Bud Ekins

Motorcyclist and stuntman


James Ekins (Bud Ekins): motorcyclist and stuntman: born Los Angeles 11 May 1930; married 1951 Betty Towne (died 1996; two daughters); died Los Angeles, 6 October 2007.

When Steve McQueen tried to outrun the Nazis with a 65-foot motorcycle jump in The Great Escape (1963) the studio let it be assumed that the famously macho actor did it himself. But though McQueen liked to do as much of his own riding as possible, for insurance purposes this was one jump too far and it was actually Bud Ekins in the saddle. Nevertheless McQueen publicly acknowledged Ekins, who reciprocated by crediting him with the idea for what was allegedly the first $1,000 stunt.

Ekins became a kind of stunt alter-ego for McQueen, working on The Cincinnati Kid (1965) and The Towering Inferno (1974), while in Bullitt (1968) he bounced a Mustang over the San Francisco hills before crashing a motorbike into it (this time driven by McQueen himself).

The son of a mechanic, Ekins was a rebellious teenager, and spent time in reform school after joyriding in a stolen car. Later, working at his father's welding shop, he filled his spare time with off-road motorcycling around his Hollywood Hills home. This led to a successful career, first in endurance races and later scrambling and Motocross. He also started collecting bikes, a hobby which he would eventually turn into a lucrative business. At its peak, his collection ran to around 150 bikes and at his death he had 54, mostly pre-First World War, American machines.

Through the late 1940s and 1950s Ekins's racing career took off and he won medals around the world, specialising in, and eventually dominating, desert-racing. Ekins move into cinema began indirectly when he bought a bike shop, which became an actors' hang-out where he taught Warren Beatty, Steve McQueen and others to ride. McQueen became a good friend and when Ekins captained the 1964 International Six-Day Trials US team, he and Ekins's brother Dave were also on the team. Unsurprisingly, when McQueen went to Germany to shoot The Great Escape, he invited Ekins to help plan and execute some of the motorcycle stunt-work. Ironically, Ekins's most famous stunt was his first, and he only ever did it once.

It led to a career as a stunt driver and occasional actor though initially his stunt work often went uncredited. An early assignment was the last of Frankie Avalon's beach-party films, How to Stuff a Wild Bikini (1965), and in successive years from 1968 he worked on Speedway (Elvis as a stock-car driver with a tax bill), Hell's Angel '69 (bikers rob a casino), the hippie-biker revenge-drama Angel Unchained (1970) and the Vietnam-vet/biker revenge-drama Chrome and Hot Leather (1971), though none reached the silliness of The Thing with Two Heads (1972), in which a bizarre transplant gives a black man a second head – that of a white bigot.

But there were also high-profile projects including the Bond movie Diamonds are Forever (1971) and, in 1974, The Towering Inferno and Earthquake, while more serious fare included the cult existential road-movie Electra Glide in Blue (1973) and William Friedkin's 1977 remake of the classic The Wages of Fear (Le salaire de la peur, 1953). The story of a group of desperate men transporting unstable nitroglycerine along rough jungle tracks in an ancient truck remains overshadowed by the original and was probably hampered by the new title, Sorcerer. In 1979 came Fast Charlie... the Moonbeam Rider, about a vintage motorcycle race across America, that seemed a natural project for Ekins but, sadly, it sank.

After working with John Landis and John Belushi on Animal House (1978), Ekins organised the automobile carnage of The Blues Brothers (1980), and Belushi also appeared in 1941 (1979), Steven Spielberg's comedy-disaster movie, which flopped, despite the impressive set-piece stunts.

Ekins's TV work includes Then Came Bronson (1969-70) about a motorcyclist's road-trip attempt to come to terms with a friend's suicide, and the 1970s motorcycle cop show CHiPs.

Ekins was always safety-conscious and sustained remarkably few injuries for someone in his line of work: one stunt that he turned down proved fatal for his replacement. Just before his 70th birthday, and after 30-odd years of stunts he retired to his shop, though it was more of a hobby than a business, and was inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 1999.

John Riley

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