By Terri Schlichenmeyer
A towel is not a cape. That’s a hard lesson you learned once, long ago, when you jumped off the roof with a rectangle of terry-cloth tied around your neck. Likewise, flapping your arms will not allow you to fly and walking into a wall doesn’t guarantee you’ll go through it.
Several cuts, scrapes, maybe a broken bone later and you learned, but there’ll always be a part of you that wishes you could have done cool tricks like in the movies. So read about a guy who lives the dream in “Stuntman! My Car-Crashing, Plane-Jumping, Bone-Breaking, Death-Defying Hollywood Life” by Hal Needham.
If you’re a movie buff, you know how much you hate fakey stunts. Not only does your brain scream, “That’s impossible!” but it ruins the film. Such was movie-going before Hal Needham began his career.
Needham was born in the hills of Arkansas, the son of a sharecropper. Life was hard: There was no running water in their two-room home, the family’s meals came out of the garden or the nearby woods, and they moved a lot. Still, Needham says, it was all he knew then.
When World War II began, Needham’s stepfather moved the family to St. Louis, where Needham learned to work hard. Though he was just 10 years old, he brought money into the household, to the detriment of his education.
By ninth grade, Needham had left school and started working with a tree-cutting service because the pay was good and he was unafraid of heights. When he was old enough, he joined the Army to fight in the Korean War and became a paratrooper. He also became a seamstress and a loan shark while in the service, and he met a man who was on his way to Hollywood.
That man hired Needham to jump from an airborne Cessna 150 airplane onto a galloping horse. And a stuntman was born.
Throughout his career, Needham worked with dozens of stars in dozens of movies, TV shows, commercials and promotional films. He founded the first stuntman group to include women and minorities. His creativity changed the way stunts were done and movies were made.
And he broke 56 bones and his back – twice.
You know how you like to watch a really good, action-packed movie? Well, reading “Stuntman!” is like that, only better.
Needham made his story as exciting as a stampede, as free-wheeling as a 10-story fall, and as funny as a Cannonball Run. He brags a bit (which he says stuntmen usually hate) and he drops names all over the place (something I usually hate), but it fits in this memoir, so I didn’t mind here. I thought reading “Stuntman!” was a very different, surprisingly revealing, wildly fun way to spend some free time, somewhat like sneaking off to a Saturday afternoon 99-cent matinee on a rainy day. The only difference is, the book lasts longer.
So take off your X-ray glasses and pass the popcorn. For movie buffs and daredevil wanna-be’s, scoring “Stuntman!” is a pretty cool trick.
Terri Schlichenmeyer has been reading since she was 3 years old and never goes anywhere without a book. She lives in West Salem, Wis., with two dogs and more than 9,500 books.