Even since the days of silent movies, audiences have had respect for a guy who could accomplish feats that most people would never even try. Two great stars of the silent era, Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton were athletic and ready for live action. In a time when digital effects were a daydream, each of them was doing stunts on camera that seemed incredible and actually ,they were.
Later, things got less real as film editors learned how to cut the film and splice it to create some very impressive stunts. People like Douglas Fairbanks could ride on a magic carpet or defeat a dozen of the Sultan’s best men.
Olympic swimmer, Johnny Weissmuller could swing with the monkeys or turn the elephants around with one ” Ungawa”! Cowboy stuntmen jumped from one horse to another on a runaway stage coach !
What we didn’t know was that the Tarzan who dove off the cliffs in Acapulco was actually a stunt man named Angel Garcia. The person we thought was John Wayne was really an iconic stuntman and rodeo star named Yakima Canutt. Although stunt men and women have been an integral part of movie making since the beginning, most of them have toiled in obscurity and without honors like an Academy Award.
As the craft of film making became more sophisticated , it became part of the PR department’s job to promote the stars as being the real deal, but sometimes the danger of an accident or miscalculation can be costly.. The most memorable Hercules, Steve Reeves, ended his career with a chariot crash that ruined his shoulder.
Brandon Lee, son of Kung Fu legend Bruce Lee, was killed on set by a gunshot from a handgun supposedly loaded with blanks. Veteran actor Vic Morrow was decapitated by a helicopter blade in the big screen remake of the “Twilight Zone”.
There are still a few action heroes known for doing their own stunts like Jackie Chan, Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, and Tom Cruise, but their numbers are dwindling. Some of the most enthusiastic performers are held back and discouraged by their agents and insurance companies.
In today’s movies, with the fantastic digital effects demonstrated in Avatar and Lord of the Rings, the careers of stunt people have been pushed into a zone of uncertainty. When technology has completely replaced the need to put life and limb at stake , it will be the end of an era. Sadly, most of the audience will not know the difference.