Hal Needham the legendary stuntman, stunt coordinator, and director is dead. He directed Smokey and the Bandit, Hooper, The Cannonball Run (I and II). The former paratrooper who was the world’s highest paid stuntman and who spent years working with Burt Reynolds died at the age of 82 from cancer.
Hal Brett Needham was born Memphis, Tennessee on March 6, 1931. He grew up in both the state of Tennessee and in Arkansas. Needham got his first work as a stunt double for Richard Boone in the classic television series Have Gun Will Travel. He would late be the stunt double for Burt Reynolds until he took off his stuntman hat and directed Reynolds in no less than six films.
Needham was Reynolds’ stunt double for years and after he wrote the screenplay for Smokey and the Bandit, Reynolds, who starred in the picture, hired Hal to direct the 1977 action/comedy film. He also directed the immediate sequel as well as a further 16 films, which included TV movies and one episode of the television program B L Stryker.
In 2011 Needham wrote his autobiography, Stuntman!: My Car-Crashing, Plane-Jumping, Bone-Breaking, Death-Defying Hollywood Life. In his mini-biography on IMDb.com it mentions that the legendary stuntman broke 56 bones (including his back twice), lost teeth and punctured a lung, Needham himself added that he also dislocated one of his shoulders. He also needed surgery on one of his shoulders which, according to Needham, bothered him.
While IMDb gives a somewhat definitive list of Hal Needham’s projects as a legendary stuntman and director, with his first credit being Smokey and the Bandit, Needham said that he had worked on some 4,500 television programs on more than 300 movies.
The stuntman, stunt coordinator, and director has been accredited with influencing many newer directors, not only with his style of action-film direction, but his stunt work as well. The death of Hal Needham, whose first film as a director was Smokey and the Bandit, was reported first by Variety. He was an award winning stuntman who had many more nominations. The late legend received an Academy Award in 1987 for inventing and introducing many improved ways of doing stunts. These creations won him the award and made film stunts safer and more impressive.
In 2012, Needham was given another award, an honorary Oscar, last year for his contribution to the film industry. It is ironic that Ha won two Oscars as he said for years that, even though his films were popular with audiences, critics and the academy would never send an award his way. He once took out an advertisement in Variety which featured all the negative reviews of his films, punctuated with a wheelbarrow full of money.
Needham told the Los Angeles Times that he may not ever win an Academy Award, but despite that, he would be a “rich son-of-a-bitch.” Hal finished by saying that being rich was what it was “all about.” He also claimed that directing was “a snap.”
Before Needham became a household name in Hollywood, he worked as a tree-topper. Hal said that he was so good at it that he got the nickname Squirrel. He then became a paratrooper before he started racing vehicles. This background stood him well as he was able to move on from doing western film stunts to motorcycle and car stunts as well as high falls. Needham himself said that he could do all manner of stunts, from horse falls, fighting, transfers to his modern vehicle stunts.
Hal Needham worked extensively on western films at the beginning of his stunt career before moving on to stunt coordinator. He did the stunt coordination for Bandolero, Shenandoah and Little Big Man to name just some of the western films that he left his stamp on.
Some of his most impressive accomplishments was not in front of a camera. Needham tested car air bags and then testified in front of congress on their safety. He also attempted to break the land speed record in 1977 when the traveled 619.9 miles in an hour. In terms of film records, he set the world’s first boat jumping record in the film Gator in 1976. He jumped the boat 138 feet in a stunt in the Burt Reynolds’ movie.
Hal Needham was a legendary stuntman, popular director of action films, that started with Smokey and the Bandit. The death of this industry icon will leave a space that cannot be filled.
By Michael Smith