When a movie bases characters on real-life people, the film version often ends up just a little more interesting than how they actually were—which tends to happen after you add CGI, expensive set-pieces, and very attractive/famous actors.
Rarely is it the other way around. In Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, which is out this Friday, we’re introduced to Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), a military vet working as the stuntman/driver/best bud of western TV and movie star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio). The duo is inspired by stuntman Hal Needham and actor Burt Reynolds, who had a long, wild friendship throughout their careers.
In Once Upon a Time, Booth is like a ’60s-hued Brad Pitt composite character, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing: Never uncool, always hilarious, occasionally shirtless. But Booth’s inspiration, Needham—who died at 82 in October 2013—was even more remarkable: A cross between the MacGyver and the Dos Equis guy, inventing stunt rigs and shattering bones by day, and beefing with John Wayne by night.
Here’s what made Needham worthy of the Tarantino treatment, and why he’s up there with Buster Keaton and Jackie Chan in the GOAT stuntman conversation.
He did Fast and Furious-level stunts—in the ’50s and ’60s.
Needham broke into stunt work by accident: he was pruning trees for a living before enlisting in the military as a paratrooper. When he came back, Needham met another ex-paratrooper who dreamed of working in Hollywood—that guy ended up getting him his first and second stunt jobs. Needham was good at it, and he liked the money, so he didn’t really stop after that—even though he broke 56 bones (including his back, twice) throughout his career, he was always one-upping himself.
In Little Big Man (1970), Needham makes like Red Dead and jumps between the backs of galloping horses (you think Dustin Hoffman did that?). Not really a margin for error there. In an interview with NPR, Needham talked about a stunt he did for the TV series Have Gun, Will Travel: Jumping from a rock, 30 feet in the air, onto a moving stagecoach—without any padding.
“[The coach] really looked small. It looked like a postage stamp,” he said. “They brought the coach, and I hit it right in the center. But I broke through the top right up to my armpits, and that kind of shocked the folks inside the coach.”
And when hurling himself through the air wasn’t enough, Needham started doing the same thing with cars and boats. In White Lightning (1973), he jumped his car 80 feet from a riverbank onto a moving ferry, and Gator (1976) sees the stuntman rocketing across a swamp via boat, flying 138 feet through the air—all virtually unheard-of feats at the time.
It’s no wonder Needham was peeved when Hollywood started trading stunts for special effects. In his memoir, Stuntman! My Car-Crashing, Plane-Jumping, Bone-Breaking, Death-Defying Hollywood Life, he wrote:
“I hate it! … A guy jumps off of a 250-foot dam, and it cuts to the water and he bobs up, like he’s a duck. And you go, ‘Wait a minute. Give me a break. A guy would kill himself doing that. There’s no way he could do it.’ And it just — with cars and motorcycles and all kinds of things. To me, it takes all of the reality out of the show. I just can’t stand it. Even as a director, I never did that stuff. We did it for real. I can look at it onscreen and go, ‘That’s B.S. That don’t work. You can’t do that.’ And so I lose all interest in the film.”
The stuntman was close with Burt Reynolds.
Needham met Reynolds on the set of Riverboat, a short-lived western that ran on NBC from 1959 to 1961. In a 2015 interview with Variety, Reynolds, in true Rick Dalton fashion, said he was confident doing his own stunts—but the producers brought in Needham anyway.
“I was so cocky. I didn’t want a stunt double,” Reynolds said. “I told him, ‘Look, I don’t want to take away from your talent. I’m sure you’re very good, but I do my own stunts.’ He smiled and said, ‘If you knew how many actors I’ve taken to the hospital that said that to me. But I want to watch you do this.’ I said, ‘OK,’ and I did the stunt. He said I was pretty good and asked me what else I could do. I said, ‘Anything you can teach me.’ He said, ‘OK, come out to my house.’”
The two stayed friends long after that, telling The Hollywood Reporter in 2016 that they were “two guys that thought that the other one was great and at the same time were happy to just have a mirror there.” Needham even lived with Reynolds for five years, during which the actor said they “never, ever had a cross word.”
His off-screen life deserves its own movie.
Seriously—why hasn’t Needham’s memoir gotten the big-screen treatment yet? It’s even more loaded than Once Upon a Time with Hollywood golden-era goodness.
At one point, Needham writes about working with John Wayne on the set of The Undefeated (1969)–apparently the big guy couldn’t throw a convincing fake punch. Unsolicited, Needham showed Wayne how to do it—a move he’d pay for later when the cast and crew were out boozing, and the western legend put him in a headlock.
“A few seconds passed and I wasn’t sure whether he was going to release me or tear my head off,” Needham wrote, thankfully escaping with a friendly head rub.
And brace yourself for this one—apparently The Cannonball Run (1981), which Needham directed and stars Jackie Chan and Burt Reynolds participating in a highly-illegal, cross-country street race—is something the stuntman actually did himself. That’s where the idea came from. In the book, Needham claims he made the trip in 32 (!) hours. The whip that got him there? A Dodge van rigged to look like an ambulance, sirens and everything.
He had a long directing career, and his inventions even nabbed him an Academy Award.
Even though Needham was basically made of steel, he obviously couldn’t stay in stunt work forever—so in 1976 he directed his buddy Burt in Smokey and the Bandit, which he also wrote the screenplay for. He kept writing and directing well into the ’90s, once telling the Los Angeles Times: “I know one thing; I’ll never win an Academy Award. But I’ll be a rich son of a bitch. And that’s what it’s all about.”
He actually did win an Academy Award—an honorary one for developing the Shotmaker Elite Camera Car and Crane. It was one of the many inventions he developed that made stunts cheaper and better-looking—and less likely to give the future Hal Needhams of the world broken bones.
On what made him successful in life, Needham once said: “Some ambition, a little guts, some good friends and a lot of luck. Also, a hard head.”