour telling stories. So that's the way I wanted it in the book, just telling stories.
The movies have changed a lot since you were inventing stunts - they can make a hundred people look like a thousand.
CGI? I hate it. I'll tell you why: They can have a man do something utterly impossible and put it in a film, and when I look at it, I say, "That don't make any sense, how could they do that?" There's nothing in my movies that isn't real, and I think it makes it more interesting.
You take very few shots at people you met over the years, but how much do you hate film critics?
Reviewers never gave me much of a break, because I don't make their kind of movies. Instead of "The King's Speech," it's "The Villain," which was kind of a live-action Road Runner cartoon. And I understand it. I think the writers say, "I can't have my fans thinking I like 'The Villain' for cryin' out loud." I remember in New York they had a bunch of press in to see it, and there was one critic in particular, real bushy hair, I forget his name . . .
That's it! And he was laughing, just roaring, and I thought, "I got him." And the next day he tore that film all to pieces.
Could there be another Hal Needham today? A guy who starts out in stunts and ends up directing?
Anything's possible. They don't get the same opportunity because of CGI, but I got to tell you something, the stuntmen out there today are in better physical condition, and have better equipment than we did. But it's still really hazardous. When you see something really outstanding, you say, "Damn, I hope that guy didn't get hurt."
But you did get hurt.
Oh, yeah. My worst was the John Wayne movie "McQ," when I broke my back, six ribs, punctured my lung and knocked out some teeth. That was a goody.