LOS ANGELES -- Ky Michaelson, who had always said he and Dar Robinson were closer than brothers and wilder than anybody, flew in from Minneapolis for the viewing and spent most of that afternoon in the room with the casket, telling Dar stories. There were a lot of tissues on the floor because Michaelson would start to cry sometimes, but other men were crying too, so that was all right, and they listened to Michaelson because he had some of the best Dar stories. He had the CN Tower jump story. The CN Tower is in Toronto; it contains electronic equipment and is the tallest free-standing structure on earth, and when Robinson had jumped off it harnessed to a single cable, Michaelson had been working the brake cable from the top and listening to the wind and the sound of Dar Robinson screaming as he dropped.
"If I hit the ground and they do an autopsy," Robinson had said to Michaelson, just before he jumped, "they'll find sand in my eyes. Because I'm going to keep my eyes open all the way to the ground."
Michaelson usually smiled when he told that story, because of course Robinson had not hit the ground. He had plummeted 900 feet and then stopped, the cable holding him safely in the air. He had not died at the CN Tower, and he had not died in the plane-to-plane sky-dive transfer, and he had not died being yanked by a cable off a motorcycle going 72 miles per hour. He had not died falling 203 feet into an air bag at the Houston Astrodome, or gunning his car so hard that it jumped 102 feet, going backward the entire time.
Robinson and Michaelson had talked about death, because stunt performers have to. They would pray together before stunts, briefly and without too much ceremony; Robinson used to say that in case of accident, he didn't want the Lord to ban him on a technicality. Then he would grin, that tremendous self-assured grin, and if anybody wanted him to, he would sign a couple of autographs.
So when the news first came to Michaelson, it was not the fact of death that unsteadied him. Every stuntman in the country has followed the Twilight Zone involuntary manslaughter charges, waiting to see whether the director and his four assistants will be convicted because a helicopter crashed on their location and killed three people, but Michaelson had a different feeling about that; two of the dead were children, and he believed there are decisions about life and death and risk that no child can make. Stuntmen make those decisions. Robinson made them every time he came to work.
He had said he did not want to die on the CN Tower jump, but at least it would have fit if he had. It seemed to Michaelson, in fact, that there were places all over the Western Hemisphere where Dar Robinson probably ought to have died. A northern Arizona roadway, a good mountain roadway with a single cliffside curve -- this, by nearly everything that matters to a stuntman on the job, was not one of them.
In the motion picture "Stick," which was released in 1985, a malevolent white-haired character named Moke falls backward from the balcony of a Florida hotel. He falls 20 stories, screaming, and as he falls he fires his gun upward, toward the receding balcony. The camera looks straight down at the plummeting body and the small landscape below: a swimming pool, some deck furniture and a narrow gray clearing of uncushioned concrete.
The man who made that fall was Dar Robinson. He was 37 years old then, and it was the kind of stunt that veterans remember long after they have forgotten the name of the picture or the men who produced it; two years later, in rooms lined window to corner with framed photographs of rearing horses and exploding automobiles, stuntmen still describe in some detail the positioning of Robinson's body, the fall straight back with only a single foot-rigged cable to catch him before he hit the ground, and the remarkable business of the weapon. Simply holding a heavy weapon is challenge enough, as a man free-falls and tries to keep from letting go or banging it into his own face, but Robinson managed to point it, shoot, yell, look convincingly terrified, and then come to a halt upside down and lower himself lightly to the ground. "I hate to tell you this," he said afterward to Burt Reynolds, who directed the picture and played the character Moke was supposed to be shooting at, "but I would have hit you every time."
In the business of stunts there are men who do fire burns, and women who do motorcycle work, and drivers who can accelerate a flaming moving van straight off an ocean pier. There are men and women who will leap through glass windows, or fall from galloping horses while strapped in sidesaddle, and died last November on a movie location in Arizona, was a high-fall man.
He was the best high-fall man, by nearly every account, in the history of motion pictures. When the Steve McQueen character leapt off a cliff in the movie "Papillon," that was Robinson; when a reckless character jumped off a bridge in "To Live and Die in L.A.," a stretching cable catching him at the last moment, that was Robinson, too. He fell from skyscrapers, bridges, steel girders, gondolas, helicopters and bluffs above the sea. He fell through a glass hotel window 18 stories up, and he fell astride a motorcycle with its engine still gunning, and he fell in the driver's seat of a sports car that had rolled from the back of an airplane and let loose a parachute and then fell the whole way with him.
He fell with a hidden parachute flattened under his clothing, or a single cable attached to his ankle. Often he fell with nothing at all to slow his drop, and then what caught him was a massive canvas air bag, his air bag, the one Robinson had helped to make famous in the stunt business. When he fell toward the air bag he flailed, if that was what the shot called for, although the flailing was pure theater. Robinson could hit his air bag in a precise swan dive, if he needed to, or set his entire body afire before he leaped for the bag. "The rush of air kind of heightens the temperature," he told a television person before one of his air-bag fire falls. "It really gets hot."
Robinson liked to talk to the television people; he was on television a lot, more than other stuntmen, making hour-long specials of his own or working great flamboyant stunts for the program "That's Incredible," which during much of its five-year run on ABC became a kind of Dar Robinson showcase: Here was Dar maneuvering his automobile into a flaming tunnel, or pointing a white convertible straight off the edge of the Grand Canyon and then climbing slowly out, as the car overturned and dropped a half-mile straight toward the Colorado River. You could see Cathy Lee Crosby standing to one side, her hands over her mouth as she watched Robinson's parachute open; scripted or not, she looked utterly appalled, and Robinson probably liked that when he watched the replay. "He used to love to make people's stomachs turn over," says the Canadian stunt actor Wayne Thomas. "It was the thrill of it that made him do it."
Thrill is a complicated business for a working stuntman, and they like to talk about that, about the great and vital gap that separates stuntmen from daredevils. The daredevil marches up to a challenge and lunges, they will say; sometimes he makes it, and sometimes he doesn't, and anybody can bluster along on bravado and luck. There are stuntmen who think Dar Robinson was too flamboyant and too swell-headed and too tireless a self-promoter, but his precision was celebrated and even in the wildest of his stunts he had never so much as sprained an ankle. He planned; he calculated; he figured things out. He was stuntman, not daredevil. The stuntman and director George Fisher remembers the day the young Robinson announced that for a television episode he was going to do a 12-story high fall into the new air bag he had helped introduce; Fisher, like many of his colleagues, arrived at the location to see how Robinson intended to do it.
This was more than 10 years ago, and 12 stories was a nearly unimaginable distance to fall. For 50 years stuntmen had fallen onto mattresses and cardboard boxes, going six stories up, or seven if they were a little foolhardy. Now Robinson proposed to double the height, and Fisher remembers his admiration mounting as he stood beneath the Los Angeles skyscraper and watched the stuntman work: first a test drop off the sixth story, then one off the seventh, and then the eighth, each drop followed by a lot of discussion and examining of the air bag.
It took Robinson most of the day to work up to his 12-story fall, Fisher remembers -- and when he did it, he did it flawlessly. "Dar was a legend," Fisher says. "His cockiness came from being like a self-assured guy, a guy that had put it on paper, worked it out, had figured everything out to the last degree. Then he could make a brazen statement. But it was true."
Fisher was there, in Arizona, when Robinson died. The picture was an
adventure called "Million Dollar Mystery," and Fisher was the stunt coordinator. He says that he still cannot quite get it -- that he has spent a long time wondering why Dar did what he did on the afternoon of Nov. 21. "For four months I've thought about it, and wondered what the hell happened," Fisher says. "Nobody can figure out what happened."
His brothers remember the stilts, which mystified them even then. They were two-by-fours, each of them twice times the height of a boy, and Dar had nailed blocks near the top, with shoes affixed. Then he marched around the neighborhood, laughing, and he never fell. "Upside down, no matter what, he just had a sense of where he was," Wes Robinson says. Dar was the oldest of the three brothers, and together they were trampolinists, using equipment manufactured by their father at his company in Southern California. They were excellent trampolinists, working together at trampoline centers and public performances, but Dar was the one with the aerial gift: Midair, as though entirely unaffected by the act of flying up or down, he kept his body in utter control. They could bounce him so high into the air that the audience momentarily lost sight of him, but Dar always landed precisely where he was supposed to, and smiled.
He won competitions in trampoline and gymnastics, and when the veteran stuntman Loren Janes saw him move, Janes knew the boy was remarkable. Janes was friendly with Dar Robinson's father; Jess Robinson's company and trampoline centers attracted athletic men like Janes, who had moved into stunt work after years as a champion diver and gymnast. He had seen other boys whose talent was as impressive as Dar's, but Dar had such confidence and passion that Janes began trying to help him find work in front of the camera.
"He was like a cat," Janes says. Robinson hired on for a milk commercial, which paid him to somersault from a giant milk glass, and then Janes directed him to Oregon to work on "Paint Your Wagon," where Robinson had to do things like roll down the sides of rooftops, or sit casually in saloons while the entire building fronts collapsed around him. Robinson was married by then, and his ex-wife still remembers the sheer elation of the first stunts her young husband managed to pull off without mishap.
"He loved it," Darlette Robinson says. "It was so exhilarating to him to think of the things he was going to do that day -- and planning ... He was so childlike at home, when he could think of things that he could do that people would gasp at, and say, 'Wow.' "
Novice stuntmen have a basic repertoire to master, and Dar Robinson began getting it down with precision. Janes watched him learn, and admired: When Robinson faked a punch, his angle and timing were exquisite. When he fell down a flight of stairs, he fairly flung himself into the fall, wild as a man just hurled from the top; if the fall was supposed to be backward, the camera saw no cheating, none of the rehearsed rolls that would have looked less convincing. When he was older Robinson would sometimes take on apprenticelike novices of his own, and the young stuntman Normm Epperson remembers Robinson teaching him the principles he had learned: where to place the protective padding, so it worked but did not show; how to mark his own mirror to suggest different camera angles and then concentrate on the marks to practice throwing punches without losing the camera's eye.
You did not simply fall down stairs, Robinson told Epperson; you "came unglued," slamming the wall with your body as you fell. You practiced your car spins until you could roar a car down an empty street, spin it 180 degrees, and never have it slide from the center dividing line. You learned what an accelerator would do on a jump ramp, how the car nose would drop if you underaccelerated, or lift if you pushed too hard. And you worked again and again, Robinson said, at summoning just the right surge of adrenaline -- enough to propel you through the stunt, but not enough to push you so hard that you hurt yourself.
"Every hair in place," Epperson says Dar used to tell him. That was how a stuntman ought to look when the gag was over. You climbed from your air bag or crumpled convertible, the crew still scrambling to see whether you were alive or dead. "Do we have enough film, or do we have to do it again?" Robinson used to ask. "Where's the coffee?"
Completing stunts for a motion picture camera is not a physically comfortable line of work, and Robinson surely knew that from the beginning. The earliest stuntmen were recruited off the streets by cameramen anxious to find anybody who would dive off buildings or leap out of moving cars, and even after the 1920s, when a small group of men began working the business with some professionalism, the best of them were men whose bodies had already been thoroughly banged around -- trapeze artists, or rodeo cowboys. Stuntpeople know the roster of stunt deaths better than anyone outside the profession -- in the 1920s, stuntmen died in the sea or died in falls or burned to death in plummeting airplanes, and in the last two years three stuntmen have died in nearly precisely the same way.
But bartenders are stabbed to death by their customers sometimes, and policemen get shot on duty, and sales representatives die when drunk drivers broadside their automobiles. Stuntmen like to point that out, observing their own safety innovations and then affecting the shrug of a working war correspondent. "It's like being in combat, or being a cop," says the veteran Hal Needham, who now works principally as a director. "You always think it's going to happen to somebody else, because you're going to watch your ass."
The game, the stuntpeople say, is often less in the great surging thrill of the stunt than in the planning of it, the calculating, the elaborate preparations that work safety and predictability into a stunt nobody thought possible. A stunt driver does not simply sign on for a car-into-the-water gag; five years after she collected her paycheck for it, the stuntwoman Donna Garrett still remembers the questions she laid out before she accepted a television request to take a drive off a moving barge and into San Pedro Harbor. Comedy or drama? What kind of car? What kind of door releases? What speed on the barge? How long a drop, how fast a takeoff, and was the car supposed to hit the bottom or come back up?
Dar Robinson was a master at this. As his jumps moved higher and he began eyeing world records he wanted to claim, Robinson complicated his figuring. He constructed a canvas bag as long as he was, filled it with 175 pounds of sand, and affixed to it a set of meters that registered impact shock and the pressure to an accelerating body; the bag was named "George," and with the friends who helped him, Robinson would heave George from increasingly higher platforms to see what would happen when a human being followed.
George died many times. Sometimes George died rather violently, and then Robinson and whoever was working with him would look down at the distant mess of broken canvas and sand and say, "There goes George." Often it was Ky Michaelson lamenting the dead dummy with Robinson; the two had met in the mid-1970s, when Robinson sought out Michaelson's automobile expertise for a stunt that required blowing up a car and motorcycle in midair.
They liked each other right away. Michaelson was with Robinson when he did his record 180-foot ramp-to-ramp car jump, and when he drove a sports car from the back of an airborne transport plane and parachuted the entire car to the ground, where the televised gimmick was that Rock Hudson was waiting for Robinson to meet him for lunch. "How do you want your eggs?" Hudson asked when Robinson drove up. "Scrambled," Robinson said.
Robinson enjoyed his own panache, and was not even a little retiring about it, especially after he had begun appearing on television and setting his world records before large audiences: the 311 foot air-bag fall, out of a hovering helicopter; or the 193-foot high fall with his body in flames, or the performance he executed on a trampoline that hung suspended from a helicopter hovering 300 feet above the ground. He was noisy and funny and demanding on the set, and when the gag was over he would stay around, savoring the praise. When the crew went out for beers, he made certain that everybody within earshot knew what he had done. Stuntpeople like to talk about a kind of finish-the-job-and-go-home professionalism when they work, and Robinson had no use for that; he wanted attention and pretty women and the kind of glory that his television specials provided, and he did not seem to mind that some of his older colleagues thought he was a cocky sort of grandstander -- "40 going on 16," as one stunt veteran says.
"He was Muhammad Ali, okay?" says Hal Rubin, who was Robinson's business manager when he died. "In his profession. There was nobody better than him. And whether somebody wants to look at it as grandstanding or not -- he knew what he could do."
In early November, Ky Michaelson says, he woke from a nightmare and turned in the darkness to his wife. "I saw Dar die," he said. In the dream Robinson had been falling, but not the right way, and Michaelson tried to call Robinson's house to tell him about it. He got the answering machine; Robinson was on location in the mountains outside Page, Ariz.
"Million Dollar Mystery" is a treasure hunt, and in the course of the picture people do alarming things on motorcycles and airplanes and hot-air balloons. "To a stuntman, that's a good time," says George Fisher, who had hired Robinson onto the picture. The most difficult stunt for Robinson was set for Nov. 21, and on the evening before Fisher watched him in the bar, his yellow pad before him, making rapid calculations of trajectory and body speed. It was a motorcycle gag, and not a particularly difficult one for a stuntman of Robinson's caliber: He was to drive the motorcycle into a metal guardrail, catapult over some pine trees, and land 90 feet away in a hidden air bag.
The execution, Fisher says, was flawless. "He virtually put an X on the fall pad," he says. "Everybody said, 'God, that was great,' and he said, 'I can do it better. I can do it higher ...' He did it again, and by God, he went higher, and further, and hit the fall pad."
They broke for lunch. Robinson was in terrific spirits. The afternoon's work was supposed to be straightforward and quick; Robinson and two other motorcyclists would complete a "drive-by" in front of filming cameras. The road was curved, and flanked by a cliff, but the actors had been driving it for days by then and knew it as familiar terrain.
There were many reports filed afterward, to the Screen Actors Guild and the Arizona police, and every one of them said the same thing. The motorcycles passed the camera at fairly high speed, about 70 miles per hour. They approached the curve about a hundred yards past the camera. Two of the motorcyclists stayed on the road, and Robinson, who had been driving nearest the edge, did not. His motorcycle "drifted," in the words of one of the witness statements to Arizona police, and then Robinson and the motorcycle sailed over the edge.
The crew members found him, conscious and still in his motorcycle leathers, among some jagged rocks below the cliff. He had fallen about 40 feet, according to the police reports. It took two hours to transport him to a hospital in Page -- a helicopter was summoned, but the reports say it took so long to arrive that crew members had already begun driving Robinson toward the hospital by station wagon. The county coroner's office refuses to make public the autopsy report, but the trade paper Variety ran a lengthy account of the accident, which Fisher says is accurate; Robinson's injuries included broken ribs and a severely lacerated liver, the Variety article says, and he was pronounced dead at 5:47 p.m.
The word was passed by telephone among the stunt performers, and for some of the veterans there was no particular surprise in it. "I had been expecting it for the last 10 years," says Loren Janes. "I figured his ego would carry him too far, and he would kill himself."
But to kill himself like this, driving his motorcycle off a cliff -- Janes has worked it and worked it in his mind, and it seems to him that in some way Robinson must have been betrayed by his own adrenaline. His demanding stunt was done, and he had done it perfectly; perhaps what happened, Janes says, was that Robinson let go too quickly of the consuming concentration a stuntman has to develop. "He let down too soon," Janes says. "He lost his concentration for that one second, two seconds. And he hit the gravel, and it was too late."
He left three children and two stepchildren, and when the youngest boy sees the videotapes, with the green-eyed man laughing uproariously as his car sails earthward beneath a parachute, the boy looks at Linda Robinson and says something that sounds like, "Daddy?" The youngest boy is not yet 2, and not long ago a family friend watched him vault over the handlebars of his tricycle and fall, as if by instinct, into a protective tuck and roll.
"Mirical Boy," Dar Robinson wrote, on the household calendar, when Landon Robinson was born. Linda Robinson says he never could spell very well. Linda Robinson says she believes her husband is with Christ now, so she is calm when she talks about him, and she still likes the script they worked on together, which features as one of its pricipals a stuntfeatures as one of its pricipals a stuntman named Eric Stone, whose nickname is "Stoneman" and who is, as the script reads, "Recognized as the Top Stuntman in the Motion Picture Industry."
"These were the last things that he would like to do," Linda Robinson says, the list of suggested stunts before her. There is a world record high fall in the script, to be executed from a Las Vegas hotel into an air bag; there is a parachute jump into a 1,300 foot natural shaft located somewhere in South America. Robinson wanted to stop the stuntwork after that, Linda Robinson says. Actually he wanted to free-fall a mile into an airbag, too -- he planned to charge $1.5 million for that -- but then he wanted to stop the stuntwork, probably.
"I really wanted him to get out of it," says Ky Michaelson, who does not think, finally, that Robinson ever really would. "I think it was in his blood," he says.
The younger stuntman Normm Epperson, who is 28 now, has been hired on as stunt coordinator for a picture called "Revenge." The shooting is to start in May, and Epperson says a title credit will dedicate the stunts to Dar Robinson. There is a long high fall in the picture, and a head-on crash between a motorcycle and an automobile, and in one of the car gags Epperson will drive up a ramp and sail 80 feet through the air to crash through the glass window of an abandoned building.
Epperson is thinking a lot now about how he will do this, how to get every ramp bolt in place, how to lay out the safety nets, how to reinforce the floor where the automobile is supposed to land. He will figure the exact weight of the car, allowing for the driver and the padding and the fuel in the gas tank. He will work on the engine, to make certain it shuts off while the rear of the car is still protruding out the window. He will plan and clear and tinker and brace, and when it is time to do the stunt he will jam on the accelerator and fly through the air and land in the crashing of safety glass, with his timing precise and every hair -- he is 11 years younger than Dar Robinson was, and how he hopes now that he can do this right -- every hair in place.