Stuntmen appear on your TV screen all the time. They are in the blockbuster movies you see at your local cinema or drive in. They are the reason you clap and yell when Johnny Depp does something amazing as a pirate. They are the reason you suck in your breath when you see Steve McQueen throw his Mustang around the streets of San Francisco. They fall off cliffs, out of tall buildings, fly through pane-glass windows, they drive like maniacs and they ride horses so wildly that real cowboys would quiver. Yet you rarely see them.
They are men and women without faces. They are bodies in motion. They are smart and tough, and durable. Yet they are like ghosts. Stunt people are actors without faces; merely bodies in motion, realizing the moments on screen, which the main actors cannot accomplish without them. Sometimes the stunts are lavish and extreme setups in movies like Terminator or Die Hard franchises. Often they are much more minor, but equally important to crash scenes in cop shows or a stagecoach robbery in an old western series.
Most film and TV genres have a need for stunt folk. As you get to know Jim Winburn below, you will soon see the range and scope of a stunt person’s career. And Jim’s oeuvre is as diverse as any actor in Hollywood. Many people remember Jim for his role in the original Halloween movie by John Carpenter. An actor plays the evil Mike Myers, but by Jim for all the stunt work. It is reminiscent of many classic horror movies. Creature from the Black Lagoon for instance has Ben Chapman playing all the creatures scenes above water, and Ricou Browning doing all the underwater scenes. These dualities rule many famous characters, split between the actor who gives the creature life and the stunt person who often provides the X factor.
At Jim’s website: there is a lot more to learn about the man and his craft with numerous photos and details about photo signings and obtaining autographed memorabilia. Drop in, or drop Jim a line about your favourite film. When I recently caught up with Jim, here is what he had to say about his many unique movie experiences…
David: Growing up on the backlots of the Warner Bros and Universal studios, can you recall your first brush with someone famous?
Jim: Being born in Cincinnati Ohio, I was a Roy Rogers fan, because Cincinnati was Roy Rogers’ hometown. I remember meeting Roy Rogers at the “Roy Rogers Touring Wild West Show,” in 1945, when he, and his touring group of performers and his horse, Trigger, were performing at Crosby Field in Cincinnati, Ohio for military families, the military home guard and for the city children.
Meeting Roy Rogers for the first time at the age of eight was great! I told him that, when I grow up, “I was going to be in the movies too.” Little did I know then that my family was going to move out to California at the end of that year? The main reason was for my mother’s health. Plus, my father had always wanted to live out West, ever since he was a teenager, transporting race horses out to Hollywood Park Race track from my grandfather’s broodmare farm in Louisville, Kentucky.
After, we settled into Glendale, California just a few miles from Warner Bros and Universal studios. I got my first job, working at the old Riverside Drive Stable. Just outside Griffin Park entrance off Los Felix Boulevard. Most of the time, I would clean the stalls, wash down the rental horses and clean and polish the tack. Across the street from the stable was the Sons of the Pioneer Club on Riverside Drive. It was great going over there in the afternoons to get a sandwich and a cold soda, while seeing most of the “B’ movie western stars of the day, dropping in for a cold one.
Roy Rogers was always dropping by to see his buddies. It was great to listen to the various western bands jam. It was a real hoot! I remember on this one day, Roy Rogers and a group of his friends dropped by. I was busy playing shuffle-board, and in those days it was against the law for a minor to be in a saloon where grownups were drinking. How times have changed.
I saw Roy Rogers coming out of the men’s room and stopping to pick up something that he had dropped. So, I walked up to him and said. “Mr. Rogers.” He looked up at me and said, “Call me, Roy,” then he smiled. I told him I met him in Cincinnati at the “Roy Roger’s Touring Wild West Show.” He asked me, “What are you doing out here in California.” So, I told him that my family moved out here to improve my mother’s health. He was just great to meet and talk to and I wasn’t disappointed.
So, I would say, Roy Rogers, “America’s Number One Cowboy” was the first famous celebrity I ever met.
David: Your career as a movie and TV stuntman did not actually begin until your thirties. Earlier you had served in the USAF before beginning pursuing a career in acting and music. In fact, it was a stage act you did with one of your old mates, which led to you meeting members of the SAMP. This changed your career forever. However, I was wondering when you actually performed your first stunt and what the stunt entailed?
Jim: On that day working on stage doing my old Air Force routine live show stage act, I met the acting President of the ‘Stuntmen’s Association of Motion Picture,’ Bobby Herron, stuntmen Orrin Harvey and other great working stuntmen of that time. In my conversation with one of the stuntmen, I think it was Orrin Harvey, he told me about a gym in Santa Monica, California, where a stuntman named Paul Stader trained the basics in stunt work for film. So I sought out Paul Stader at his gym. I drove down to Santa Monica and met him one weekend. There were about twenty young men and a few ladies working out, training in western fights, tumbling and high falls. This was a great start for me, because I met a group of top stunt people who would become lifelong friends, such as: Orrin Harvey, George Wilbur, Dick Durock, Dale Park, Chuck Water, Bob Minor, Denver Mattson, Vince Deadrick Sr, Mike Johnson and Larry Holt to name a few. After, training at Paul Stader’s gym for a time and learning some of the tricks of the trade, I moved on, training with other stuntmen and stunt riggers. From these other top stuntmen and stunt riggers, I learned how to “Walk, Talk and Chew gum,” and to do the stunt gag right the first time with safety. Those next three years of training were great as I learned camera lens and production values. Those three years were hard on my family though seeing how I was always gone.
I got a telephone call from “Teddy O’Toole Answering Service” that, they had accepted a work call for me. It was low budget film from Canada, which was shooting in Hollywood. I was told that I was going to double a white actor in a martial art’s fight and get kicked out of a second storey window. Well, when I got to location, on the backlot of the old Samuel Goldwyn Studios, it turned out to be an ugly horror movie with World War II Nazi-type soldiers, and these young beautiful girls, who were being trained to be sold to these rich old men around the world. The stunt coordinator was a friend.
So the first stunts in a film as I recall, were hand to hand combat fight, an air ramp with explosion, FX squib bullet hits on the body, and a smallish twenty-foot high-fall from a water tower as it blows up. The film title was Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS directed by Don Edmond. That film made a lot of money worldwide.
A few months later, I received a call from George Wilbur who was the stunt coordinator on the first Ilsa film. He asks me to go the Ilsa Production Office and meet with director Don Edmond. George Wilbur gave me, my first stunt coordinator job on the “Elsa II” the sequel.
Director/Producer/writer Don Edmond and I became great friends and we worked on many low budget films together over the next ten to twelve years. We are still close friends today.
David: Could you tell us about the most dangerous stunt you ever performed and the worst injuries you ever sustained on a film set?
Jim: That’s really a good question. I have been hit by a moving car – had a back fall sixty-five feet to a air bag, being blown through a wall – I have been dragged on the side of a car moving at thirty-five mph down a narrow winding street in San Francisco, fighting the stunt driver, before finally rolling off at the bottom of the hill as the car turned the corner and then being missed by a n/d cars – I have been run over by a four-up horse team pulling a stagecoach – I played a San Francisco motorcycle police officer standing in the middle of the street as two horse-team wagons come racing down the packed street, with a stuntman Romans riding, standing on the two inside team horses as it sandwiched me and the two wagon passing around me, as I said to them, “STOP! In name of the law…” - I have been air ramped over a military vehicle as an explosion and fire goes off around me - I have jumped from a moving streetcar trolley to another streetcar trolley going in the other direction, rolling off the top of the trolley and crashing to the pavement below as a bunch of cars slide around me, then getting up and rolling over the hood of a oncoming car which is sliding to a stop, rolling onto the street as a second car just misses me – I have repelled one-hundred feet down into a cave 100, and fallen the final thirty-three feet to the bottom of the cave onto a fall-pad when the repelling rope is cut by a sharp rock edge FX – I have crashed through the front windshield of a Greyhound bus, landing on the trunk on a n/d car in front of the bus – I’ve done various types of action stunts with SFX over my life time, and I’ve driven on the Hollywood freeway at rush hour!!!
Every stunt I ever did on film was serious. Yes, I have been hurt. Not broken up as some stuntmen I know. Every stunt I have done was carefully planned and correctly executed with the help of the SFX people, the grips, the construction people, the stunt people and the action atmosphere people who work on the scene. They all made me look good. I thank God for watching over me, and the n/d people in scene, and that no one got hurt. So, if at the end of a day’s shooting, I could count five fingers on each hand then I’d had a great day.
Injuries, oh yes, hands, legs, ribs, feet, fingers and arms is part of the game, but never a serious injury. When you really come down to it, planning, rigging and executing the stunt, the percentage is on your side that everything will come out okay. Working with animals is another question. Mostly because of the hard training and continuous training every day to keep your body and your mental process healthy for any and every stunt job that is offered to you. Every stunt is a possibly serious injury. “The piece of cake is away after the fact,” and being a Christian, I know my limitations.
AN UNFORGETTABLE STUNT
On the film, Beyond Evil, I was stunt coordinator and stunt doubling the second lead on the motion picture. The scene is where I will be blown out through a breakaway wall and fall sixty-five feet backward to the ground. As I went through the breakaway wall and was in full flight, falling, everything was going good. The stunt safety people that were spotting me as I was falling were to carefully watch me fall, and just before my impact onto the airbag, they would switch off the larger fan, leaving only the two smaller fans blowing air into the airbag. It was a one-stage airbag. However, the large fan was not shut off, so when I hit the airbag, I bounced back into the air ten to fifteen feet and came down headfirst, striking the large fan motor, knocking me out cold.
The paramedic rushed to my side. They were checking over my head, shoulders and neck, to see if I had suffered any major damage. As they touched me, their hands were ice cold and my body was turning to an icy cold feeling. My mind started drifting to a bright light in the far distant of space. I had no pain. I could hear loud noises, voices all around me.
Now on the set, we had a deacon from the physical healing church working as the head set decorator. He convinced the paramedics that he could help, so as he knelt down beside me, the paramedics backed away and allowed this man to place his hands onto the back of my neck. As he started slowly rubbing the back of my neck, shoulders and head, I could feel the warmness of this man’s hands touching something inside me, and that cold icy feeling leaving my body and the warm liquid of life coming back into my body. My body temperature changed, and the bright light started to get further and further away from me. Within minutes, I was standing up and the first thing that came out of my mouth was, “Camera #1! “Cameraman yells back, camera #1 good!” Camera #2! Cameraman yells back, camera #2 good! Camera #3 was good. I yelled, Camera #4! “Cameraman #4 yells back, film stock hung up.” So three cameras out of four caught the fall, but most importantly, it was the prime-camera, and camera #2 which got the fall in slow motion, that was good!
David: Nowadays, fans remember you most for your role in the original Halloween, despite appearing in hundreds of movies and TV shows. Do you recall when it was that you signed your very first autograph and how it came about?
Jim: Now that’s a hard question. Beginning in entertainment as a young chap, and doing entertainment at grammar schools, high school stage plays and playing second trombone in the various dance bands, the Air Force stage show in Okinawa and doing various live performances in Las Vegas and at Universal Studios Tours doing the Wild West Comedy Stunt Live Stage Show for eleven years.
People are people, and children are children and they all want to be entertained and to be a part of that event, even in grammar school, high school, Air Force or even in the casino. When you are on stage and everything goes great, the audience will applaud and applaud you, and when they see you walking around after the show, they will always give you a smile, come up to you and ask for an autograph. So I really I don’t know when I signed my first autograph.
That question made me think a little?
David: You have doubled for some great actors including Peter O’Toole. Who are some of the actors you have enjoyed doubling for and do you have a favorite story from a film set?
Jim: Every actor is a character of events. When you are on film location or performing on the studio sound stages with a celebrity like Peter O’Toole, Barry Bostwick or David Hasselhoff and you are photo doubling that actor or just doing stunts, things do happen. But, when you are rehearing a scene or the production company is in a hurry to move to the next location, because of some production reason, like, they are losing day light, permits or, just getting behind, problems and funny things do happen.
For number of years, I photo-doubled and stunt-doubled for Barry Bostwick. After getting out of makeup and into Barry’s double wardrobe for an action scene, I would find myself in front of the camera, doing Barry’s dialogue and some stunts in one take. The director would say, “That’s a print, let’s move to next location.” I did that many times, and no one ever said anything at Paramount Studio, when they watched the dailies. That was a great feeling. Barry loved it too. He was great to work with.
David: Which stuntmen do you most respect in the movie business?
Jim: First of all, I respect most stuntmen and stuntwomen that work in our industry. There are some stunt people, who shouldn’t be in our industry, but that’s the freedom of employment, and the production staff’s decision.
Stuntmen whom I respect. There are so many. Here are few very fine stuntmen who are no longer with us. Buff Brady, Fred Carson, Roger Creed, Chuck Courtney, Phil Chong, Bennie Dobbins, Dick Geary, Lennie Geer, Orrin Harvey, Denver Mattson, , Chuck Hayward, John “Bear’ Hudkins, Jim Gavin pilot, Bill Lane, Harvey Parry, Reg Parton, Allen Pinson, Ross Reynolds Pilot, George Robotham, Wally Rose, Russ Saunders, Fred “Shaw’ Scheiwiller, Art Scholl pilot, Paul Stader, Tom Steele, Jerry Summer, Mike Tillman, Jack Williams, and Henry Wills. Many of these stuntmen built our industry to where it is today.
These stuntmen are still working or playing golf at a golf course in your neighborhood.
Larry Holt, George Wilbur, Chuck Water, Hank Calia, Dick Warlock, Dick Durock, Eddie Hice, Tom Rosales, Neil Summer, Terry Leonard, Fred Lerner, George Fisher, Bob Minor, Tony Brubaker, Chuck Hicks, Nick Dimitri, Vince Deadrick Sr, Vince Deadrick Jr., Erik Cord, Roydon Clark, Dave Cass, Hal Burton, Jerry Brutsche, Bob Herron, Wayne “Buddy” Van Horn, Greg and Rock Walker, Dean Smith, Richard Washington, Bob Terhune, Jack Verbois, Ted White, Gene Lebell, Kent Hays, Bill Hart, Loren Janes, Bob Miles, Bud Ekin, Fred Brookfield, and many other great stuntmen.
They are so many independent stuntmen, stuntwomen and stunt groups, such as: Stunts Unlimited, Brand X, Stuntwomen Association of Motion Pictures, other ladies group and foreign stunt groups around the world, who are great stuntmen and women in their own right.
I respect those stunt people that make our worldwide stunt industry a respected name of professionals and always spell out safety to the production companies. Great stunt people makes great movie for the world audience.
David: What is the funniest or strangest thing, which has happened to you during your thirty plus years in front of a camera?
Jim: WOW! Another great question? So many funny or strange things happen on the set. Well here is one I can remember. I was working for a production company in North Dakota for the Edward Lewis Productions/Warner Bros release Brothers. The story of this film was about prison life for black prisoners. It is about a black activist named George Jackson and letters he writes and receives from college professor, Angela Davis in Northern California.
In the State penitentiary in Bismarck North Dakota, there weren’t any black prisoners except one. He is the prison cook and serving life for murder. So, the first thing the production did was ask the nearby Air Force Base to furnish black airmen, who wanted to work in a movie and in prison. The State penitentiary is what the inmates would call, “A country club.”
My job as stunt coordinator was to train the white prisoners to fight the black prisoners in the theatre gym room and out in the recreation yard, making sure that no one would get hurt when the riot started. After three weeks of training the white prisoners and the black airmen, I had weeded out the prisoners, who had serious motional problems and loved to hurt people. Now, I was ready to start the blocking of the action scenes in the theatre and outside in the yard, with the help of the real prison guards.
Being a “Hollywood Stuntman” in a prison setting, which houses thieves and killers, I had to prove myself to them, and get their attention fast, that I knew what I am doing and what I was asking them to do. In a production meeting at the local hotel, I suggested that I needed to shock the prisoners to get their attention, to get them to work properly with the production schedule for the action scenes. I told the production staff, that I wanted to schedule the date for the high fall from the fifth-tier of the cellblock building. It also happened to be the same area where prisoners often committed suicide by jumping from tier five, so that area was pretty much taboo to the prisoners. Not surprisingly, the production manager and the producers re-schedule the high fall date.
The word got around the prison that some crazy Hollywood stunt person was going to jump off the fifth tier. Well, let me tell you, when that day came, the prison population of six-hundred inmates, all tried to fit themselves into that cellblock to see this crazy Hollywood stuntman kill himself.
The camera was set, the lamps were jelled, FX people were ready and the port-a-pad was in place. On “action”, three men are struggling, two white redneck Hollywood actors and me, doubling as the Sgt of the prison guards. At that moment, I am picked up by the two white prisoners and hurled over the railing falling to the cellblock floor below. In my flight to my port-a-pad, I fall through breakaway electrical wiring, sparking all the way down to my high fall pad as the FX people set off a mortar explosion of smoke and steam, which shot upward as I hit the fall pad.
The prison population was so quiet that you could hear a pin drop. As, I got off the high fall pad, the prisoners went crazy. What an experience that was. After that, the prisoners follow me through the productions schedule in training and the filming of their scenes. For the next four-to-five weeks of shooting the prisoners and the black Hollywood actors and the black Air Force airman all work with each other with respect and interest to get the filming completed.
When we wrap on the last day of shooting, and are ready to head back to Los Angeles, the inmates who worked around us during all those weeks throw a farewell party for the production crew. It was great send off! They gave me presents, which some of the prisoners made, to give to my three boys. Some of the prisoners gave short speeches, explaining how much they respected the production staff, the crew and me, and told us how being a part of this film production for a moment of their prison lives, had given them a break from the real prison life.
David: Do you collect movie memorabilia or autographs? And if so what are some of your favorite items?
Jim: No, I don’t collect movie memorabilia or autographs. Sorry.
David: If any person in history could sign their photo for you, who would you ask and what would you like them to say in their dedication?
Jim: There are so many people from history, whose photos I would love to have. However, if it could choose any two people then I would choose President Abraham Lincoln and President Ronald Reagan. I think it would be nice to have them write the following: “To Jim Winburn, You’re a good performer on stage and in films, a good father to your sons and a great patriot who believes in freedom, and the love for his country, America.”
David: Over the years, you have appeared at a number of conventions across North America. Which shows do you enjoy the most and do you have any funny fan stories or received any weird requests?
Jim: First of all, I love the horror movie fan. I enjoy signing autographs and taking photos with the fans. I enjoy the conversation too. It amazes me, how much information and knowledge the fans have about the films I work on; like Halloween 1978 for example. They know more about the film production than I ever did. They understand camera angles, the process of drama, and the dialogue of the actors. To me, as the year ticks by, most of the films I have been in are now just a dream.
On my online webpage, I listed barely half the number of films and television productions that I have worked on. It is somewhere around four-hundred-sixty-five on my last count. I enjoy watching those replays of films I have worked on. I often find myself wondering how I did that stunt or how I walked away unhurt. I guess age has a lot to do with it.
The film conventions are great fun. I love to travel to various cities around North America that I never been to before. Meet the local people and have some great conversation. It’s been a real life experience doing celebrity conventions too although I really don’t think I am a celebrity. I just was there when the producer and director needed a stunt person.
I have always wanted to be invited to Sydney, Australia and do a “Horror Film Convention” or a celebrity convention there and maybe put on a seminar and have a conversation about low-budget production on horror films with Q and A.
I will never forget, when these two young men came to my booth and asked for autograph. I said, “Do you have a photo or DVD cover of Halloween 1978?” They said, no. Then I said, “Do you want to buy a photo here on the table and get autograph on the photo?” Again, they said no. Then I said, “Why are you asking for autograph?” The taller young man said. “I want you to sign your autograph on my upper arm under the balcony where you are falling as Michael Myers.” Then he rolled up his sleeve, and showed me this tattoo of me falling over the balcony railing on Halloween 1978. Then he handed me a special pen, so, I wrote my name under the tattoo. He was so happy. The other guy had a tattoo on his shoulder. He wanted me to sign my autograph saying, “To Mike - Jim Winburn – stunts Halloween 1978. He said he and his buddy had been waiting for this convention for months to get me to sign their tattoos. At the same convention, a woman in her early forties wanted me to sign my autograph on her breast. She had a tattoo of Michael Myers standing at the balcony double doors, before he went over the railing…
David: Did you ever knock back a film, or miss a film, which you later wished you had taken part?
Jim: They were many films that I was asked to work on, but I couldn’t because I was under contract to another film. When you are working in Hollywood as a stuntman, your name becomes well known to the casting directors, producers, director and stunt coordinator, who want you to work for them or you get a request from your actor. It’s decision time. Sometimes the money is not as good as the other film, but you are working and doing a job, which often pays off down the road. Keeping busy was the number one job in Hollywood. Being a member of the “Stuntmen’s Association of Motion Pictures” for over thirty-five years helps a lot too. It is a great organization, which has been around since 1963.
When I was young stuntman climbing the ladder, I did regret missing or turning down work. However, in my long career, “What comes around, comes around and the scale balance out.” I look back at films I didn’t work, as the years pass by. I get stuntman friends who worked on that film calling me up and having a long conversation about stunts that I did on that film. I hate to tell them it wasn’t me. But you do. Yet, that’s what happens when you’ve been around film industry a long while and work on a lot of productions. Everyone thinks that you work on every film that was made in Hollywood. Just as it was never true that I had one day on All Quiet on the Western Front.
David: Is there a story, or incident, from your life, which you feel best sums up your life and career?
Jim: As a young boy in Cincinnati, Ohio living on the edge of the banks of the Great Ohio River, I read Tom Sawyer Adventures, listened to the radio drama hour at night and read stories about those Hollywood film actors performing in all those famous action, adventure films in 1935 to 1946.
I found out that a young boy’s dreams do comes true. After moving to California my dreams became real. It was hard to break into the Hollywood. Trying to meet and get into the casting agent office to help open the doors to the Hollywood studios. That was an impossible task without knowing someone.
My father laid the law down to me about finishing high school. After graduating, I enlisted into the United State Air Force for four years and after I got an Honorable Discharge from Air Force, I entered college for next two years, majoring in music and drama.
As I sit here today looking back over my career answering these questions, I never knew that my career would last all these years. In this business, you are in, and then you are out. I never knew that I would be a part of a great entertainment industry that would give me a great livelihood and allow me to meet so many wonderful people around the world. So my boyhood dream did come true. With hard training with good friends at my side, the entertainment industry gave me my dream and a great ride.
Interview Copyright David Priol 2007
Photos Copyrighted to their various owners