Obituary: Gil Perkins

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
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.