Hal Needham: Stuntman!

Hal Needham: Stuntman!

If the exclamation point doesn’t set the tone enough, the subtitle should seal the deal for Hal Needham’s Stuntman! My Car-Crashing, Plane-Jumping, Bone-Breaking, Death-Defying Hollywood Life. Anyone expecting an introspective, sober recounting of the highs and lows of rising to prominence in the movie industry is going to walk away disappointed. Needham, world-class stuntman and director of Smokey And The Bandit, The Cannonball Run, and Megaforce, has never been much for introspection. His autobiography is a slam-bang, whiz-pow, golly-gee ride from one crazy anecdote to the next; there’s barely enough time for other people, let alone anything approaching a coherent arc. As a kid, Needham is poor but awesome. Then he gets older and jumps onto horses and remains awesome. The awesome continues as he does stunts for John Wayne, meets Burt Reynolds, and works his way into the director’s chair. Presumably, Needham delivered the manuscript for his magnum opus in a car that broke the sound barrier before flipping 50 times, then turning into a totally rad horse.

Soul-searching is off the menu, but the book features plenty of fairly well-founded braggadocio. Needham isn’t much for dates or strict chronology, but Stuntman! roughly follows the course of his life to date, and once the preliminaries are out of the way (loving-but-strict mother, scoundrel-but-loving stepfather, learning the value of hard work), it’s an endless stream of ass-whupping action setpieces. Needham has more than enough experience to back up his seemingly boundless sense of self-worth, and for a while, it’s easy to get swept up in the ride. Needham’s experiences on TV shows and movies fly by without much context, but the rhythm makes for an initially fun read. It’s like having a beer with the coolest guy in the bar.

But then one beer becomes 20, and it’s impossible not to wonder what’s so cool about hanging out alone in a bar past 1 a.m., anyway? Needham is strong-willed and firmly set in his ways, and around the time he starts directing, the anecdotes become less charming and more smarmy, although he shows no awareness that the good times may have gotten a bit much. There’s no need to apply a moral here, though. Stuntman! is a silly, enthusiastic book that will help pass an hour or two for fans and the curious alike. That fun gets more than a little desperate by the end, but coming from the man who gave us Cannonball Run II, that’s really no surprise.

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