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Rémy Julienne, stunt driver behind ‘Italian Job’ car chase, dies at 90

From right to left, Rémy Julienne, Jean-Claude Bouttier and Bruno Masurier pose with Dutch competitor Cees Van der Velden at the start of an endurance motorboat competition in 1982.
From right to left, Rémy Julienne, Jean-Claude Bouttier and Bruno Masurier pose with Dutch competitor Cees Van der Velden at the start of an endurance motorboat competition in 1982. (Mychele Daniau/AFP/Getty Images)
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In the annals of best movie car chase, perennial favorites include “Bullitt” (1968) with Steve McQueen achieving liftoff in his Ford Mustang along the terraced streets of San Francisco; “The French Connection” (1971), with Gene Hackman terrorizing blocks of Brooklyn pedestrian traffic in a Pontiac LeMans; and “Ronin” (1998), with Robert De Niro behind the screeching wheels of a Peugeot on the streets of Paris.

But many moviegoers and stunt lovers might opt for the stunt sequences in the more-lighthearted British-American comic caper, “The Italian Job” (1969), in which three British Mini Cooper cars — one red, one white and one blue to match the U.K. flag — outwitted Italian cops through the streets, shopping arcades and sewers of the Italian city of Turin after a gold heist.

French stunt driver Rémy Julienne orchestrated and drove in some of the chase scenes, an unforgettable car ballet in which Mr. Julienne’s team raced around a sloping car factory roof before driving at 75 mph up ramps onto a getaway truck traveling at 50 mph on a motorway outside Turin.

In another scene, he drove the red Mini at 70 mph over a 60-foot gap between two factory rooftops 50 feet above the ground. After half a century of risking his life on wheels for movie audiences, he died at 90 on Jan. 21 of the coronavirus at a hospital in Montargis, France, according to his wife, Justine.

“We were very, very lucky to get Rémy Julienne [and his] stunt driving team,” Michael Caine, star of “The Italian Job,” was once quoted as saying. “Because they [the Minis] were really the stars of the film in a way.”

In fact, sales of the little Mini Cooper and more powerful Cooper S models took off around Europe after the film hit the screens. The movie not only epitomized Britain’s “Swinging Sixties” but also precursored, by almost 50 years, the widespread British sentiment that their little island could outsmart Continental Europeans.

Mr. Julienne, a former French national motocross champion, also did the stunt-driving on six James Bond movies, body-doubling for several Bond actors in car sequences. “I shot three James Bond films with Roger Moore,” he recalled, according to the website of the British TV show about cars, “Top Gear.” “This kind of Anglo-Saxon production is so strict that insurers refuse to let him do anything. He would say to me, ‘My only stunts, I do them with women.’ ”

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In the 1995 Bond movie “GoldenEye,” Mr. Julienne choreographed the car chase in which Bond (Pierce Brosnan) races his Aston Martin down a mountain against the villain Xenia (played by Famke Janssen) in a Ferrari. Mr. Julienne’s son Dominique body-doubled for Brosnan in the chase, while his other son Michel, in a wig, drove the Ferrari in place of Janssen.

Guided by their father, the two sons also took turns doubling as Bond for Moore in “For Your Eyes Only” (1981), in which the superspy has a five-minute car chase driving a flimsy yellow Citroën to escape the baddies.

In all, Mr. Julienne was a stunt driver and/or coordinator on no less than 1,400 films and TV commercials starting in his native France in the 1960s. Although his French compatriots called him their greatest cascadeur (“stuntman”) or casse-cou (literally
“neckbreaker” but usually translated as “daredevil”), he was known in his business almost as a scientist; he was one of the first stunt people to use a computer to calculate ratios involving weight, height, speed, wind velocity and whatever else he thought would protect the lives of himself and his team.

According to his online interview with “Top Gear,” he said the jump between two Fiat factory roofs in “The Italian Job” was his favorite stunt.

“It was emotional, because it was difficult,” he said. “We worked on the ground, we prepared the ramps, calculated distances, speeds, etc. [Originally] it was decided I had to do three separate jumps in each Mini. I explained that, as the roof was very wide, we could make the three Minis jump all together. . . . It looked much better as a shot. It was more complicated, but really amazing.”

When Caine told Mr. Julienne “bloody hell, my heart was in my mouth,” the stuntman replied: “Michael, it’s mathematics.”

Until the end of his career in 2010, Mr. Julienne insisted on getting involved only in “real” stunts rather than those using computer-generated imagery (CGI). For his stunt management of the 1989 Bond film “Licence to Kill,” with Timothy Dalton as Bond, he blew up an actual gas tanker in real time.

While filming the French action-comedy “Taxi 2” (2000), tragedy struck Mr. Julienne and the entire crew. A cameraman was killed and his assistant seriously injured when a car in a stunt coordinated by Mr. Julienne missed its landing spot after a jump.

He was charged with involuntary manslaughter, convicted and given a one-year suspended jail sentence. But he appealed, saying the film’s producers had refused to let him test the stunt ahead of shooting. The verdict was overturned.

Rémy Julienne was born April 17, 1930, in Cepoy, a town south of Paris, where his parents ran a cafe. When he was 12, his father gave him a Peugeot motorbike. By 1957, he was French national motocross champion, which brought him to the attention of top film stuntman Gil Delamare.

That got Mr. Julienne a job doubling for actor Jean Marais on a motorcycle in the 1964 film “Fantomas,” and he went on to double for France’s best-known leading men, eventually doing 14 films with Jean-Paul Belmondo.

In the 1964 film “The Troops of St. Tropez,” in which a nun did some hair-raising driving in a blue Citroën, it was actually Mr. Julienne in a wig, makeup and nun’s habit. He recalled in an interview with the newspaper Le Réveil that, during a break in filming, he had to relieve himself by a roadside, lifting his nun’s habit to do so.

“This passing lorry driver saw me,” he said, “and couldn’t believe his eyes at seeing a nun relieve herself in that position.”

In 2002, Mr. Julienne and his family set up a stunt attraction, titled “Moteurs . . . Action!” at the Disneyland theme park in Paris. Its success led to a similar attraction — “Lights, Motors, Action!” at Walt Disney World in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., set up by his son Dominique. Survivors include his wife, the former Justine Poulin, as well as three children; and a grandson.

Mr. Julienne’s greatest regret was that, while racing his Mini through a tubular sewer in “The Italian Job,” he failed to do a 360-degree barrel roll. He tried several times, but each time the car dropped onto its roof and was eventually written off. In 2009, he wrote his autobiography: “Ma Vie en Cascades” (My Life in Stunts).

His motto? “Ever higher, ever quicker, ever stronger, ever further.”

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