The Renaissance Stunt Man
Hal Needham was at one point in his career the highest paid stunt man in the world. Needham was not just a stunt man, he was a pioneer for the industry creating new, safer, ways to do dangerous stunts. Like using spring boards to toss stunt people into the air after an explosion, or using explosives to roll a vehicle at lower speeds to protect the driver. Sounds weird I know, but I will explain it later in the article.
Hal Needham is best known for his close friendship with Burnt Reynolds and writing & directing some of the best road movies of the late 70’s and early 80’s. Cult classic films like Smokey & the Bandit I and II, The Cannonball Run I and II, Hooper, and Stroker Ace. His career expands nearly 50 years working in 4500 TV episodes and 310 feature films.
His accomplishments in life did come at a cost, a total that came up to: 56 broken bones, knocked out teeth, a punctured lung, and a twice broken back. With a medical history like that it is hard to believe the Needham lived, let alone walk on his own two feet. He was as tough as he was friendly to anyone lucky enough to cross his path.
What makes him a Super Driver in my mind is that he kept reaching for higher goals in his career and never settled. He could have stayed working as a stuntman but he decided to become a writer, a screenwriter, film director, entrepreneur, record breaker, actor and stunt coordinator. Fun fact, Hal Needham was the first film director to show bloopers during the end credits of the film. Anyone who has seen The Cannonball Run can remember laughing at Burt Reynolds slapping Don DeLuise across the face while the credits were rolling.
The Stunt Man
Hal Needham was born in Memphis Tennessee on March 6th, 1931. Born into a rural family he started working at a young age and enjoyed being in the outdoors. A natural born athlete, he became U.S. Army paratrooper during the Korean War. His habit of smiling in the face of danger is what made him a favorite for doing stunt work in a variety of television shows during the 1950’s. Having small roles in popular Westerns like Have Gun Will Travel, Zorro, The Rifleman, and others well into the 1960’s. Working as a stunt double for Hollywood stars like Christopher George, Richard Boone, and Burt Reynolds.
All stunt photos provided by Hollywood Stuntmen.com
Necessity really is the mother of all invention, except maybe when it came time to invent the Snuggie. But when your job is to literally jump off a building that’s on fire, or fly through a saloon glass window, you start to think of ways to make your job easier, and safer. Part of Needham’s legacy in the stunt and film industry is through the ideas he brought to improve the safety of stunt people.
The Air Ramp
Ever seen a war film where an actor is thrown into the air after a grenade lands near them? The air ramp is like a mechanical spring board powerful enough to launch people into the air. Before this, actors had to stand very near an explosion and thrown themselves to create the effect. Needham came up with the idea of creating a device that could launch a stunt person into the air. The air ramp is still being used today.
The Nitrogen Ratchet
Most Michael Bay films will include a scene where an actor is thrown back either by a gunshot, an explosion, or a righteous roundhouse kick to the chest. A nitrogen ratchet is basically a device that pulls stunt people along with cables really fast.
The Car Cannon
How to you roll a car at a speed slow enough to keep the stunt driver alive? Use a car cannon. During the filming of John Wayne’s film McQ (1974) a car chase scene required a car to roll over on the beach. Needham came up with the idea of placing an explosive underneath a car could launch one side of the car up and cause it to roll over. How does one test out this idea? By actually doing it. The first time they tired this there wasn’t enough boom to fully roll the car. The second time they used too much and ended up launching the whole car into the air and crashing down on its roof…with Needham in the driver seat wearing just a seat-belt! This was the first time he broke his back and puncture a lung.
However, after figuring out the right about of boom powder to use the car cannon was invented and is commonly used to this day. Now the car cannon is a piston that is fired into the ground and jacks a vehicle into the air. Like the jacks on Speed Racer’s Mark 5.
The Air bag
Hal Needham was the first human to be hired to test out an air bag in a car. The gig required him to crash into a brick wall at 20 mph. He testified before congress on the safety of airbags. As someone who knows what’s like to get hit in the face by a rapidly inflating air bag I owe my life to the engineers who invented it and Mr. Needham for putting his life in the hands of their idea. I, and possibly millions around the world, probably wouldn’t be here right now if it wasn’t for them.
Cannonball Run, the Movie
There should be a book that lists all the great ideas that spawned from having drinks at a bar. The Cannonball Run, the Citizen Kane for speed freaks, is based on a true story. Hal Needham, Brock Yates, and friends, actually competed in the cross-country outlaw rally in a fake ambulance that could drag the needle on the speedo up all to way to 150 mph!
Before the race, Needham handed out notebooks to other racers asking them to write down the many adventures throughout the race. The writing material that would later be used to write the script for 1981’s The Cannonball Run. Brock Yates, who passed away this week, was inspired by Erwin G. “Cannonball” Baker, who was famous for setting coast-to-coast records. Yates organized the Cannonball Run in 1971 and actually won the first official race.
His race team included Formula 1 and LeMans winner Dan Gurney in a gorgeous blue Ferrari 365 GTB/4 Daytona. Just saying the name out loud sounds sensual. For those who maybe have not seen the movie, Brock Yates has a cameo in the film as the Cannonball Run’s organizer. He gives a great speech to the drivers at the start line.
“I’d like to welcome you all to an event that sometimes been called the automotive counterpart to the Bay of Pigs… You are certainly the most distinguished group of highway scofflaws and degenerates ever gathered together in one place, and we are gonna have a lot of fun…
Of course you know certain skeptics note that perhaps 10,000 of the nation’s most elite highway patrolmen are out there waiting for us after we start, but let’s stay positively: Think of the fact that there’s not one state in the 50 that has the death penalty for speeding… although I’m not so sure about Ohio.”
– Brock Yates
Hal Needham released an autobiography two years before his death in 2013. I actually own the book and I can tell you that it is worth every penny! Hal Needham’s “Stuntman! My Car-Crashing, Plane-Jumping, Bone-Breaking, Death-Defying Hollywood Life” is full of stories that will have you laughing, smiling, and saying “wow” out loud to yourself. Hal Needham really did live a full life.
A Godfather to Many
What I admire most about Hal Needham is that he was a hardworking, self-made man who did it all his own way without having to step on anybody’s toes. One may never know how many lives have been saved thanks to his inventions and dedication to everything he set his mind to.
When film critics gave a bad review to one of his movies he would take full page ads in newspapers quoting the review but with a photo of him sitting inside a wheelbarrow full of cash. Critics may have hated some of his films but car enthusiasts turned them into cult classics. In 2012, Hal Needham received a Governor’s Award by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, where he was introduced by Quentin Tarantino. He passed away at the age of 82.
I’ll end this tribute with one of his quotes which perfectly illustrates that he truly loved what he did for a living.
“Screw the dialog. Let’s wreck some cars. “
– Hal Needham
Read more from the Super Driver series here.