Hal Needham - One fulfilled American dreamWritten by Eva Csölleová, Vítek Formánek
America say that it is a country of unlimited possibilities.We won´t discuss it since another big nation once stated that by them“ Tomorrow means yesterday“.Every American lives his „American dream“ which is run by dollars and has a hope that even the poorest person can become a millionaire.Again we won´t discuss it since even in our country many poor people became millionaries, but we doubt their fair way to wealth.
Nevertheless story of Hal Needham is real classic story how poor man became a millionaire by dedication, hard way and big effort.He was born in 1931 and became the most famous personality in Hollywood, who came from stuntman to actor to director.Apart some box office hits he put some „ first“ under his belt, too.He was the first man who tested airbag, first director who used unused scenes at the end of the movie, during credits.A car owned by him reached as first one a supersonic speed.To make that interview complete, it took us 7 months but an interesting story was compiled. Sadly Hal died from cancer on 25.10.2013 so this story is well fitted tribute and epilogue.
What childhood did you have, we guess 30´weren´t the happiest time in America, was it?
I was raised at the time of economic downfall in poor area of Arkansas.There were seven of us and father left mum when I was born, so I was looked after my step father, who was a crook but he never hit me and made me a tough guy.He earned 400 dollars a year, so to have some meat at the table I had to kill rabbits or squirells.I didn´t attend much of a school, I had only eight classes.My clothing was given to me by Salvation Army.When I was 10 we moved to St.Louis since WWII broke and father got a job in factory producing weapons.At that time, I firstly saw a town, car, cinema..As I worked hard since early years I got a job in the shop.When I quit school I got a job and for dollar per hour I was cutting branches on hight treets.I was never scared of heights.
Did you have any idea what would you like to do in your life?
Haven´t got a clue.I was chopping the tree branches for three years and was wondering what next.Then I got to recruit army center and was impressed what they offered.At that time the war in Korea was on and I thought it was a good challenge.I trained with Rangers, trained in desert, in arctic conditions, I learned how to use light and heavy weapons.I was discharged in 1954 and returend back to climbing the trees where I met the bloke, who was also paratrooper and was working on TV.He offered me to join him in dangerous act:I was to jump from the plane onto horse rider galloping under me.I liked it so much that I asked him to call me again if needs be and that´s how I became a stuntman.
Do you remember your first real movie?
Yes, it was called „The Spirit of St.Louis“ where James Stewart depicted Charles Lindberg.It was directed by future star director Billy Wilder.I was to stand on the lower wing of bi-plane and during flight get onto undercarriage of above flying plane.For each take I got 1000 dollars so I didn´t mind we had to repeat that many times.When I finished I earned more then in my entire life.I spent there six weeks and I had a clear vision of my future- I will be a Hollywood stuntman.
We guess it was no mean feat to start from scratch, was it?
No, it wasn´t but I wasn´t afraid of work. I was helped by sheer luck.I was living in California not far from studios and all around me were lived stuntmen.John Wayne was shooting his movie „Alamo“ and needed big bunch of boys, but I wasn´t chosen.But since I stayed home almost alone, there was almost nobody to shoot movies so while all were filming with John Wayne for four months I was SO busy that sometimes I did 5 films in one day.It not only upped my income but also my credit and name.I dubbed many actors and one of them became by closest buddie- Burt Reynolds. Directors spotted what I was cappable of doing, I could and was willing to do anything and I became a key stuntman for director named Andrew McLaglen.
How did you get jobs in films?
There were many ways.Either you work for a friend who is stunman coordinator and he calls at every time the film is shooted and stuntmen needed.Or you can browse through local papers like The Hollywood Reporter, where is written what is being filmed and where.You can call those productions.Anothey way is the one I was using.I never refused any job so soon I became well known guy and productions called me themselves.When I earned some money, I bought over 250 horses.I made barns for them and trained them and then rented them to studios.In reality it meant that I worked upon that movie, got paid and my hores were used in that film also and earned me money, too.Say James Stewarts used my horse named Pie in all of his movies.
Were that any tragic or terminal accidents during film making?
Security is priority of all film crews.There are also strong trade unions who oversee all aspects of safety.I myself had 56 broken bones, 2 x broken back.When we made„King of Sun“ in Mexico starring Yul Brunner, we shooted with real arrows with metals spikes.Under the costume we had metal boards with balza on it but still it wasn´t very pleasant.Tehre was also a mass scene in movie „Small, big man“ with Dustin Hoffman..There were 1200 people and Indians were shooting arrows all directions.This time the arrows had rubber ends but still one stuntman was shot into eye and lost it.So there is always a risk but all make everything possible to diminish it.
How did you become a director?
Again I was climbing that career ladder step by step.When I became more experienced during filming, more often director asked me to coodinate stuntmen or act as 2nd.unit assistant director.In reality it meant I had to prepare and make up the scene, instruct actors where they are to be, where the camera will stand and what they are required to do.As 2nd unit assistan director I helped to shoot scene where main stars didn´t take part.So I absorbed all those directors´expeiences.
What kind of director were you?There are various types from perfectionalist of Stanley Kubrick to those who don´t show screenplay to actors such as Woody Allen?
I always had people around me who were my friends.Unlike other directors I allowed everyone to come and look at daily work so they could see how we have done that day.All could look into work plan to find out if we are behind or ahead of schedule.I am sure that if crew is happy, they will do maximum for director.I ate same food as the rest and often, when we finished I paid the bar bill for all of them.When I was shooting my first film, I invited my mum, strong God beliver, to pray for all of us and for success of the movie.Whole crew took part.Since then I always have done that in my next movies.
How many films did you make as director, as an actor and as a stuntman?
In all I have played in 4100 TV shows as stuntman, as an actor I made 50 movies and as a stuntmen I made 310.As director I have made 10 feature films.My first one was called „Smokey and the Bandit“ and my budget was 4.3 million from which million went to my actor Burt Reynolds.Film was smash box office hit and earned 300 million.So sequel was inevitable.All my films cost in total 110 million and earned 1.4 billion so I can say I was pretty good director.In same vein I make „ Cannonball“ which was also a box office hit with big stars.
You were one of the first directors who not only showed unused sequences during credits at the end of film but also used product placement in his movies, weren´t you?
Yes, those unused sequences were firstly used during my film „ Hooper“.We had plenty of unused film so I thought it would be wasted if we don´t use it.It became very popular.As for product placement it is tied with me owning a team in NASCAR serie. When I was looking for sponsor I always offered them an advert in one of my future films.How well it worked is obvious in „ Smokey and the Bandit“. I asked Pontiac and told them that I make film about cars.I demanded 10 cars and got 6.When the movie became a box office hit everybody wanted to have Pontiac, that very film model so their income shot sky hight.When I was preparing a sequel of this film I called them and they only asked me“ How many cars do you need“I got 70 and all were wrecked.
You were told to me the best paid stuntman in the world.Why did you charge them so much?
I always wanted to work as best as I could so director would just make take one.I assumed that if I ask for 5000 bucks for each stunt and will make it at first take, it will be much cheaper for director rather when he would hire someone cheaper but he would have to do it 5or 6 times, so in the end it would cost more.When one does make dangerous things he can ask for big money.When I tested the airbag and was supposed to hit the wall at high speed I asked for 25 000 and got them.
How do you view current movies with lots of tricks and animations?
Shame that those old films are made no more.In those days I herded 1200 horses into action, it was REAL thousand of live horses and I was in charge of it.These days, by computer they make herd of 5000 horses. I am convinced that people will always be needed in the film, that animation can´t replace them.
Thank you very much (2013)
Eva Csölleová and Vítek Formánek
6.3.1931 - 25.10.2013
Photo: Hal Needham, Pinterest, Imdb.com, picsofcelebrities.com