This Week’s Birthday: Hal Needham

Hal Needham (left) directing (if you can call it that) Burt Reynolds and Jerry Reed in "Smokey and the Bandit".

No, Hal Needham was not the best director in the world. In fact, his resume in that field reflects some of the worst garbage imaginable, from the Smokey and the Bandit series to the execrable Cannonball Run movies , the latter of which I believe isn’t available on DVD thanks to a Geneva Convention ruling.  But Hal Needham was a stuntman, first and foremost, and that’s fascinating to me. Also, I kind of like Burt Reynolds, and two of his great performances in later years–Bill Forsyth’s Breaking In (1989) and P. T. Anderson’s Boogie Nights (1997, and for which he was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar)–are really owed to his relationship with Needham (but more on that later.)

The bottom line is this: Hal Needham was a stuntman who had a really cool career in Hollywood and hit the jackpot big-time, and I don’t think we talk about the people behind the scenes like we ought to. Not everyone can be Buster Keaton: you need the bend-not-breakable stuntmen and -women to make that picture exciting. Attention must be paid.

Needham’s career strikes me as ideal for an old school wanderin’ tough guy. Born in Memphis and then following his family around the south as they picked cotton, upon leaving home, Needham landed in the Korean War as a paratrooper. Something tells me that a lot of life seems either dull or easy after that stint, so upon his return to the states, Needham became a “high climber” or “tree topper” which, according to the fairly unreliable sources at Wikipedia, is someone who “used iron climbing hooks and rope to ascend a tall tree in the landing area of the logging site, where he would chop off limbs as he climbed, chop off the top of the tree, and finally attach pulleys and rigging to the tree so it could be used as a spar so logs could be skidded into the landing.” I don’t see any reason not to believe that, and I like that it paints a portrait of a man who loves the taste of danger.

So why not Hollywood? I’m guessing that that bug bit him after he did some billboards for Viceroy cigarettes–Needham was just handsome enough to pull this off, sporting that high-cheeked and rugged cowboy look that my wife has called “ugly-sexy”. This is the look that wouldn’t sustain a camera’s gaze for any length of time, but might work fleetingly, you know, in shadow or under a hat or seen at a distance, tumbling off a roof or in a car that’s flipping upside-down. And here Mr. Needham finds himself a stuntman.

It’s all there: westerns, war movies, sci-fi (including some episodes of the original Star Trek–for Shatner?), spy flicks, you name it. Apparently he loved that job, having suffered bruises and scrapes in, according to the man himself, over 300 movies and 4,000 television shows, eventually landing the stuntman’s dream gig of stunt coordinator. This is, as you might guess, essentially being a director… of stunt men, of course, but in this glorious age before CGI stunts were king, so this is an important role. Coordinating real explosions and having near-handsome and fearless men pretend to be Steve McQueen, Gene Hackman, John Wayne, diving, falling, leaping, driving, or whatever it is that the movie star won’t actually do. Maybe that includes something as simple as toodling about on a Vespa. Whatever it is, Needham’s your guy.

Around 1970, Needham started his company, Stunts Unlimited, and this propelled him to the top of the pack. He met Burt Reynolds doing–what else?–stunts, and the two became fast friends, with Needham actually living under the star’s roof. There’s a long, involved and ultimately dull story about how Needham got the idea for Smokey and the Bandit (it involves a maid stealing Coors from his fridge), but Needham wrote a draft of the movie, gave it to his pal Burt, who was pals with Jerry Reed, and, well, there you go. Modestly budgeted, they figured it would do well, and Needham’s excited to be directing everyone for a change. Maybe this will get him more directing gigs.

By every standard imaginable, Smokey and the Bandit was huge. Second only to Star Wars in 1977, the film took in nearly $150 million dollars (about $450 million by today’s dollars!) and was probably a nice alternative to the summer of sci-fi (Close Encounters was also released that year.) The anti-cop, pro-beer chase movie with the toupeed hero and the country western singer in the orange pants was boffo.

Had you asked me last year which film is better, I would certainly have scoffed and told you Star Wars. However, having seen Smokey on the big screen at the Trylon last January (and Lucas’ magnum opus just a week ago) my opinion has changed ever so slightly–Star Wars is aging badly, while Smokey still has a rough ‘n’ tumble, definitely nostalgic appeal. What works is, yes, the stunts–tons of ridiculous car chases and what not, cars flying hither and yon, smashing into one another and flying off bridges and overpasses. But in that goofy script is a decent little road trip, a love of cars and trucks, an intriguing examination of CB radio culture, raunchy 70s jokes, and likeable performances from Reynolds, Reed, Sally Field and Jackie Gleason, who’s “I’m gonna barbecue your ass in moh-lass-ass” line remains a favorite.

No, you probably don’t need to go out and rent the movie, but my point here is that Reynolds made some good movies here and there (Deliverance most notably) and a few hits that suck (Gator, North Dallas Forty), but Smokey is his iconic movie. He never did anything remotely as popular before that, nor after, and without this massive hit, there’s no way Reynolds gets out of an eventual career in television and straight-to-video fare. No Boogie Nights, my friend.

But this is about Needham, who went on to direct a ton of horrible movies and runs his stunt company to this day. Word has it that he did some stunts in Smokey even as he directed that blockbuster, which I personally find endearing. Fact is, there’s few stuntmen who did more with their careers, for better or worse, than this cotton-picker’s son from Memphis. While he never scaled the heights of Don Lockwood, Hal Needham’s career is a sweet story about finding your niche in the often brutal sun of Southern California. A cowboy among movie stars, Hal Needham’s life ought to have been the stuff of a Johnny Cash tune.

Hal Needham was born in Memphis, Tennessee on March 6, 1931 to Edith May (née Robinson) and Howard Needham.

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