Hal Needham was never a household name, something about which he did not care. He passed away last week at the age of 82. He was (by his account) the highest paid stuntman of all time and the director of a slew of memorable Burt Reynolds movies from the ‘70s and ‘80s, including Smokey And The Bandit, a film that, if you grew up in the South, rivaled the popularity of Star Wars. He ushered in a lighter touch to American pop movie culture, but he probably mostly cared about the checks in his mailbox.
Had Needham never sat behind a movie camera, we would still be talking about him in his passing, as he was the most famous stuntman of his age, back in the days before CGI. Stunts could be faked back then of course—the car plunging into the ravine and exploding? It’s a good chance there was no one driving it—but Needham was in the business of not faking it. As a stuntman (and later a stunt coordinator) he broke over fifty bones (his own) and saw at least one of his crew and his favorite horse die in accidents while appearing in such TV shows as “Have Gun Will Travel” and “Gunsmoke” and films from Rio Lobo to Camelot to Blazing Saddles to Our Man Flint. If you needed someone to crash a car or fall off a horse in your moving picture, Needham was the man to call. Perhaps his best (and craziest and most dangerous) gag (in the parlance) was the horse jump from Little Big Man—that’s him in redface—jumping from back to back on a train of horses at full gallop, with no safety harness or hidden wires, no back-up plan other than “don’t fall off.” Needham was what we would now call “uninsurable.”
Needham’s stuntman accomplishments were not only the many ways he managed not to die. He was also an innovator in stunt design and technology. He is credited with introducing the inflatable bag to absorb the impact of stunt falls, and in 1986 he shared a Scientific and Engineering Award from the Academy for developing a camera car with a working crane. (He also received a lifetime achievement Oscar last year.)
It’s impossible to talk about Hal Needham without talking about Burt Reynolds. They had worked on TV shows together in the 60s (Needham was Reynolds’ stunt double on “Gunsmoke”) and became friends. As Needham began to transition to life behind the camera, as a second unit director, it was on Reynolds vehicles—White Lightning in 1973 and The Longest Yard in 1974. And while they were tied professionally, they were famous friends, with Needham living for years in the guest house of Reynolds’ Florida estate.
Then came Smokey And The Bandit. By 1977, serious American cinema was in full swing and the blockbuster pop film was on the rise: at the 49th Oscars, Rocky beat out Network and Taxi Driver for Best Picture, and the following year, Annie Hall beat Star Wars. Needless to say, Smokey was nothing like either of these genres. Burt Reynolds was already a box office presence by the time, but with Smokey, as directed by Needham, the Burt persona became American iconography. Needham, as a director, was the chronicler of the Burt persona. Not just with the movies, including all the Smokey sequels and Hooper and the Cannonball Run films, with their car chases and sight gags and bar fights, but also with the outtake reels that ran over the credits, yet another element of the film industry introduced by Needham. Bloopers existed, of course, but if you stuck around for the credits of a Needham film, you’d see footage of the casts muffing lines and monkeying around and generally looking like they were having the most fun in the world. It was a clique, and above it all was Burt, smirking. If you were tapped to join, you could not resist, and the blooper reels were the proof. Dom DeLuise corpsing, the cornpone charm of Jerry Reed, the pixie-ish Sally Field, the happy-to-be-there Terry Bradshaw, the obviously intoxicated Dean Martin—all as stage-managed by Needham, the guy who got things done.
Needham will never be remembered for directing good movies. The first Smokey is not all that bad and that’s about the extent of it. But he brought fun back into the motion pictures. His films were a party, and everyone was invited. He probably boozed it up a little much, and I doubt you’d want him dating your sister, but when he directed movies they reeked of cheer. Probably the best bad movie he ever directed was The Villain, which starred Kirk Douglas (as The Villain) and introduced Arnold Schwarzenegger to the world as a dopey, musclebound hero (named Handsome Stranger). It was basically a live action Warner Bros. cartoon, and it would not have been a shock to see a cameo from Wile E. Coyote. Needham’s idea of entertainment was cartoons IRL.
In 2009 he was interviewed by Terry Gross, one of my favorite interviews of all time. Needham was charming and amiable and full of stories, and Gross seemed genuinely disappointed to bring it to a close. Favorite quirk: the genuine cackling joy that Needham expressed at the thought of a royalty check arriving after a TV broadcast of one of his movies.
Needham was just another old movie guy who lost his fight against time, but his fingerprints are all over a pop cinema that exists to this day. Needham is the father of Johnny Knoxville and Chuck Lorre and the Fast and the Furious franchise. Perhaps that’s not a legacy that one would choose to have, as his descendants took Needham’s cowboy laissez les bon temps rouler amiability and turned it into something a little less charming and a little more bro. Or maybe it was all in the context? Maybe in the late 70s, the Burt Reynolds Boys Club was a little more palatable it would be now? It was what it was. Hal Needham will be missed, and not just by anyone who as a little kid ever dragged an old mattress out under a tree in the backyard to learn how to take a fall.