Stuntman takes five-story fall to get across message about perils of drug abuse

June 22, 1995|By Christina Asquith | Christina Asquith,Sun Staff Writer

Michael Walter has been blown up, crushed, thrown off motorcycles and set on fire, all for a paycheck. But he has taken a dive off a five-story tower -- three times, in fact -- to make a point: Drugs and alcohol are bad for you.

The Bethesda native turned Hollywood stunt man filmed three public service announcements against drugs and alcohol abuse in suburban Maryland last spring. He took the arms-flailing five-story leap, intended to portray an alcohol- and drug-driven suicide, from an Anne Arundel County fire department training tower at headquarters in Millersville.

Yesterday, he talked about those announcements at a news conference with County Executive John G. Gary.

"I was talking to some young people, and I said, 'Are you impressed with the drunk driving commercials and public service announcements?' and they said 'No,' and I said 'Why?' and they said, 'Because they were a joke,' " Mr. Walter recounted.

"So I said; 'What would you think of a businessman jumping 50 or 60 feet?' "

Mr. Gary, who watched the filming of the spot, said he was "holding my breath" until Mr. Walter landed on an air bag.

The leap might have frightened Mr. Gary, but it was a short hop for Mr. Walter, who has done stunts for movies such as "The Pelican Brief" and "Serial Mom." He holds the world record for being on fire the longest -- 66 seconds.

Most recently, he was thrown into a foxhole during an explosive World War I scene for Bruce Willis' new movie, "Twelve Monkeys," part of which was filmed in Anne Arundel county.

In 1993, he was inducted into the Stuntman's Hall of Fame.

Mr. Walter, 40, was an Olympic boxing hopeful in May 1980 when he and a friend, drunk and taking drugs, were speeding down a California highway at 80 mph in the friend's car.

The car skidded off the road and crashed into a palm tree, throwing Mr. Walter through the windshield, breaking his jaw and five ribs and fracturing his skull.

The crash ended Mr. Walter's budding boxing career. When he recovered, he was introduced to a professional stuntman who trained him for his new career. But he never forgot the crash, or what caused it.

"I know first-hand how drugs can ruin relationships with families, friends and lovers and even take your life away," he said. "I've lost a lot of friends that way."

So 15 years later, Mr. Walter decided to put his talents to use to teach lessons about drugs and alcohol. Brushing off criticisms that Hollywood is too violent, Mr. Walter uses violence to catch the attention of young people and convince them to avoid drugs and alcohol.

"The human psyche likes confrontation of action," he said. "And because of my talent and expertise in this field, I can get that message across."

Mr. Walter's second announcement, against drunken driving, will involve crashing two cars. The county has donated use of the fire tower and ambulance and on-scene paramedics, but Mr. Walter said he may have to spend up to $12,000 of his own money to achieve the realistic effect he wants.

But it will be worth it, he promised.

"Would you be more impressed by seeing the message 'Don't drink and drive,' and you just see the illustration, or would you be more impressed by a high speed drunk driver who crashes and flips into the air?" he asked.

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