Hal Needham is one of those guys whose jewelry you would not make fun of. There is plenty of it, dangling in the display case of his open shirt and ringing his wrists. One bracelet looks like a good beercan poptop that was run over by a 10-ton truck. Needham insisted that the Beverly Hills jeweler who designed it for him break the mold so there would never be another like it.
All that glitter may make Needham sound and even look like another Hollywood sissy. But no. He is one of the certified Hollywood toughies, and he has a medical record of 42 broken bones logged during 21 years as a stunt man to prove it.
"In order to be a stunt man," says Hal Needham in his Wells Fargo voice, "you kinda gotta be one brick short of a load, you know?"
So last year Needham added a brick to his load and took a flyer at directing, making his debut with a little $4.5 million sleeper called "Smokey and the Bandit," which has since good-buddied itself into a domestic and Canadian gross of over $200 million and become one of the 10 most successful Pictures of all time.
This pleases Needham, 47, a heap o' gosh-amighties. "It's already the seventh biggest movie ever made," he ya-hoo's over an afternoon beer. "We're gonna pass "The Sting" and We're gonna pass 'Close Encounters.' You just watch."
In Hollywood, he says, this has changed his status from "Hal Who?" to a man studio heads walk clear 'cross a commissary just to glad-hand. "I know I've arriven," he says in his down-home English. "And it's nice."
It follows that Needham got nearly everything his way for his second picture, "Hooper," which opens nationally today and which, like "Smokey," stars Needham's longtime pal Burt Reynolds, who used to be a stunt man, too. "Yeah, Burt and I are old buddies. Our tastes differ in women and clothing, but I'm adapting to his style, in clothing, anyway." It seems they raid each other's closets for embroidered jeans and the like. Also, when Burt got sick of his Cadillac Seville, Hal bought it from him.
What they both agreed on was that the first script for 'Hooper," then called "Stunt Men," was "a piece of . . .," and Hal remembers saying, "'Burt, if you do this movie, as much I love you I'm not gonna be a part of it.' Because it wasn't accurate at all about the way stunt men are. I told Burt, 'First of all, there's 250 stunt men in Hollywood and everyday you meet a new one, and he just might decide to kick the bejeesus out of you for making that picture.' So we went back and rewrote it in a week, and now it is pretty accurate in that you see them do crazy things when they're not in front of the camera.
"I mean, stunt men're kind of loose, to say the least. They're the biggest practical jokers in the world. Like in 'Hooper,' when that assistant director is trying to get Burt to do a stunt for a cheaper price, and Burt takes him for a ride and turns the car over to scare him? That's an accurate accounts. That's really true."
As in the film, stunt men, who get paid a minimum $225 for showing up on the set, actually negotiate the cost of stunt's with filmmakers during the shooting of a picture. Needham did his share of haggling with the hardnosed.
"See, like the director would say, 'Okay, Hal, we want you to turn this car over,' and I'd say, 'How fast, and how many turns?' He might say '45 miles per hour and one turn' and then I'd say. "That'll be $750 over and above the $225 I came in on.' Every time you do a stunt you negotiate right then. The price depends on how hazardous it is. Plus if you're doing a James Bond movie where they got $30 million, you can ask a little more. You can kinda play with it a little bit."
Hollywood's highest paid stunt men make about $125,000 a year, Needham says, and most fall between $40,000 and $75,000.
No matter how well it may pay, it must take a certain madness to go into this line of work; stunt men are combination swashbucklers, acrobat, cowboys and kamikaze polits.
"I think it's just that there's a certain amount of enjoyment out of showing off," Needham says. "As a kid, if you could do something, extremely well and get people to laugh at it, then you'd do it again. When you work a stunt man, when I hear those clapboards snappin,' well, the old adrenalin just jumps right to my heart because I know I'm on, you know? You're not just throwing the dice for a hundred bucks; you're putting your life out there.
"I mayself have gotten into stunts where I'd say, 'Good God, what have I got myself into?" You know where I'd let my alligator mouth overload by jaybird body. The one that gave me the worst worry was when we attached a 15,000-horsepower rocket engine to the back of pickup truck and jumped it across a lake.And I ended up with a broken back out of the thing, so my worries were right."
You can take the man out of the stunt, but you can't take the stunt out of the man. In "Hooper." we see Reynolds as the stunt man marching in to take over for an actor when it's time for rough stuff in the film-within-the-film, "The Spy Who Laughted at Danger." But at these points, of course, another stunt man, a real one, would come in an double for Reynolds. Except once.
"But was supposed to stand out on the strut of a helicopter, which would slowly come towards the camera," Needham says, "and then we'd cut to the stunt man making the jump. So I said to the pilot, 'Keep that chopper 35 to 40 feet in the air so Burt won't have any tendency to jump out, right?' Well, he came over the old 30 by 40 foot aid bag and damn if Burt didn't jump out of that thing from about 35 feet so. So if you look at the movie you can actually see him jump out of the chopper. Well, it was great, it just made my film work good, but when the studio saw it I thought they'd fire me. I said, 'Don't blame me! I told him not to jump!'
"But then again, Burt's got an ego just me, and when he hit the pad everybody applauded, and he got up all smiles and everything. Well naturally. You take a stunt man's ego away, and he's finished."
Robert Klein plays a very amusingly pretentious twit of a director in "Hooper," and when he at one point refers to films mock lyrically as "little pieces of time," it seems clear that the chap is paterned after Monsieur Le Ginema himself, Peer Bogdanovich. Needham smiles in acknowledgment when asked if this is correct and then blurts out laughing, "Boy, he's gonna - when he sees that."
A high point near the end of the film has Reynolds as stuntmen Hooper giving Klein a sock in the kisser. This, says Needham, is only partially based on real life. "I've never seen a stunt man hit an actor or a director or an assistant director," he says. "But I know a helluva bunch of 'em that want to, including me. And so I thought, 'Now's my chance to let 'em all know what I was thinking.' They'll know who they are."
Concerning his own style of directing, Needham is engagingly modest. "There are two things that I do best - drink and fight, right?" There is a slight haw-haw. "No, comedy and action. Oh, I'd like to win an Academy Award. Sure I would. But I seriously doubt I'll ever go to the podium up there and get myself a little man with no arms."
To Needham, the term "macho" is anything but a pejorative. Fortunately for his self-image, there are now enough stunt women so that men don't double for them as often as they used to Even Needham has worn drag for the camera, however. "I doubled Patricia Medina one time in a wedding gown on a 'Have Gun, Will Travel' TV show. I looked good except I had to jump from the back of a buckboard onto the behind of a horse and the guy on the horse was just a little bit away from, me, so I just hiked the dress up and jumped' about seven feet. And Patricia Medina said, 'You can't use it. First of all, his legs are too hairy and second, if you find a girl who can do that, she should be in the Olympics.'"
He defends the burly, brawly, beery life of the stuntman because he says it helps keep America in myths. "Today is the day of the gladiators just like it was X number of years ago. Let me give you an example. I did a fall one time at Paramount off the water tower, and as I climbed up to the top and looked down, I saw every executive and every secretary in that studio out there to watch me.
"Now they didn't want to see me kill myself, though if I did kill myself, they'd say, 'Oh, it was terrible, but his head just busted open when in hit the concrete - my God,' you know. But what were they doing out there? They were living vicariously through what I was doing. Some guy sitting next to a good-looking secretary looks up and says to her, 'I can do that.' And I'm hoping she's looking up and saying to herself, 'Boy, I'd like to have that; he ain't too shabby."
"So that's what it's all about. And people who don't agree with that, they're wrong."
Now "Too old and too rich" to do stunts - Needham implied he gets a nice chunk of them-there "Smokey" grosses - he still runs his own stable fo roughnecks, "Stunts Unlimited." And, during a lull between "Hooper" and preparations for the inevitable sequel film, "Smokey Goes to Paris," to be shot in November, Needham himself heard the familiar siren call again, this time over a telephone. An old stunt buddy working on the aberrant comedy "Foul Play" issued one of those hot-dogies propositions than cannot conscionably be refused. "Hey Hal," he said. "You wanna go up to San Francisco and wreck some cars?"
He was in San Francisco the next day.