Hal Needham: Film director who started out performing stunts and went on to make 'Smokey and the Bandit' and 'Cannonball Run'

 

After thousands of film and television stunts in which he developed innovative techniques and technology, Hal Needham became Hollywood's highest-paid stuntman, commanding $25,000 a time. He also directed his own screenplay for the comedy-action film Smokey and the Bandit. It was one the highest-grossing films of 1977, beginning a franchise that saw two cinematic sequels and number of television movies.

Needham was born in Memphis, but his sharecropper family moved around. He didn't see a film until he was about 10 years old – and quit ninth grade to become a tree surgeon. From 1951-54 he was a paratrooper in the Korean War, after which he tried to make it as a stuntman. On the way, he worked as a billboard advertising model.

Television westerns, thrillers and detective series offered a wealth of opportunity, and Needham's breakthrough came as Richard Boone's stunt double on the popular Have Gun – Will Travel. In his second stunt on the show he was asked to jump 30ft from a rock on to a moving stagecoach, without protection. He did exactly that – but broke through the roof. "That kind of shocked the folks inside the coach," he recalled.

In 1962 Needham worked on the epic film How the West Was Won and John Ford's morally ambiguous The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. The following year saw him in McLintock!, a Western inspired by The Taming of the Shrew. As the Vietnam War dragged on, several films clearly referenced it with a jaundiced eye, one being the revisionist western Little Big Man, in which Needham had to leap three times between two galloping horses 14ft apart. It was potentially fatal – and with 13 takes over two days, it was the toughest physical stunt he ever did. In another stunt on the film, one of his horses tripped in a gopher hole and had to be put down.

But westerns were waning in popularity and Needham shifted from horses to cars in films such as Blake Edwards' The Great Race (1965). He also graduated to overseeing others' stunts as well as occasional second unit directing, initially on White Lightning (1973), in which he jumped a car from a riverbank on to a moving barge 75ft away, only just making it as the barge moved further away. "The back wheels were in the water," he recalled. "I was out of that car in about two and a half seconds." He then collapsed from the shock.

Needham's most important connection was with Burt Reynolds, whom he had met on the series Riverboat in 1959. Reynolds enjoyed doing many of his own stunts while allowing Needham to stay on the payroll. This led to a lifelong friendship and working relationship, and co-ownership of the NASCAR Skoal Bandits motor-racing team.

Needham had written a booze-smuggling comedy-chase script, but there was no great interest until Reynolds came on board, though all his friends had advised against it. Reynolds' faith was proved right, and Smokey and the Bandit became one of the top grossing films of 1977, launching a series of sequels and shifted Needham's career into directing and producing.

Most of his 20 directorial outings – including Smokey and the Bandit 2 (1980) and, inspired by his participation in the famous cross-country car race, Cannonball Run and its sequels (1981 and 1984) – followed a similar template, though there was also Hooper (1978), with Reynolds as an aging stuntman, and Stunts Unlimited (1980), a ludicrous film about stuntmen retrieving a stolen laser gun.

After divorcing, Needham spent 12 years living a determinedly bachelor life in Reynolds' guest house, to the extent that the star began to avoid his own pool: "I was always afraid I'd find three waitresses." But in 1981 Needham announced that he was moving out to marry Dani Janssen, widow of the Fugitive star David Janssen. Reynolds said that she was the first girl Needham ever dated with an IQ over 70, and he was Needham's best man at a star-studded western-themed wedding held in the "All Faith Community Church" – a set on the Universal lot where Gunsmoke had been shot. Needham had rejected the idea of sky-diving in as, he said, "I'm getting married, not putting on a show."

Needham developed several ideas to create more spectacular stunts and improve safety which became standard to the industry. He was instrumental in introducing airbags, allowing him to do a 100ft jump and to direct even higher ones for other stuntmen. For battle scenes, an air-compressed metal plate flung the stuntman far further than he could leap under his own power.

For McQ (1974), he put rockets under a car to make it flip, though an experiment left him with a broken back and six ribs, a punctured lung and three lost teeth. From 1969 on he wore a hearing aid after an explosion went off too early in the wartime film The Bridge at Remagen.

As well as his stunt work, Needham developed a car to try to break the world land-speed record and the sound barrier, but the claim that his fellow stuntman Stan Barrett achieved it by clocking around 740mph was not officially recognised.

He wrote an autobiography, Stuntman! My Car-Crashing, Plane-Jumping, Bone-Breaking, Death-Defying Hollywood Life. He was under no illusion that he was creating art, saying, "I'll never win an Academy Award, but I'll be a rich son-of-a-bitch." In fact, he was awarded an honorary Oscar in 2012.

Hal Brett Needham, stuntman and film director: born Memphis, Tennessee 6 March 1931; married 1960 Arlene Wheeler (divorced 1977; two adopted children), 1981 Dani Janssen (divorced 1987); 1996 Ellyn Wynne Williams; died 25 October 2013.

Sport
premier leagueLive: All the latest news and scores from today's matches
News
politics
News
newsMcKamey Manor says 'there is no escape until the tour is completed'
News
The clocks go forward an hour at 1am on Sunday 30 March
news
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Sport
Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi during Barcelona training in August
footballPete Jenson co-ghost wrote Suarez’s autobiography and reveals how desperate he's been to return
Money
Welcome to tinsel town: retailers such as Selfridges will be Santa's little helpers this Christmas, working hard to persuade shoppers to stock up on gifts
news
Arts and Entertainment
Soul singer Sam Smith cleared up at the Mobo awards this week
newsSam Smith’s Mobo triumph is just the latest example of a trend
News
Laurence Easeman and Russell Brand
people
Sport
Fans of Dulwich Hamlet FC at their ground Champion Hill
footballFans are rejecting the £2,000 season tickets, officious stewarding, and airline-stadium sponsorship
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Maths Teacher

£110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for spe...

Business Analyst - Surrey - Permanent - Up to £50k DOE

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***ASP.NET Developer - Cheshire - £35k - Permanent***

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***Solutions Architect*** - Brighton - £40k - Permanent

£35000 - £40000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Day In a Page

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker