Raised in Arkansas, Hal Needham is one of the great American stuntmen, as well as the director of screwball, fast-car classics like “Smokey and the Bandit” 1 and 2 and “Cannonball Run.” He’ll be in Little Rock for the Little Rock Film Festival, and will provide the introduction for a special outdoor showing of “Smokey and the Bandit” on Sunday, June 5, at the Riverfest Amphitheatre, sponsored by the LRFF and Movies in the Park. Needham recently chatted by phone with Arkansas Times reporter David Koon from his home in West Hollywood, Calif.
AT: You were born in Memphis, but grew up mostly in Arkansas?
NEEDHAM: I was born in Memphis, and moved to Arkansas when I was probably 3 or 4 years old. Then I left when I was probably 11 or 12 — somewhere in that neighborhood.
AT: Where did your family live in Arkansas? I don’t think it ever says in your book.
NEEDHAM: You got your pencil handy? I lived in El Dorado, I lived in Enwright, Georgetown, Oak Grove, Pangburn, Perkin and Sidon and West Helena. How’s that for covering the state? We were sharecroppers, so every year, we were moving to a new place to live. That’s why we moved around so much.
AT: What was it like moving around that much as a kid?
NEEDHAM: It wasn’t very much fun. We didn’t call a moving company to bring over a big van and a bunch of guys. We threw all our junk on a farm wagon with a team of mules, we hooked our cultivator behind because it had wheels, and tied the milk cow to that and away we went down the road.
When we’d move, as best I can remember, we’d leave late at night, maybe 1 o’clock in the morning, and it would take us all night and the next day to get where we were going. One time, as I remember, it was 10 or 11 at night, and we’re going down this muddy road and our team is so tired they can hardly pull the wagon, and we get stuck. So my stepdad goes back to a house that wasn’t very far back and asks the guy to pull us out. The guy said, “Well, I’ve got a team of mules back there, but they’ve never been hooked up. Let’s see what happens.” Can you imagine hooking a team of mules to a wagon that have never been worked? They were raring and jumping. I thought they were going to tear the wagon up, but they finally got us out, and we went on. It was not fun, the way I lived in Arkansas.
AT: From reading your book, it sounds like you were desperately poor, even by sharecropper standards.
NEEDHAM: We were bottom of the totem pole! We were always way back in the woods. All the towns I named you? We never lived in any of them. We were within 10 or 12 miles of them. So, yeah. We didn’t have running water. A couple of times we had a well out in the yard, but most of the time we had to go carry water from a spring or the river or some damn thing. No electricity, obviously, and the only heat we had was a fireplace and cookstove. We were poor. Really poor.
AT: The accounts of it you write are harrowing. I especially liked the story about your mother canning all those vegetables so your family could live through the winter.
NEEDHAM: The summertime was spent prepping for wintertime. She’d put up three or four thousand quarts in the summertime. We canned everything, including meat, because we had no refrigeration and it would go bad. She canned everything — vegetables out of the garden, we’d pick blackberries before we’d go to work. She’d be cooking breakfast and we’d go out picking blackberries and she’d can them that day.
That was really kind of neat. We didn’t have any sweets, but my mom would by enough sugar and things that she could make a blackberry pie. I’m telling ya, when she’d have that, the world was just rosy and nice.
AT: I wondered if growing up so poor had any bearing on what you ended up doing for a living?
NEEDHAM: You bet your ass it did. Because living poor — as I said in the book, I thought it was the norm! I thought everybody lived like that. When I moved to St. Louis I found out that wasn’t true at all. There was a whole world out there, and I wanted part of that. So I think that being poor really gave me the drive to go do and accomplish everything else. That’s what helped me.
AT: You ended up getting into tree-trimming, and that’s how you got into stunt work, because you had to get over your fear of heights.
NEEDHAM: I was a treetopper, and when I went in the military I was a paratrooper. I worked an aerial thrill show on the weekends. Heights didn’t bother me, so then I came to California and got in the picture business.
AT: I read the parts of your book where you were trying to break into the business. It sounded fairly hand-to-mouth even then.
NEEDHAM: The stunt business is kind of a closed business. A lot of it is father-and-son or father-and-daughter. There was a family called the Eppers, and hell there was about eight of them. Well, the old man was a big stuntman, and all his kids became stuntmen. But when you were like me, and you had no relatives and no help or anything it was tough skiddin’. You had to go out and politick, and if you got an opportunity, you really had to show your stuff and be good.
AT: I was reading in your book, and in the early days, being a stuntman was a really dangerous business. It’s always dangerous, I guess, but it was especially dangerous back then. When you started, you were jumping off buildings into piles of cardboard boxes and tree limbs and mattresses.
NEEDHAM: As you also read in there, there was a limit to how far you could fall into those boxes and boards and things. Forty-five to 50 feet was the top, and even that would knock the air out of you and you’d have to have somebody come over and pump a little air into you. I’ve had the air knocked out of me so many times doing high falls. Then, as you probably read, I ran across the air bag, and that solved it all.
AT: You were the guy who first brought the airbag to a movie set — a bag for stuntmen to do falls into.
NEEDHAM: That’s true. I found it on a college campus where I was speaking. They had pole vaulters going into it, and I went down and inquired to the (manufacturer). … How high could you vault into it, and he said: How high can you vault? I asked him, How high can you fall into it, and he said, That one, 25 feet. But we had a conversation, and he said he could build one I could fall a hundred feet into, so I told him to build it. He sent it to me and you could fall a hundred feet into it without any problem. I started directing about that time, but the young gun stuntmen started getting bigger bags and going higher, and today they go 300 feet. You couldn’t THROW me off a building 300 feet, you know?
AT: Even when you were in your prime?
NEEDHAM: I don’t know, man. I went 110 one time, and I thought I’d done a pretty bravadocio thing there. But 300? They’ve got big airbags, but still, just think about it: Look over the edge of 300 feet and think, “I’m going to land in an airbag?”
AT: What does hitting an airbag from 100 feet feel like?
NEEDHAM: You know what? It’s nothing. When you land, you force the air over to the sides of the bag, and the air just comes back and forms this big cushion under you. I swear, it was nothing. It would be like going into the boards at 10 feet or something. It was nothing.
AT: Another innovation you brought to the film set is the technique where you put a telephone pole and basically a cannon under a car and use that to flip the car. Your story about testing that for the first time — it’s funny in retrospect, I’m sure.
NEEDHAM: It was kind of dumb at the time. There were 10 of us out there, and we had eight years of education. Nobody was too smart, and we didn’t know that powder squared [its force]. I came home to test that thing, and was going to go back up to the movie in Seattle, Wash., and do the stunt. Well, obviously I didn’t go back to Washington and do the stunt because I was in the hospital. But I’ll tell ya, once we found how much to use, then it became pretty simple. Instead of putting in 14 ounces, you could put in two-and-a-half or three and turn the car over two or three times. It got to be the norm then to turn them over with a cannon.
AT: I guess somebody has got to be the first one to do it.
NEEDHAM: Absolutely! I think there’s some rumors out that they may give me an award this year for being creative and kind of leading the way. I brought a lot of things into the business that made it safer and more spectacular — made the stunts more believable, more spectacular and safer.
AT: Now, when you say “They may give you an award,” you’re talking about an Academy Award?
AT: That’s great.
NEEDHAM: It’s not a done deal yet, but they’re talking about it.
AT: I don’t want to get you in trouble with the Academy, but it always struck me a little strange that there is an Academy Award for virtually every aspect of filmmaking except stunts.
NEEDHAM: Yeah, and I don’t know exactly why. Myself, I’ve never been for it. For some reason, I think the actors and directors and different people would just as soon keep the word mum. My belief is, when a person goes in and pays his money to see a movie, and he sees his hero up there doing something spectacular, you don’t want him to stop and think: “I wonder if that’s the star, or if it’s a stuntman?” You want them to enjoy the movie. I think stuntmen should take their check and go on their way.
AT: For the movie business, that’s a surprisingly humble point of view. I thought everybody was trying to get a little credit in the movie business.
NEEDHAM: Well, yeah, they are — that’s true. But, to me — let’s go back to Arkansas — me, it was the money. Pay me, and I don’t give a damn about the credit.
AT: Well, let’s talk about “Smokey and the Bandit” a bit, because that’s why you’re coming to Little Rock and what most people know you for. First of all, just let me say that I’m a huge fan of “Smokey and the Bandit,” which was one of my favorite films as a kid. Is it surprising to you that it’s become a classic?
NEEDHAM: Absolutely. I had no idea that movie was going to be as big as it was — the fact that it’s 35 years old and still out there running with the big dogs. I was in total shock. Did you know the year it came out, the only film that outgrossed it was “Star Wars”? It was unbelievable. The word of mouth on that movie! It’s what they call it in Hollywood, “It had legs.” I’ve talked to people who have seen that movie 30 or 40 times!
AT: I’ve seen it a dozen times, I guarantee.
NEEDHAM: It’s amazing. I think it’s a real down-home folksy kind of movie, with Burt being the number one box-office star, and Jackie Gleason being a master of comedy, and the music with Jerry Reed — “East Bound and Down” — being number one on the Country/Western charts for 16 weeks. That all helped.
AT: Speaking of Burt, you lived in his guesthouse for over a decade?
NEEDHAM: 12 years.
AT: Between 1969 to the early ’80’s
NEEDHAM: Yeah, that’s about right.
AT: People hear “I lived in Burt Reynolds’ guest house all through the 1970’s,” and they think: It’s going to be like living at the Playboy Mansion. But the funniest thing was how domestic you made it all seem.
NEEDHAM: You know, I didn’t see Burt very much at the house. He was seeing Dinah Shore and later Sally Field. I’d didn’t see them that much. I’d pull in my own entrance to the guest house, get out and go to my place. I saw him more on the set, by far, than I did at the house. Regardless of what people think, it wasn’t girls running through there six at a time. We were just a couple of bachelors, just hanging out.
AT: One of the most touching scenes in the book for me is when you bring in $25,000 in loose cash and give it to Burt, and he rolls around in it on his bed. By that time, the guy is a millionaire several times over, surely.
NEEDHAM: Sure. But I think maybe you missed the point. See, when you have money, you have a business manager, and they give you a bunch of credit cards, and they give you $400 or $500 in your pocket and send you out. You never see a lot of cash. Your checks go right to the business manager and you never see them, and at the end of the month you get a report from them on how much you made. So I took that $25,000 in a briefcase, and I took all the wrappers off of the money so it would float. I dumped that thing out on the bed, and it looked like a jillion dollars. It must have looked like that to him too, because when I left he was in there throwing it in the air and playing with it.
AT: People usually become friends because they have something in common. What was it that drew you and Burt together?
NEEDHAM: I think it was our personalities. I like to think I’m a pretty decent person, and I knew Burt was. We had the same interest, and that was making movies. I think Burt got to the point — as you also read in the book — I kind of saved his ass a couple of times. He depended on me to watch out for him, and we were friends. We enjoyed each others’ company.
AT: Do you still talk to him on a regular basis?
NEEDHAM: No, I haven’t talked to him in awhile. He lives down in Florida, and I think I talked to him a few months ago, but not too often.
AT: He’s one of my favorite actors, from “Deliverance,” all the way through to “Boogie Nights,” which he got the Academy Award nomination for. Have you seen “Boogie Nights” by the way?
NEEDHAM: Oh, yeah.
AT: He does a great job in that movie.
NEEDHAM: Yeah, but I thought “Deliverance” was more, performance-wise. But what the hell, I don’t give out Academy Awards, so they don’t care what I think.
AT: Let’s get back to “Smokey and the Bandit.” Why do you think that movie worked so well for people?
NEEDHAM: First of all, Burt has that loveable sense about him. People just like him. He can be a little cute. He can just look at something and you know he’s enjoying himself. I think everybody has got a little bit of that hell-raising in them. Even though [the film is about] something illegal, it’s still kind of funny. I think Buford T. Justice — Jackie Gleason — anybody running from him, that’s got to be funny in and of itself. It had great music, with Jerry Reed singing the title song. It was just a great movie.
AT: Great story, great car and a dog. How can you go wrong?
NEEDHAM: Yeah. And that car is so popular. There’s a group down in Texas, and they’re called The Bandit Run. They’ve got 130 members, and they’ve all got Trans Ams. They’ve got a replica of that big truck that Jerry drove, and the sheriff’s car. They make the Bandit run. They used to make it from Texarkana to Atlanta like I did in the movie, but now they go all over the country. Next year, I think they’re up in Minneapolis and they’ll head down toward Georgia. That Trans Am has really become — I don’t know the word to describe it, but it’s become something everybody wants.
AT: An icon?
NEEDHAM: That a good word.
AT: I heard somewhere that you didn’t originally envision The Bandit as driving a Pontiac Trans Am. That was a bit of early product placement, you said, right?
NEEDHAM: Kinda. When I found out I was going to do the movie, I saw a picture of that Trans Am, and it was (photographed) kind of up front of it and above the car? And I saw that big golden bird on the front and the T-tops and I thought it looked wonderful. So I thought: That’s what I’m going to do. So I contacted Pontiac. It just looked like a hell of a good car to me. I think when you’re talking about promotional products, that went on when I did “Stroker Ace” and shows like that. I promoted a lot of stuff.
AT: You know, I watched “Smokey and the Bandit” on Netflix last night, and it was the first time in a long time that I’ve watched it uncut. It’s a lot funnier when you watch it uncut because you get all those great Jackie Gleason lines where he’s calling his son a Tick Turd and things like that.
NEEDHAM: Oh, sure.
AT: I don’t want to get too philosophical about it, but it seems to me there’s a theme in that movie — one you see in a lot of Westerns — about the outlaw who is being made obsolete by technology. There’s a scene early on where Burt and Jerry Reed are discussing the run to Texarkana, and Jerry mentions that it’s going to be a lot harder because the police have CB radios in their cars now. Did any of that come to mind while you were making that movie?
NEEDHAM: No. I had a CB in my truck and I knew all the jargon. It just seemed like a good way for them to communicate. I’ll tell you, at that time, when that came out, that’s when CBs were at their top. Everybody had one. You could be going down the highway, and there’d be any kind of an old shitbox car, and there’d be a CB antenna on that thing.
AT: So it kind of captured a moment in history, I guess?
NEEDHAM: It did. It absolutely did. Even the people who didn’t own a CB, they used all the sayings like “10-4” and “Over good buddy” and things like that. It caught on and became a language of its own.
AT: Hollywood eventually gets around to re-making everything. I don’t necessarily agree with that, but could you ever see “Smokey and the Bandit” being re-made?
NEEDHAM: You know, we made a second one (“Smokey and the Bandit 2”) where they hauled the elephant, which I wasn’t too happy with. I wanted to go to Boston and get the clam chowder (Ed.: That’s the double-or-nothing bet Big and Little Enos make with the Bandit at the end of the first film). But anyway, I’m not a big fan of remakes, and I really can’t see it being redone again. You don’t have Burt Reynolds. You don’t have Jackie Gleason. You don’t have Jerry Reed. You don’t have the people that made the movie.
AT: The story about how Jackie Gleason got involved in the film is kind of poignant too. You talk about going over and drinking with Jackie, and he didn’t mention the movie once and just wanted a drinking buddy.
NEEDHAM: He just wanted somebody to have a toddy with. He didn’t care. I went over there with the anticipation of: I’m a stuntman, not a director, and I go over there to talk to the master of all comedy actors. I’m thinking, “What the hell is he going to ask me?” It never came up. All we talked about was The Honeymooners and more drinks.
AT: And you said Jackie Gleason ad-libbed 80 percent of his lines in the film?
NEEDHAM: Like I said in the book, when I sent him the script, he said “What makes you think I would do this movie?” I said, “I wrote it, and I’m going to direct it, and nothing is etched in stone.” Believe me: He took me at my word. But again, who am I to argue with him? He’d come up and say, “Hey, Pally, I’ve got a goodie for you here.” And I’d say: “What is it, and where do you think I ought to put the camera?” He was really wonderful.
AT: And he apparently never learned your real name, right?
NEEDHAM: No. It was either “Pally” or “Mr. Director.” “Mr. Director” when he was pissed off, and “Pally” when everything was A-OK.
AT: Also — and I’ve always wanted to ask somebody about this — with “Smokey and the Bandit 3,” Burt wasn’t in it, and you didn’t direct it. Why was that?
NEEDHAM: Did you see it?
AT: A long time ago.
NEEDHAM: Well, when I read it — first of all, I was a little perturbed that I didn’t get to go to Boston and get the clam chowder for (“Smokey and the Bandit”) 2, and the third one just didn’t make any sense and I didn’t want to do it. Burt made a cameo in it, but it just had no shot — no shot of being good.
AT: Seemed to me at the time like they were just trying to milk a little more of the magic out of the first one.
NEEDHAM: You’ve got it.
AT: You’ve directed a lot of other films — the second “Smokey and the Bandit,” and you did “Cannonball Run.”
NEEDHAM: I did two “Cannonball Runs,” and I did “Hooper.” I did “Stroker Ace,” and “Rad” and “The Villain.” I did 10 all told.
AT: Reading the book, what shocked me most was that “Cannonball Run” was based on your actual experience racing in the Cannonball Rally.
NEEDHAM: I met Brock Yates at an auto race. He used to be an announcer for CBS, and I met him at a NASCAR race, and we got to talking. He was telling me the story of how he created the real Cannonball Run race, and I said: “That would make a hell of a movie. Why don’t you and I run it, we’ll write a script and I’ll get it financed, and we’ll make a movie.” And that’s exactly what happened.
AT: And you ran the race in an ambulance, just like in the movie.
NEEDHAM: It was the same ambulance I used in the movie.
AT: The one in the movie was built for you to run in the actual race?
NEEDHAM: Absolutely. I had that ambulance put together. Took a van, jerked out the engine and put a big 440 wedge in it and a big automatic transmission in it. It was powerful. It would run 150 miles an hour. We put some red lights on it and hit the road. We had a blast doing that run.
AT: I’ll bet.
NEEDHAM: The story about the cop stopping us in Pennsylvania? Absolutely true. We put that in the movie almost word for word. Burt Reynolds and Dom DeLuise are a hell of a lot more funny than Brock Yates and I were talking to the highway patrol.
AT: Basically, for those who haven’t read the book yet or heard about it, you had a woman in the back of the ambulance pretending to be a patient with a lung condition that you said wouldn’t allow her to fly, and you told any cops who stopped you that you were taking her to a hospital in California.
NEEDHAM: That’s right. That was our plan. That was what we were going to tell the cops, which we did. By the way, that was Brock Yates’ wife, Pam, who was in the back end, and also I had a doctor friend of mine from UCLA and he rode with us. He was the doctor in the van. We were prepared. Our thinking was: If we got stopped, which we thought there was a good chance, if they see a patient in the back — we had her on a gurney with needles taped to her arm like she was being fed intravenously — if they stopped us and took us to jail for some strange reason, and something happened to that patient, they’d be in trouble. Intimidation was our whole theory when we started that trip, and it worked!
AT: In retrospect, do you like directing or being in front of the camera more?
NEEDHAM: You know, I didn’t break one bone saying, “cut, print” or “move the camera over here.” Not one. So I think I’ll go with the directing part.
AT: It’s a lot cushier job.
AT: You directed a lot of films. What was your favorite to work on?
AT: It’s a favorite of mine, too. I wish they had it on Netflix. The end of “Hooper” [with Burt Reynolds and Jan Michael Vincent playing a stuntman team tasked by an arrogant director with driving a Trans Am through a town being spectacularly destroyed by an earthquake, before jumping a river using a rocket boost] is kind of the ultimate stunt scene.
NEEDHAM: It was a story about a stuntman, and Warner Brothers told me and Burt to do whatever we wanted. Damned if I didn’t do it. I put everything I could think of in there. I had a lot of fun doing it, and it did good business. It didn’t do “Smokey,” business, but it did do good business, and it was my favorite movie only because of what it was about.
AT: And I guess you got to work with lots of your old friends from the stunt business.
NEEDHAM: Oh, yeah.
AT: Like I said, “Hooper” isn’t on Netflix, but I was watching that last scene on Youtube, and the part where that smokestack almost fell on the car — was that planned to be that close?
NEEDHAM: We had three smokestacks. I was only going to shoot one of them, but I told the guys who rigged them, “I want you to rig these, and I’m going to time how long it takes between when you set it off until it hits the ground,” so we could get an idea of how far back we should put that car when we dropped the smokestack right behind them. It was pretty damn close, I’m gonna tell ya something. It was a half-second, a second. It was close.
AT: It was real close. I slowed it down while I was watching it, and it’s a hair.
NEEDHAM: Today, they’d have to do that with CGI.
AT: I heard another interview you did, and your feelings about CGI.
NEEDHAM: I hate it.
AT: Just for the record, what does it take away from a movie when it’s got a CGI “stunt” instead of a real stunt?
NEEDHAM: As I’ve said a hundred times, when they start doing all that kind of stuff, I just leave. It’s like giving an award to a stuntman for doing a great stunt — I don’t believe in that, and I don’t believe in CGI for the same reason: They make me lose interest in the movie.
AT: Does it take away some of the excitement of the scene to know that somebody didn’t risk their life to do it?
NEEDHAM: Well, it just looks phony to me. I see a guy do something that’s physically impossible to do, and they want you to believe he did it? It loses all the reality to me. No, it’s not a matter of a man out there risking his life. Stuntmen, I would imagine, say get rid of CGI, we’ll do it all and be happy to do it. It’s not that, it’s just the fact that doesn’t work for me.
AT: I wonder, given that you’ve led such an exciting life, what do you do for excitement now that you’re retired?
NEEDHAM: (laughing) You gotta remember that I’m 80 years old! I go down to the gym every day that I don’t play golf. That’s really about it. Obviously in the last five or six months I’ve been on a book tour and things like that. And I do some painting. I’m not a great painter, but I do some stuff just to keep me occupied. I’ve got a setup out on my balcony.
AT: I guess you’ve had enough excitement in your life for two lifetimes.
NEEDHAM: (laughing) I’ve had enough. I don’t want to do anything to hurt myself anymore.