Sunday, October 9, 2011

#73: Stuntman: My Car-Crashing, Plane Jumping, Bone-Breaking, Death-Defying Hollywood Life by Hal Needham

New York: Little, Brown and Co. 2011: 307 pages

I looked at this book several times before I picked it up. I thought "Hal Needham is one of the best stuntmen in the history of film. But, he did direct Hooper." He also gave us Smokey and the Bandit I and II, Stroker Ace and The Cannonball Run. Under no circumstances did I anticipate a good book, well written and interesting. I thought it would be filled with crashes and stories about Burt Reynolds.

I was right except the stories were all about Mr. Needham and name dropping. Burt Reynolds, Kirk Douglass, Arnold Shcwarzenegger...even Have Gun, Will Travel makes an appearance. This has got to be the single most boring book about a man who has broken 56 bones that has ever been written. Here is a sample:

"He sounded like Burt Reynolds and looked like Burt Reynolds, but why was he talking to us (the women wondered)...Burt was always ready to help a couple of buddies in need." (201) or "I scratched him (the horse Alamo) affectionately under the chin. Arlene walked over and said if I treated her that well, maybe we'd have a better relationship." (131)

No crummy hotel in the country was safe from Hal Needham in the 1970s as long as Burt Reynolds was around. Needham's first marriage is summed up in about 3 pages, wherein he manages to say that "Hollywood types don't like cowboys". Probably because the fuckin' cowboy is chasing tail as Burt Reynold's wingman. When this magic association began to wear off (around the time Evening Shade became popular) Needham was owning a stock car team, which he calls "the second most popular in to The King, Richard Petty." Before the advent of ESPN and TNT, this was somewhat akin to saying you were the second most popular football team in Alabama. Personally, I thought Harry Gant was one hell of a driver, but I liked Dale Earnhardt's Wrangler machine more.

Even the description of the stunts in his films are devoid of any sort of emotion. I suppose that is good, as a lesser man (me) would have been scared shitless to fall backwards off a 45 foot cliff. Believe it or not, even Smokey and the Bandit is based on a real event, namely "a maid stealing Coors beer out of my fridge in Miami." What got Needham the money to do these films was one man, Burt Reynolds. Needham would probably never have become a director without him, and Needham seems a little wary of this. Reynolds had to be talked into doing the Cannonball Run because he did not want to do another fast car picture. I mean, who the fuck is going to give you money to do a movie about a fucked up race across the U.S.? Even if Needham is the man who tried to bring Jackie Chan to an American audience, that film is not made without Reynolds.

By that time, Farrah Fawcett had left Charlie's Angels and would not make a post-Run film for more than three years; Roger Moore had three unremarkable Bond films left in the tank. The Rat Pack leftovers were reduced to doing shtick. Needham acts as if this was a "cavalcade of stars" when in fact it was a group of people whose careers were in decline. This book would have been much better if it stuck to the stunts and the technical details and dangers of making films. In some ways, Needham seems least comfortable in writing about these things. We actually hear more in Needham's autobiography about who Burt Reynolds was dating. That's sad. Needham is due a lot of respect for his tireless work on behalf of stuntmen and women in Hollywood; give him that but don't bother with this book.

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