Buddy Van Horn: My life as Clint Eastwood’s stuntman
As the body behind the stunts of five-time Oscar winner Clint Eastwood until well into his sixties, Laura Davis talks to 81 year-old Buddy Van Horn about what it was like to work for the western legend throughout his expansive career
Growing up opposite Universal Studios in Southern California, Buddy was always privy to the movie scene, but he never expected to end up in the business. Due to his upbringing, he never needed any official training to take on the role of stuntman: “I grew up with horses, at a time with period pictures and westerns and I was a trained horseman so I already knew that end of it coming in. We had to erect wagons and things, but I had other professionals that helped me learn.”
Any training he did acquire was along the way, and although he grew up around horses and carts, there were still surprises when working with them: “I think more people were hurt and injured around livestock and wagons than the modern day automobiles! Wagons and horses are very unpredictable at times.”
When asked about what injuries he has suffered along the way, the former stuntman is guarded: “Someone once asked me that and I told them I fell out of an aeroplane and the parachute didn’t open. I died.”
It appears to be his reticence to come across as bragging about how dangerous his career has been at points, merely pointing out that he’s had a few bumps along the way. He does share that the longest time he’s been in hospital was for about 5 or 6 months.
In an occupation where risk is part of the job description, he describes the importance of knowing your limits: “A lot of guys - because they want the job - they get themselves in trouble. They’re wanting their paycheck and they’re overstepping their ability to do what they’re about to do. It doesn’t happen all the time but it does happen.”
In some instances he’s seen some friends risk their lives for stunts, and sadly not been lucky enough to survive them.
With tighter regulations on health and safety rules, Buddy has noticed how things have improved greatly along the years, however. “There’s always the element of risk involved but you try to take as much of that out as possible.”
As Clint Eastwood’s long-time stunt double, he describes how the actor often wanted to perform his own stunts: “There’s been a couple of times that he’s wanted to do something and I talked him out of it. He’s a pretty physical guy and likes to do his own stunts. Some of the things he does were pretty easy to get banged up. I’ve tried to talk him out of it sometimes, but not very successfully most of the time. He went 'n' did ‘em anyway, several of ‘em. He’s been banged up a few times.”
Having worked alongside Eastwood for practically the entirety of his career, he’s exceptionally grateful for everything he’s done for him along the way:
“It’s a dream job. I wake up sometimes and I can’t wait to get to work when I’m working with him. He makes things so easy for ya. We’re not a social group or anything like that, it’s always professional. We’re good friends but we don’t socialise. He has his special friends and I have mine. It’s easy. He’s Mr Easy. He makes things easy and uncomplicated on the films I worked on and that I directed. He said “Oh don’t worry Buddy just go ahead and do it. If we have to do it again don’t worry we’ll just do it.” He takes all the pressure off you and that goes for coordinating action or anything you’ve done for him. He’s not worried about success, but he’s done well.”
“I think a lot of the actors like to do certain things to a point you can let ‘em do it safely - that’s fine - but I think there’s a line there you better draw as the company that they’re with has a lot of money invested in them too and you don’t want to shut the company down. There have been times when I’ve tried to talk people out of doing things, most of the time I’m successful. The times with Clint when he got a few bumps and bruises I didn't think he needed.”
Buddy was responsible for the stunt coordination on 'Million Dollar Baby', which won four Oscars in 2005 “That was terrific. I’m so happy for Clint’s success he’s to me such an unassuming kind of a guy, I don’t know if he realises how good he really is.”
Although stunts aren’t officially recognised by the Academy Awards, there have been proposals to introduce an Oscar for Best Stunt Coordination in 1999 and in 2005, but they were rejected both times. This makes it apparent that for some stunt doubles, it might be difficult to allow others to accept the praise for their work: “I think some guys want recognition and I’ve never felt that way. I really got in it just to make a living and I think the audience are sophisticated enough to know they do use a double now and then, but why broadcast it around? Awards and things - I’m just not one to think about wanting anything like that.”
Buddy was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Taurus World Stunt Awards Foundation in 2002, but was reluctant to attend: “I wasn’t gonna do it! Then I found out they wanted to know why and said well who’s making the money off of this? And they said we give a big chunk of this money to injured stuntmen. So I said sure ok I’ll go do it then. If it was just to go out and publicise their product or anything like that then no. But sure I felt honoured. It’s nice. I’m old stuff now though.”
Eastwood also chose Van Horn to direct 'Any Which Way You Can' (1980), 'The Dead Pool' (1988), and 'Pink Cadillac' (1989), so he’s experienced behind the camera as well as in front of it. He feels that the increasing use of CGI can take the realism out of films: “They’re doing more and more of it all the time, so I like to see real people doing real stunts. Course I'm retired now so I don’t have to worry about hitting the ground. The older you get, the harder the ground gets.”
Consequently there has been a need to make stunts more dangerous and exciting along the way: “The kids today are better prepared and the equipment’s better. Some of the things they do is really living on the edge. Some of the stunts they do today are wild. It’s a bad time for stunt people now I think I’ve seen the best of it.”
As films and video games are often seen as responsible for influencing bad behaviour in children, I asked Buddy whether any blame should lie with the creators:“I don’t get into that. There’s a lot of that stuff I don’t get involved in. I’d make sure that I watched what they were looking at first in case it was too violent, I don’t think I’d let 'em. Sometimes people blame them, I’ve seen it happen and you hear about it happening now and then but parents have to take some responsibility. Parents can be at fault letting their kids do some dumb things that they shouldn’t be doing. A lot of time you see the disclaimer 'Don’t try this at home' – there are a lot of no-brainers out there. Some people do some dumb things. I call those people daredevils I don’t call ‘em stuntmen.”
Buddy worked with Clint Eastwood for over half a century and collaborated with him in over 20 of the films that appear in his new boxset 'Clint Eastwood: 35 Films 35 Years'. Other big screen features Buddy coordinated the stunts for include 'Mystic River', 'The Changeling' and Oscar winner 'Gran Torino'. Having performed stunts until he was into his 60s, Buddy finally felt that at 80 it was probably time to retire: “I’m just I’m enjoying my time off. If Clint said hey you wanna come and do something, I would do it - I wouldn’t do it for anyone else.”
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