The Hollywood stuntman is under investigation for that WWII rescue. 3,158 words. Part One. Part Two. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
1955 – Saratoga, New York
I’m about two inches shorter than Gary Cooper but I have the same hair color, same build, same jaw line and same profile. In fight scenes I have to move like him and on horseback I need to ride like him. For the record, Coop does a lot of his own stunts but, fortunately for me, the studio isn’t about to risk their top box office draw on cliff dives, getting shot off horses or crashing into a saloon mirror. Because of such, I’ve been employed for over two decades as Coop’s stunt double.
People get confused between a stand-in and stunt double so let me explain: A stand-in is simply a man or woman who’s used by the director and the director of photography to get the lighting right for a particular scene. The person has to have some similarities to the designated actor. A stunt double is much more.
Not that I need the money. Only a handful of people in Hollywood know my family’s background or wealth. Even less care. Stunt doubles are props, called upon for one very specific need for a motion picture – to be seen and not heard. A few stars talk to me and show a genuine interest; Coop is like that. So is Randolph Scott and Duke Wayne, if he’s not too busy getting yelled at by Pappy Ford. But the majority keep me at a professional distance which is fine by me. We all have jobs to do and as long as I show up on time, sober and alert, I have no trouble on the set. It’s the perfect job for me, requiring athletic skill, paying a decent salary and providing a free lunch.
In 1955 I had the occasion to double for Coop in his latest feature, Friendly Persuasion. It wasn’t what you would call a very physical movie, being about Quakers and all, but it was good to be able to work with Coop again. There was one fight scene in which Coop gave me the majority of the falls even though, after reading the script, I was sure it was a stunt that he could handle on his own.
Tap Canutt, the son of my mentor — well, truth be told, every stuntman’s mentor, Yakima Canutt — was going to be the heavy in the scene. We went through some gags and worked with the director William Wyler to block out the scene. Coop walked off to his dressing room.
This was not like him; he usually stuck around to provide advice on how his character would move or react. I found out later that he had a hernia and was in great pain. Coop told me he had four operations for it in two years.