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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
    Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

    Why are we addicted to theme parks?

    Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement