Obituary: Gil Perkins

GIL PERKINS was the stuntman's stuntman. Other people, some even before him, had perpetrated fantastic physical exploits, others had achieved the harder task of simulating them. Now, when digital imaging threatens to make the whole business obsolete, it is worth commemorating one man whose aim was to take the risk out of danger, to make it a science, not a chancy game.

Perkins was born in Queensland in 1907, and, although most of his long life was spent in California, he never caught the accent; he passed for English, but his intonation, rather than accent, remained Australian. He went from school to Malvern Technical School, where his father hoped he would become an engineer. But he had always wanted to act, starting with children's parts in pantomime.

At the age of 18, he signed on as a deck-hand on a Norwegian freighter and spent four months wandering round the Pacific. In 1927 he arrived in California with a friend who started a garage business, but he always had his eye on the movies. It was not easy to get in, even then, as he remembered:

I was 20 and well set-up. I'd been a champion athlete in Australia and a trackman. I was also a very determined young man. I would go around to studios and talk to casting directors. If I couldn't get any satisfaction from them, I'd go around to the back of Paramount and jump over the barbed wire.

In 1928 he got his first part, in The Divine Lady, directed by Frank Lloyd, and the following year he was Sergeant Cox in Journey's End. But it was also in 1929 that his real career took off, when he doubled for Rod La Rocque in The Delightful Rogue for RKO. He made a good match for Bill Boyd in all the Hopalong Cassidy films, and at various times did duty for Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, Randolph Scott, Kirk Douglas, Red Skelton often ("With a red hairpiece on, I looked quite a bit like Red - in his hairpiece"), Danny Kaye and Gene Hackman. He was in King Kong (1933), Captains Courageous (1937) and, with Errol Flynn, in the famous The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938): "No pies in that one," he recalled, custard pies being a staple of the stuntman's lot. He was also in Mrs Miniver (1942), Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Walking Tall (1973), but he was rarely out of a job until well on into his seventies.

In the early days there was no education for being a stuntman. It all had to be done by trial and error - error that could be fatal if you were not lucky, and, more than lucky, careful. Perkins believed in care: he had learned to ride as a child, and

I learned how to fall and tumble at school on the football field. We used to dive out of the willow trees, 20, 30, 40 feet and even higher, into the river. I learned how to control my body as a diver.

This sense of the limits to which the body could be stretched was his guide in what he did and, later, asked others to do: "If you're not 99.44 per cent sure you can do it successfully without hurting yourself, don't do it."

Two standard stunt nightmares were motorcycles and aeroplanes. Of the first, he felt "you have too much power floating between your legs to control". He very nearly lost his life this way in one of his earliest films. He had a sequence involving a lightning descent down a dirt trail, skidding through the hairpin bends. Careful as always, he did it three times before the scene was shot, but, when it was, he hit a soft patch on the edge of a bend and fell 30 feet to the bend below with the bike on top of him:

Turned out the director had seen me practising and thought it looked too easy, so he had the screen-hands soften up the earth. He could have killed me - I could have killed him.

As to planes, there was too much that was unpredictable. I remember his describing how you jumped from one plane to another (was he the first to do that stunt of stunts?); it involved a fine wire joining the two, invisible to the camera, but, "This type of thing is too damn risky." In point of fact, his nearest disasters all came in train sequences, jumping from car to car.

Fights were another matter:

We don't do them on the scale we used to. Two of the greatest fights I ever saw, and I was in both of them, were in Dodge City in 1938 and Seven Sinners a year or two later at Universal. On both occasions, we tore the place apart. And we did a pretty good job in The Great Race at Warner's with Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon. We completely destroyed a saloon. Only the roof remained, with a post to hold it up.

The structures we destroyed were

made of real wood except, where you had contact, it was balsa wood. And the glass was plastic. It used to be made of candy, but candy under the lights would just melt.

Perkins was an expert swordsman, too, early learning that all moves had to be exaggerated: "If you do what fencers actually do, the viewer would never see anything."

From Whistling in the Dark (1941), his first film with Red Skelton, he worked as a stunt co- ordinator. Planning the action appealed to his professionalism, and in later life he sometimes tackled it on a grand scale, rehearsing and laying out a beach landing in a war movie with 500 marines and 500 Japanese, almost all of whom got killed - "I showed them what I wanted, like how to fall off cliffs with machine guns." He admired directors who worked the same way, like Hitchcock and Stevens, who would "prepare a picture, shoot it, and then sit in on the cutting". He was largely responsible for setting up in 1961 the Stuntmen's Association of Motion Pictures, as a "fraternal association within the industry", not as a trade union, but as a way for the older and experienced to pass their knowledge on, so that the younger members could be protected from unnecessary risks.

All this and more would come out over Sunday lunches at the Beverly Hills Tennis Club. He thoroughly enjoyed reminiscing about his long life, which he did without a trace of boasting or self-aggrandisement. He thought the technicalities of his job were fascinating and, the way he told them, they were. He was, in this as everything else, quite unselfconscious. "At my age," and he was quite old then, "when somebody asks my daughter, `What does your father do?' she has to say, `He falls on his head, of course.' Doesn't sound very dignified." But he was, naturally, and it made him a great man as well as a great stuntman.

Gilbert Vincent Perkins, stuntman: born Melbourne, Victoria 24 August 1907; married 1939 Lucille Benzecry (died 1992; one daughter); died Woodland Hills, California 28 March 1999.

Arts & Entertainment
TV

Arts & Entertainment
Customers browse through Vinyl Junkies record shop in Berwick Street, Soho, London
music

Arts & Entertainment
Who laughs lass: Jenny Collier on stage
ComedyCollier was once told there were "too many women" on bill
Arts & Entertainment
Ian Anderson, the leader of British rock band Jethro Tull, (right) and British guitar player Martin Barre (left) perform on stage
music

VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
film

Arts & Entertainment
Don (John Hamm) and Megan (Jessica Paré) Draper are going their separate ways in the final series of ‘Mad Men’
tvReview: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Arts & Entertainment
James Franco and Chris O'Dowd in Of Mice and Men on Broadway
theatre

Review: Of Mice and Men

Arts & Entertainment
art

By opportunistic local hoping to exhibit the work

Arts & Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio will star in an adaptation of Michael Punke's thriller 'The Revenant'
film

Fans will be hoping the role finally wins him an Oscar

Arts & Entertainment
Cody and Paul Walker pictured in 2003.
film

Arts & Entertainment
Down to earth: Fern Britton presents 'The Big Allotment Challenge'
TV

Arts & Entertainment
The London Mozart Players is the longest-running chamber orchestra in the UK
musicThreatened orchestra plays on, managed by its own members
Arts & Entertainment
Seeing red: James Dean with Sal Mineo in 'Rebel without a Cause'
film

Arts & Entertainment
TV
Arts & Entertainment
Heads up: Andy Scott's The Kelpies in Falkirk
art

What do gigantic horse heads tell us about Falkirk?

Arts & Entertainment
artGraffiti legend posts picture of work – but no one knows where it is
Arts & Entertainment
A close-up of Tom of Finland's new Finnish stamp
art

Finnish Postal Service praises the 'self irony and humour' of the drawings

Arts & Entertainment
Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in 2002's Die Another Day
film

The actor has confessed to his own insecurities

Life & Style
Green fingers: a plot in East London
TV

Allotments are the focus of a new reality show

Arts & Entertainment
Myleene Klass attends the Olivier awards 2014

Oliviers 2014Theatre stars arrive at Britain's most prestigious theatre awards
Arts & Entertainment
Stars of The Book of Mormon by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park

Oliviers 2014Blockbuster picked up Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical
Arts & Entertainment
Lesley Manville with her Olivier for Best Actress for her role in 'Ghosts'

Oliviers 2014Actress thanked director Richard Eyre for a stunning production
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

    Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
    Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

    British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

    The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
    Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

    Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

    Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
    Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
    Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

    Cannes Film Festival

    Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
    The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

    The concept album makes surprise top ten return

    Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
    Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

    Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

    Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
    10 best baking books

    10 best baking books

    Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
    Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

    Jury still out on Pellegrini

    Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

    As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
    Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

    Mad Men returns for a final fling

    The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

    Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit