Stuntman-turned-movie director Hal Needham has died, at the age of 82. Needham broke into TV and movies in the late 1950s, doing stunt work in such films as Pork Chop Hill, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, How The West Was Won, Donovan’s Reef, Major Dundee, In Harm’s Way, The War Lord, Hells Angels On Wheels, Little Big Man, and many others. His big break, in terms of steady work, came in 1957, when he was hired as Richard Boone’s stunt double on the Western TV series Have Gun—Will Travel, where he also served as stunt coordinator.
Needham fell off horses, propelled himself onto the roofs of moving stagecoaches, got into fistfights, and did car and motorcycle stunts. For 1973’s White Lightning, one of the first movies he made with his frequent collaborator Burt Reynolds, he launched a speeding car from land onto a floating barge. And he quickly became one of the most in-demand and, by his own proud reckoning, the “highest-paid stuntman in the world.” Needham credited his quick rise to the fact that “I’m not a specialist… I went up the ladder so fast because I could do it all.”
Also by his reckoning, Needham broke a total of 56 bones doing stunt work, once breaking his back, cracking six ribs, and puncturing a lung doing a single stunt involving a car rigged to turn over on the 1974 John Wayne movie McQ. Recalling the experience in an interview with Terry Gross, to promote his 2011 memoir Stuntman!, Needham said, “The next thing I knew I was upside down, backwards, going backwards across a desert floor about 30 feet in the air and I said, ‘Boy, there’s going to be some kind of wreck here any moment.’ And there was.”
In the 1970s, Needham served as stunt coordinator on several movies, including the Burt Reynolds films The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing, The Longest Yard, W.W. And The Dixie Dancekings, Nickelodeon, The End, and the White Lightning sequel Gator. It was Reynolds’ participation that made it possible for Needham to make his directing debut in 1977 with Smokey And The Bandit, an extended comic car chase of a movie that cost $4 million to make and grossed $300 million, certifying Reynolds as the king of “good ol’ boy” cinema.
Reynolds and Needham re-teamed for Hooper (1978), a celebration of the stunt man’s art; Smokey And The Bandit II (1980); and The Cannonball Run (1982). That marked the end of their winning streak. Needham’s dream project, 1982’s Megaforce, was an expensive box-office disaster, and the 1983 race-car comedy Stroker Ace developed an overnight reputation as the movie that officially turned Reynolds into a punchline, a debacle from which his stardom never fully recovered. The two didn’t work together again after the 1984 Cannonball Run sequel, and Needham largely hung up his spurs as a director. In the mid-’90s, he did make a series of “Bandit” TV movies, with Brian Bloom in the rascally truck-driver role.
Needham’s greatest behind-the-scenes legacy may be the innovations he devised to make stunt work both more spectacular and safer. He introduced air bags to film sets after seeing them used at track meets, and was the first director to use a rocket-powered car, on the set of Hooper. He was on record as not being a fan of CGI.
Needham was given a prize for Lifetime Achievement at the 2001 World Stunt Awards, and was presented with an Honorary Academy Award last year.