Hollywood's aging stuntmen dust off the old days

February 11, 1992|By John Johnson | John Johnson,Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES -- The silver-haired man who looks a little like Spencer Tracy bends over the table to get some mental leverage as he hauls up a cobwebbed memory about how they shot the movie "Jesse James."

When someone asks: "Who were the stars?" John "Bear" Hudkins waves off the question. They were Henry Fonda and Tyrone Power, but that is not important.

What is important is the stuntmen. Hudkins was just a novice when the film was made and Cliff Lyons and Yakima Canutt, two of the all-time greats at falling off buildings and being dragged by horses, decided to teach him a lesson.

During a crucial bank robbery scene, they tied their horses on either side of his, effectively keeping him from getting to his animal for the getaway. Then they warned him: "Don't hold us up, kid."

When the scene was shot, however, Hudkins raced out of the bank first, bounded over the inside horse and onto his own, then rode off hellbent for leather.

"Don't hold me up, boys!" he calls out now, mimicking the way he shouted it all those years ago.

Laughter erupts among the other gray-haired stuntmen gathered over coffee in a corner of Charles' Restaurant in the Studio City district.

What the Algonquin Hotel was to an elite group of New York authors, Charles' Restaurant is for these men-of-a-thousand-falls. On many mornings, up to a score of them can be found slamming back coffee, swapping stories, comparing old wounds and wondering what became of old whatshisname.

Some are still active, while others are looking for their first big break. But the acknowledged lords of this domain are a handful of all-but-retired old-timers who wear their crowns crustily, trading verbal jabs that land a lot more often than the punches they threw in the old shoot-'em-ups.

Hudkins, 73, did stunts for Tracy and George C. Scott, as well as the Jonathan Winters fight scene that wrecked the filling station in "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World."

Al Wyatt, 75, doubled for Gary Cooper, Randolph Scott and other tall heroes of steely gaze and incorruptible spirit. He never suffered serious injury. "All I ever did was lose a lot of skin," he said.

Joe Brooks, 68, had a brief career facing the cameras as the lookout who could not see on the 1960s Western sitcom "F Troop." Ten years after the show was canceled, he came down with a disease that has nearly robbed him of his eyesight.

"I must have overacted," he joked.

Other customers look on with curiosity as the waitress fusses over these men and their banter begins.

Wyatt, Hudkins and Brooks got into the business in the 1930s and '40s, before sophisticated safety equipment. Instead of air bags -- big pillowy sacks that break the falls of stuntmen today -- they used cardboard boxes.

"I broke my back on 'Fort Apache,'" Bear said. "I was doing a drag and the horse stepped in a hole, fell on top of me and drove me into the ground."

Doctors fused his spine and he went back to work.

Hudkins does not brag, but there is one stunt that he never heard of anyone else doing: a dive from a galloping horse through a window of a stagecoach.

He had the window widened to make the jump easier, but the director filmed the wrong side of the coach. So Hudkins had to go through the small window anyway, with horse and coach "flying through the sagebrush."

Heads nod appreciatively around the room. Though danger is always present in their job, there have been few deaths over the years. So few that they still chew over the 1965 death of one of their colleagues in a wagon rollover for "The Hallelujah Trail."

"It was almost like he wanted to commit suicide," said Wyatt. "We ran the movie frame by frame. He rose up once but did not get off."

"He was eaten up with cancer," said Hudkins.

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