George Leech: Stuntman and actor best known for his work on the Bond films franchise
Monday 06 August 2012
The resourceful stunt arranger and performer George Leech epitomised the phrase "unsung hero of the film business".
Alongside the usual falls and fights of his trade, Leech walked along the arm of the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio di Janeiro, fell from a cable car, and swam with sharks. He was particularly noted for his work on the James Bond franchise, which began with its inception in Dr No; he demonstrated remarkable durability and, in a minor way, established a dynasty of screen stunting.
Stern-visaged, with receding hair and slender in build compared to most stuntmen, Leech was among a generation who parlayed their military experiences during the Second World War into film action sequences, through an agency known as HEP (Howard, Evans and Powell). Another was Bob Simmons, stunt arranger for the Bond films.
George Leech was born in north London in 1921; his father worked in the London docks, and George was a small, pale child. To build him up, George's father and uncle gave him boxing lessons and he was soon a regular at a St Pancras boxing club. He won the ABA National Championships when he was 15 (at six and a half stone). After leaving school at 14, he joined the Navy in 1943 and won four fights as a welterweight. In 1946 he got his first job in the film industry, in Carol Reed's Odd Man Out (1947); his first stunt involved rolling down a flight of stone steps in place of James Mason.
When flim work was not forthcoming, Leech performed in the then popular "open-air aqua shows", once appearing with Johnny Weismuller at the Earls Court Aqua Show.
Leech was among a team of British stuntmen provided by HEP for Helen of Troy (1955), made in Rome by the Italian division of Warner Brothers, with the pioneering Hollywood stuntman Yakima Canutt as second-unit director. When rehearsing one stunt jump of around 15 feet, Leech landed badly due to a gap between two mattresses, and broke his foot. An Italian first-aid man promptly realigned his foot to its correct place and bound it tightly; despite being in bandages, he was soon back at work, on Port Afrique (1956), starring Pier Angeli.
His earliest work for television was Teddy Gang (1956), an hour-long drama about rebellious youth made for Lew Grade's company ITC, by the producer Harry Alan Towers, who used Leech again on two minor film thrillers, Coast of Skeletons and Mozambique (both 1964). Again for ITC, Leech lurked in the background in a rollneck jumper and dark glasses, only emerging to take part in punch-ups, in Man in a Suitcase and The Prisoner (both 1967).
After The Guns of Navarone (1961), Leech was recruited as Simmons' assistant for Dr No (1962), in which he also doubled Sean Connery in a pool fight, and he continued in that position for the next four films. His onscreen appearances included taking a fall from a Fort Knox balcony in Goldfinger (1964), and a minor, nautical henchman in Thunderball (1965).
When Simmons was unavailable, Leech was his ideal replacement as stunt arranger for On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969), personally selecting a dozen stuntmen for the film. He later likened this task to "being in charge of a gang of unruly schoolboys." The production office once rang him to complain: "Please control your men. One is climbing the Eiger, another is skiing across a table while hotel guests are having breakfast and [George] Lazenby is shooting at animals on the Alps with a pistol and driving the insurance people and producers mad." To which Leech replied, "You can't keep a gang of virile men sitting on their arses waiting."
One of Leech's OHMSS stuntmen was Vic Armstrong, with whom he had previously worked on You Only Live Twice (1967). Armstrong would become one of the film world's most respected stuntmen, particularly for his work for Steven Spielberg; he also became Leech's son-in-law, marrying his daughter Wendy, who had successfully followed her father into the stunting profession. All three worked on Superman (1978), and later two granddaughters, Nina and Georgie, entered the family trade.
Simmons returned for Diamonds Are Forever (1971) and Leech remained on hand, doubling for the campy assassin Putter Smith as he was set on fire at the climax. He also contributed to The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) and For Your Eyes Only (1981), as a Greek heavy; neither The Wild Geese (1978) nor North Sea Hijack (1979) were Bonds, but both starred Roger Moore.
Leech took charge of stunts for Philip Martin's Gangsters (BBC, 1975) a Play For Today that led to a series. He was also a beekeeper accidentally assaulted with a spiked mace by Peter Sellers in The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976). One of his last credits as stunt arranger was in Ireland, on The Fantasist (1986), part of the sparse filmography of Robin Hardy, director of The Wicker Man.
Leech recalled the experience of working alongside genuine, hungry, sharks during Thunderball on an ITV documentary, 30 Years of James Bond (1992). In retirement he kept fit – even at the beginning of 2012 he was still jogging – and was a guest at Bond-themed conventions.
George Daniel Leech, stunt arranger and performer: born London 6 December 1921; married 1952 Elizabeth Mary Hopkins (two daughters); died Cardiff 17 June 2012.
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