February 27, 1961 marks the date that two visionary Hollywood stuntmen were inspired with an idea to professionalize the Motion Picture Stunt Industry:
Gather all the top stuntmen of the era and band them together into a single organization of professionals where movie producers and directors can hire with confidence in the elite of the profession.
For the first time in Motion Picture history stunt performers could speak with a single voice, address their concerns, share ideas and push the envelope of what could be done and how those ideas might be accomplished. From those thoughts the Stuntmen’s Association of Motion Pictures and Television was formed and soon boasted a charter membership of the top fifty premier stuntmen and stunt coordinators.
Known in the industry as the “unsung heroes”, stuntmen have been around since the dawn of filmmaking. In the early days before talkies, young comedians such as Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and the action filled Keystone Cop movies utilized the talents of these gutsy Hollywood stuntmen. Those movies were filled with pratfalls, high dives, comedy car wrecks and mayhem that soon audiences around the world could not get enough of. Today, we are highly skilled, world-class athletes with technically sophisticated abilities, enabling us to work in the ever-advancing forms of movie and television production.
The need for stuntmen had been solidified even in the early years of filmmaking. The ranks were filled with top circus performers, rodeo cowboys, gymnasts and acrobats. As the movie going public tastes changed, these men and women easily adapted. When the era of the Western Movies became vogue, cowboy legends such as Tom Mix, Hoot Gibson, Ken Maynard, Gary Cooper, as well as a young cowpoke named John Wayne, soon dominated the nation’s screens. Instead of car gags, pratfalls and pie fights, the stuntmen were now slugging it out in thousands of salon brawls, performing saddle falls from trained horses, driving stagecoaches and battling it out as both Cowboys and Indians. Stuntmen were becoming a more integral part of a film’s drawing power. They were helping to fill the seats in theaters across the country with thrill seeking patrons (a trend that continues today), anxious to see the new Saturday matinees and pulse pounding Serials.
In 1958 came “Thunder Road,” a hard hitting, moonshine running, Robert Mitchum film and the era of the “car chase movie” sprang to life. A genre that remains healthy today with each chase sequence competing to out perform the ones filmed before. Now alongside the names of well known stuntmen like Yakima Canutt, Tom Steele, Harvey Parry, Dave Sharpe and others, came Carey Loftin, Dale Van Sickel, Bill Hickman, and motorcycle great, Bud Ekins. Many other talented stuntmen came to be added to that list. Higher, farther, and faster became the buzzwords of the day. Stuntmen, who were not daredevils, dove into those challenges to develop innovative ways to achieve and perform seemingly impossible feats in a safe and repeatable manner. The film archives from then to now stand as a testament to their success.
Stuntmen are a rare breed, one of a kind. We plan, prepare, and incorporate both the safety and the risk factors in all of our performances. Performing stunts often times can hurt (that will leave a mark!), but we strive to avoid injury. Sadly over the years some men and women have even given their lives in the performance of a stunt sequence, when the unforeseen happens. It takes tremendous dedication, training and years of experience to become an accepted professional, as our wellbeing and at times our very lives depend on each other.
Today, 62 years later, we salute all those who came before us and paved the way. The Stuntmen’s Association still flourishes with a roster of carefully selected professional stuntmen, all committed to achieving and enhancing the filmmaker’s creative vision with the highest degree of safety.
Lifetime Member and Stuntman, Jesse Wayne (who was there), was asked to tell us how it all began.
At a time when many but not all players worked two union cards, their “E” card or Extra’s card and their “A” card, their SAG card. One could work a few days on their “E”, then get bumped up the their “A” on a day they would do a stunt, then back to the “E” on the days following. The line between semi-pro and professional was blurred by this system.
Veteran Director Don Taylor was casually choreographing a saloon brawl in a cocktail lounge set of a Navel Base. You know how it goes . . . ok you hit him, and then you jump on that guy’s back then he gets hit and so on. He then suggested to a “2 card” guy sitting at the bar: you can get punched and fall backwards. The guy said: “you mean like this?” and flipped backwards, crashing into the back wall of the bar, demolishing four shelves with the glassware and bottles shattering on the floor. From the deafening crash to dead silence in a heartbeat, everyone was frozen in disbelief! Prop men and set dressers rushed in to start the long process of rebuilding the entire back wall. All involved soon discovered that the extra/stuntman in question had been sampling the beer on tap behind the bar, all morning long. Later that day, two top stuntmen, Loren Janes and Dick Geary discussed ways to establish an ethical code of conduct and professionalism with the need for unity for all the Hollywood stuntmen. The answer: the formation of a professional Stunt Organization, where everyone had to work straight “A” card, no more “E” card work. If you wanted to be recognized as a professional stuntman you would have to abide by this rule.
Loren and Dick called in Fred (Krunch) Krone and the nucleus of “The Stuntman’s Association of Motion Pictures was born. Bylaws were written that mirrored the Screen Actors Guild’s bylaws and corporation papers were filed with the Sate of California. A few months later the first general membership meeting was held in the James Cagney Room of the Screen Actors Guild on Sunset Blvd. The charter members in attendance voted Dale Van Sickel as President and Fred Krone as Secretary/Treasurer and 62 years later we are still following our dreams and working in the greatest industry in the world!