Hal Needham, Stuntman and Director of Action Films, Dies at 82
Universal Studio, via Getty Images
By RAVI SOMAIYA
Published: October 26, 2013
The death was confirmed by his manager, Laura Lizer, who said he had recently learned he had cancer.
During the course of his career, Mr. Needham said in a speech at the Academy Awards in 2012, he broke 56 bones, including his back twice. He punctured a lung, had a shoulder replaced and knocked out several teeth. He invented several new stunt methods and devices — among them the introduction of air bags for breaking falls, prompted by watching pole-vaulters — as “a way to save myself some trips to the hospital,” he said.
“Hal Needham was a great stunt coordinator, director, and an icon,” Arnold Schwarzenegger wrote on Twitter on Friday. “I’m still grateful he took a chance with me in ‘The Villain,’ ” he said, of the 1979 film that Mr. Needham directed. “I’ll miss him.”
Mr. Needham was born in 1931 and, as he told it at the Academy Awards in 2012, raised “way back in the hills of Arkansas during the Great Depression.” His father was a sharecropper. As a boy, Mr. Needham fished and hunted squirrels with a rifle. He later moved with his family to St. Louis.
After his discharge in the 1950s from the United States Army as a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division, he began a career that spanned hundreds of movies and television shows across five decades.
In a 2011 interview on the NPR program “Fresh Air,” Mr. Needham said he moved to Southern California after being discharged and went back to pruning trees, what he had done before entering the service. He broke his ankle and, after he recuperated, a fellow former paratrooper got him a stunt job on a television show. His next assignment involved aerial stunts, some upside down, on “The Spirit of St. Louis,” which starred James Stewart.
At first he appeared primarily in television and movie westerns, including “Gunsmoke”and “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” leaping to and from galloping horses. On one occasion, he said later, he landed so hard on the roof of a stagecoach that he crashed through it. Mr. Needham was also involved in stunt work on “Little Big Man” and“Chinatown,” and he coordinated the stunts for “Have Gun — Will Travel,” starring Richard Boone.
In the 1970s, Mr. Needham turned his attention to car stunts, he said in the NPR interview in 2011, and collaborated often with Mr. Reynolds, whom he had met when they both worked in television. “Smokey and the Bandit” was Mr. Needham’s directorial debut in 1977. He went on to direct 19 other movies.
He won a scientific and engineering Oscar in 1986 for the development of a camera car. Later he was given a governor’s award by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. “You’re looking at the luckiest man alive,” Mr. Needham said in his acceptance speech.
His memoir, “Stuntman,” was published in 2011.
Mr. Needham is survived by his wife, Ellyn; two sons, Danny and David; seven grandchildren; and 14 great-grandchildren.