Friday, September 2, 2011

Decatur Book Festival: "Stuntman," Hal Needham

Even a book festival needs a little thrill-seeking occasionally -- books that lift the reader right out of the ordinary and into a Hollywood movie set. This year's Decatur Book Festival features an appearance by Hal Needham, one of the most versatile men behind the Hollywood scenes, who will be talking about his new book Stuntman!: My Car-Crashing, Plane-Jumping, Bone-Breaking, Death-Defying Hollywood Life.

Needham set Guinness World Records and was the financier and owner of the Budweiser Rocket Car (now on display in the Smithsonian Museum), the first land vehicle to break the sound barrier - traveling at 739.666 mph. The highest paid stuntman in the world, he has broken fifty-six bones and his back (twice), was the first human to test the car airbag, and has fought for the respect and recognition that stuntmen and stuntwomen deserve for their contribution to the world of moviemaking.

Needham appears Saturday at the First Baptist Sanctuary Stage at 4:15 p.m. More information can be found at the DBF website, but here are a few words from Needham himself by way of introduction. Better hold on -- Stuntman looks like one heck of a ride. The movie Smokey and the Bandit may not have been a critics' favorite but it gained Needham one surprising fan:

While prepping Smokey, I saw a picture in a magazine of a Pontiac Trans Am that gave me a product placement idea. I could picture Burt Reynolds behind the wheel with Jackie Gleason on the chase. I called Pontiac and asked if they would like to have the car in the movie. They asked how many I thought I would need. Knowing the Trans Am was going to take a beating, I asked for six. We negotiated down to four, and I also asked for four Bonnevilles to use as Gleason's sheriff car and settled for two.

The bridge jump in the movie wiped out one Trans Am. Jumping the fence into the ball field took care of the second. Jumping curbs and driving through ditches and down embankments pretty well trashed the other two. Using parts from the cars that would no longer run, we managed to make it to the final day of shooting. When we got ready to shoot the last scene, car number four just flat- out wouldn't start, so we used another car to push it into the scene. I was surprised the cars lasted as long as they did, considering all the abuse we put them through.

When Smokey was released and became a blockbuster, Trans Am sales went through the roof. If you wanted a black Trans Am, you had to wait a minimum of six months. By the time we were ready to shoot Smokey II, I was on a first-name basis with Pontiac. How many cars would I need? I asked for ten Trans Ams and 55 Bonnevilles: five for Gleason, and fifty for Gleason's Canadian law enforcement buddies who'd come down to help him catch the Bandit.

I wanted 25 painted red and the other 25 painted white. Pontiac's only questions were where and when. I gave them the start date and the location, Las Vegas, and they said, "No problem." At the time, I was taken to task by the critics for using real products in my movies. Now product placement in movies has grown into a multimillion-dollar industry.

It was no thanks to the critics that Smokey became a box office smash. They panned it even after it became a hit. They said things like as a first-time director, "Needham had failed miserably." One Texas critic said that after he saw the movie, he walked out into the lobby and heard someone behind him say, "That's the best movie I've ever seen!" The critic turned around to see a nine-year-old boy, and added, "That's my review of Smokey and the Bandit." I saved that one.

The critics gave me bad reviews on every movie I made. In my career I directed ten feature films at a total cost of $110 million that today have grossed $1.4 billion and counting. The only movie to out gross Smokey in the year it came out was Star Wars. If you want the lowdown on a movie, listen to the word of mouth of people who have seen it. Don't be swayed by what a critic writes. Before the critics were so harsh with their reviews of Smokey and the Bandit, they might have spoken to Alfred Hitchcock. When asked to name his favorite movie — in an answer later verified by his daughter — Hitch answered, "Smokey and the Bandit."

No comments: