Pioneering Arkansas-born stuntman Hal Needham — current record holder for the world’s most awesome life — died on Friday. He was 82. I interviewed Hal in 2011, prior to his appearance at the Little Rock Film Festival and a screening of his film “Smokey and the Bandit.” Here’s his obit from the New York Times.
Born dirt poor in Arkansas, Needham parlayed a career as a tree-trimmer into a life as one of the world’s greatest stuntmen, doing work on a host of TV and film projects, including “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” “Little Big Man,” the original “Star Trek,” “Have Gun, Will Travel,” and dozens of others. A gig jumping a car onto a floating barge in 1973’s “White Lightning,” led to a lifelong friendship with Burt Reynolds. Needham went on to direct Reynolds in several fast-car comedies, including “Smokey and the Bandit,” “Cannonball Run” (which was based on Needham’s real-life experience in a cross-country, no-speed-limit race, driving a souped-up ambulance) and “Hooper.” He also served as a stunt coordinator on several other Reynolds efforts, including “The Longest Yard” and “The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing.” FUN FACT: Needham lived in Burt Reynolds’ pool house through a good bit of the 1970s, which was probably a pretty gatdamn fun decade to live in Burt Reynolds’ pool house.
In addition to his stunt and directing work, Needham was also an innovator, developing the high-fall airbag that allowed stuntmen to make higher and more spectacular leaps, and inventing a downward-firing cannon that could flip a moving car. Both are still used extensively in stunt work today. Needham was presented an Honorary Oscar in 2012 for his achievements in making stunts safer and more thrilling, with the award being introduced in a touching tribute by superfan Quentin Tarantino. He was one of only two stuntmen to ever receive an Oscar.
Though Needham was one of the world’s best in his field, he was surprisingly humble. That carried over into his professional life as well. When I asked him in 2011 if he believed there should be an Academy Award category for stuntwork or stunt coordinating, he gave it a vehement thumbs down, saying: “I’ve never been for it… 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.”
Hal did just that. Thanks for the memories, man.