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 and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tvWhy BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Arts and Entertainment
Drake continues to tease ahead of the release of his new album
music
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars ceremony 2015 will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles
Oscars 2015A quiz to whet your appetite for tonight’s 87th Academy Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley, in Alien; critics have branded the naming of action movie network Movies4Men as “offensive” and “demographic box-ticking gone mad”.
TVNaming of action movie network Movies4Men sparks outrage
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
News
Kristen Stewart reacts after receiving the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award for her role in 'Sils Maria' at the 40th annual Cesar awards
people
News
A lost Sherlock Holmes story has been unearthed
arts + ents Walter Elliot, an 80-year-old historian, found it in his attic,
Arts and Entertainment
Margot Robbie rose to fame starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days

Arts and Entertainment
Right note: Sam Haywood with Simon Usborne page turning
musicSimon Usborne discovers it is under threat from the accursed iPad
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
    A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

    It's not easy being Green

    After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
    Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

    Gorillas nearly missed

    BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
    Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

    The Downton Abbey effect

    Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
    China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

    China's wild panda numbers on the up

    New census reveals 17% since 2003
    Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

    Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

    Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

    Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
    Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

    Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

    Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
    New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

    Dinner through the decades

    A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
    Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

    Philippa Perry interview

    The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

    Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

    Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
    Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

    Harry Kane interview

    The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
    The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?