Something like real life

Falling into a career of fun and games

Published: Mar 06 2017, 01:01:am

Sunday, July 22, 1979

PEOPLE OFTEN MISTAKE DIRECTOR Hal Needham for Burt Reynolds.
    Or Richard Boone. Or Gene Hackman. Or John Wayne. Or Kirk Douglas.
     And no wonder.
    For 20 years, Needham, 48, was among Hollywood’s best stuntmen, the one who doubled for the action stars when the going got rough.
    Hearty and unpretentious, Needham more or less fell into stunt work. “I was damn sure that I was not going to be a lawyer or a brain surgeon,” he told me in an interview. “I had to do something. I just saw a way to make more goddamn money than the government ever printed.”
    Memphis-born Needham took his first big risks for a lumber company, tree-topping in Missouri. While serving his hitch in the U.S. army, he volunteered for a parachute-testing program to get out of the boredom of basic training.
    He used the experience to land his first film job, making his debut as a wing-walker in The Spirit of St. Louis, the 1957 Charles Lindbergh biopic. For the next six years he was head stuntman on Richard Boone’s popular TV series Have Gun, Will Travel (1957-1963).
    Needham’s concern for safety — no sense making all that money if you can’t spend it — made him a leader in the stunting community. Some directors, he says with just a touch of irony, “are very intellectual, but unconcerned about people’s health.”
    Once, while doubling for Reynolds in Peter Bogdanovich’s 1976 feature Nickelodeon, he was supposed to fall through a tree. “You can only fall so far through a tree before the limbs become abrasive to your body,” he explains.
    The director didn’t think the planned fall would look spectacular enough. “Can you go any higher?” he asked Needham.
    “I told him ‘I can go as high as you like. You just have to keep adding zeroes to the number on that cheque.' ”
    Sound familiar? There's a similar exchange between Burt Reynolds and Robert Klein in Needham’s 1978 action comedy Hooper. In it, Reynolds plays Sonny Hooper, the super-stunter working for Bogdanovich-like director Roger Deal on Deal’s movie-within-the-movie The Spy Who Laughed at Danger.
    In Hooper, Needham laughs, “I tried to mold every character on someone in real life.”
    In the line of duty, Needham has broken bones (42), his back (twice) and stunt records. Doubling for Reynolds in 1976’s Gator, he sailed a power boat 138 feet [42 metres] through the air to establish a world record.
    His most spectacular feat, though, went into the books as a second. Smokey and the Bandit, Needham’s directorial debut, placed second on Variety’s list of top-grossing films for 1977. (Not bad, when you consider that the first place picture was Star Wars.)
    To hear him tell it, Smokey and the Bandit just sort of happened. At the time, Reynolds and Needham were living together in Los Angeles.
    Come again, Hal?
    “Not like that, pardner. I share his house. I’ve lived with him since I got divorced just after we made White Lightning (in 1973). I needed a place to stay and Burt said ‘why don't you come over and stay at the house for a couple of weeks?’ ”
    Needham says that he might never have gotten the chance to direct Smokey, but "Universal knew that we were good friends. I’m sure they said to themselves ‘if Needham gets into trouble and falls on his ass, Reynolds will pick him up.’ ”
    “Actually, Burt was pretty convinced about me as a director. He was more himself in that picture than I’ve ever seen. He was loose as he could be. He really wanted to give me his best shot.”
     As it turned out, Reynolds wouldn’t have been much help if Needham had gotten into trouble. “Burt got sick. Real sick. He was only able to work 16 days in all.”
    After a lengthy hospitalization, Reynolds was diagnosed as hypoglycemic. He’s now on a special diet, Needham says.
    It was Needham who first introduced Reynolds to Sally Field. The stuntman had met her while doubling for Kirk Douglas in 1967’s The Way West, the actress’s feature film debut.
    Needham cast her in his own first feature because “I just knew it would get a big laugh when people saw the Flying Nun throwing the bird to a highway patrolman.” 
     As we know now, his stars fell in love.
    You could see it happening, right there on the big screen. “That was one of the magics of that movie", Needham says.
     Our conversation turned to Needham’s current project. The Villain, a western, his third feature and another action comedy. It stars Kirk Douglas and, Needham says with a straight face, “it’s a very complex picture.
    “I can tell you the plot in two sentences: Ann-Margret and Arnold Schwarzenegger are driving across the country in a buggy with a strongbox. Kirk Douglas will do anything to steal their money."
    If the critics say that his picture looks like a Roadrunner cartoon, Needham won’t be insulted. “I sat down and watched Roadrunner cartoons for two days before starting work on it.”
    “I think it’s a funny sum’bitch,” he says.  “And you won’t have to go to your shrink to find out what the storyline is.”
    With The Villain on its way into theatres, Needham is planning a late fall [1979] start on his Smokey and the Bandit sequel. “I’ve got them all together again except Sally. Burt and Sally feel they've done enough pictures together for now, so there’ll be a new girl.
    “Besides, we think the womenfolk want to feel that Burt is a little looser than that.” The new film will have the Bandit and his partner, Snowman (Jerry Reed), hauling a pregnant elephant from Florida to Texas.
     They don’t know about the critter’s delicate condition until they’re under way, so a new character is picked up — a gynecologist played by Dom DeLuise.
    Jackie Gleason returns as the indomitable Texas sheriff, Buford T. Justice. “Buford is in Florida on holidays with his son when he spots them and says 'I recognize that sum’bitch!,' ” says Needham.
    How does a director with Hal Needham’s special background choose his projects?  “Oh, hell. I just wait until I find something that sounds like fun and games."

The above is a restored version of a Province review by Michael Walsh originally published in 1979. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

Afterword: Reporting on Hal Needham’s death in October 2013, Britain’s Guardian newspaper noted that “few reference books acknowledged his 45-year-long career — an unjustified omission, if only because of his exceptionally rare transition from stuntman to Hollywood director.” Smokey and the Bandit was an established fact when we did the above interview. He had long since shrugged off the dismissive reviews that had greeted the film’s release in the U.S. At the time, though, they’d stung. “I know one thing,” he told the Los Angeles Times, “I’ll never win an Academy Award. But I'll be a rich son of a bitch. And that's what it’s all about.”
    As it turned out, Needham collected two Oscars. The first was a 1987 Scientific and Engineering Award “for the design and development of the Shotmaker Elite camera car and crane,” one among his many inventions that improved the safety and on-screen look of his spectacular stuntwork. The second, presented to him in 2013, was a Governors Award, the Academy’s lifetime achievement honour.
    In all, Needham spend 12 years living with Burt Reynolds, during which time the actor starred in four more of his good buddy’s feature films: Smokey and the Bandit II (1980); The Cannonball Run (1981); Stroker Ace (1983); and The Cannonball Run II  (1985). In the middle, Needham directed a picture called MegaForce, a 1982 attempt to launch a superhero franchise that fell well short of the mark. And he continued to both supervise and perform stunts. In the years following our interview, the official tally of his broken bones rose from 42 to 56. In the end, though, it was cancer that brought him down. Hal Needham died at the age of 82.

See also: In our 1979 interview, actress Sally Field makes it clear that she is more than “Burt’s lady.”