For many kids, and indeed adults, action and adventure movies provide an escape to a world of heightened tension, adventure and power. Almost every child has looked at the likes of Indiana Jones, James Bond or, more recently, Jason Bourne and dreamt of a life as a swashbuckling action hero. While age and cynicism eventually make most of us realise it’s unlikely that archaeologists actually live like Dr. Jones, or even that undercover agents are all as suave as the likes of Bond and Bourne, the one person who does get to maintain this adrenaline-filled lifestyle is, in fact, the stunt performer. For those who make the over-the-top explosions and acrobatics of action movies come true, life remains as fantastic as the childhood fantasy.
It may surprise you to learn that in spite of the key role these individuals play in the movie industry, the compensation for their daredevil activities remains relatively low and the stunt person job market is an extremely competitive one. With CGI special effects now so advanced and relatively cheap, stunt performers are becoming less of a commodity. The Screen Actors Guild- the union for all working in Hollywood- stipulates that the daily minimum pay for a stunt double or coordinator is $859. Not bad at all, but nowhere near the scale of salary raked in by most others key performers on the set. Fame, too, for the vast majority of stunt performers will remain forever elusive; many action actors increasingly opt to perform their own stunts, or remaining apparently reluctant to acknowledge the role of the stunt man in feature films. There are, however, a few in the midst of this courageous crowd who stand out as performers. As you’ll see from our list, the top stunt performers are few and far between and, more often than not, remain anonymous in the industry. And, yet, these performers deserves some very real acknowledgement; in spite of great precaution being taken on set, disaster can still strike and stunt men take very real risks as part of their job. In honour of these brave souls then, here are the top five biggest stunt performers of all time. We’ve ranked them according to how many roles they’ve undertaken, and the high profile of the films they’ve played in: But further suggestions are always welcome, in the quest to acknowledge these real-life action heroes!
5. Rick Sylvester – Bond
Rick Sylvester may not have had the most prolific of careers in the stunt world, but his performances have been widely watched the world over. Sylvester appears in several Bond movies, most famously doubling for Roger Moore in “The Spy Who Loved Me.” While Moore may not exactly be known as an action hero in the Bond world, Sylvester’s stunts are still legendary. In a downhill ski chase, ‘Bond’ i.e. Sylvester jumped from the El Capitan cliff face in Yosemite National Park, deploying a parachute to survive the landing. In 1977, when the movie was shot, this was the most expensive stunt ever performed – costing the studio $500,000 to capture. Sylvester, for his part, received a comparatively modest figure for his troubles, netting a mere $30,000 for the jump. He later doubled again for Roger Moore in the subsequent Bond flick, “For Your Eyes Only.” Although he retired from the stunt world not long after, Sylvester remained a keen skier and daredevil: Apparently he likes his pace of life shaken, not stirred…
4. Enos “Yakima” Canutt – Ben Hur
Enos “Yakima” Canutt may not strike you as a familiar name in the world of showbiz and cinema, but that’s most likely because he was around long before your time. In the golden days of Hollywood, the forties and fifties, Canutt was the go-to stuntman. His prolific career began in the very early days of cinema in the 1920s and he worked right up until the mid-seventies, performing and choreographing movie stunts. He doubled for high profile stars such as John Wayne and Clarke Gable in “Gone with the Wind.” His most memorable stunt sequence, however, is one in which he does not star: in the 1959 epic “Ben Hur”, Canutt masterminded the dramatic and gruesome chariot scene which sees the hero cling on for dear life as he wrestles his way to the finish line. Canutt coordinated and directed the scene, putting his son Joe in the hot seat as a double for the film’s star Charlton Heston. His reckless, adrenaline-filled career seemed to do little damage to Canutt however, who lived to the ripe old age of 90, when he passed away in 1986.
3. Michelle Yeoh – Bond Girl
As the only woman on our list, Michelle Yeoh deserves credit on many levels. The Malaysian-born actress is of course praised the world over for her multi-lingual acting skills, but in this case it’s her daredevil stunts that bring her credit. As a Hong-Kong based actress, Yeoh has had the opportunity to work with the legendary Jackie Chan, and is allegedly the only woman Chan ever allowed to perform her own stunts. In spite of what this may reveal about Chan, this is particularly remarkable as Yeoh herself never trained as a martial artist or stunt double! Her background is in – believe it or not- ballet. As a child Yeoh studied dance, eventually moving London to pursue a career as a ballerina. A couple of Asian beauty pageants later and Yeoh found scripts appearing on her doorstep. While many in the English-speaking world may best remember Yeoh for her stunts as James Bond’s leading lady in “Tomorrow Never Dies,” Yeoh’s most daring stunts were of course with Jackie Chan. In the 1992 movie “Supercop”, Yeoh performs some serious stunt work on a motorcycle – which is all the more impressive when you realise that she had just learnt how to ride a motorcycle two weeks previously! Outside of martial arts, Yeoh is an accomplished actor, appearing in the Oscar-winning “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon,” as well as portraying the Burmese political activist Aung San Suu Kyi in “The Lady.”
2. Hal Needham – Burt Reynolds’ Double
If Michelle Yeoh was an actor who became a stunt performer, then Hal Needham is one of those rarer things; a stunt performer who became an actor. So committed to the craft of stunt activity was Needham that he broke 56 bones in the line of duty, including his back- twice! With a career spanning many decades, Needham is best known for doubling for Hollywood actor Burt Reynolds, who he befriended and convinced him to hire as his double. The move paid off, with Needham allegedly becoming the highest paid stunt double of his time. The veteran daredevil often said his career brought him success but that he knew he likely never expected to achieve critical acclaim. But in 2012, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded him an Honorary Oscar for his services to the industry in 2012. As well as appearing and coordinating stunts for classic films as “Blazing Saddles” and Roman Polanksi’s timeless “Chinatown” Needham also became a director in his own right, directing his pal Reynolds in “Smokey and the Bandit” which raked in $126 million at the box office in 1977. Needham died last year at the age of 82.
1. Dar Robinson – Highest Paid Stunt Double
Our number one spot goes to by far the world’s most famous stunt man – one whose life was tragically cut short in the line of duty. Dar Robinson first appeared on the stunt scene as a double for the iconic action actor, Steve McQueen, in the prison escape movie, “Papillon”. From there, Robinson went on to perform daring stunts for all of Hollywood’s top actors including Christopher Plummer and Burt Reynolds, with the Guinness Book of Records ranking him as the highest paid stuntman ever – making an incredible $100,000 per stunt. He was best known for his death defying jumps and drop offs in action movies. His most memorable stunt was a 900 foot free fall jump from Toronto’s Canadian National Tower, with wires catching Robinson 200 feet from the ground. In addition to the fees Robinson earned as a performer, he could command a serious wage as a stunt coordinator. Robinson’s untimely death, however, also reminds us that while the life of a stuntman may appear sensational and glamorous, the risks are very real. In 1986, while shooting a motorcycle stunt sequence for the movie “Million Dollar Industry,” Robinson lost control of the motorcycle when he approached a bend during a high-speed chase scene, and died a short time later. He was just 39 years old.
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