Last weekend, I met a young guy at a barbeque who had just relocated to L.A. When I asked him what had brought him here, he was a little vague at first, but eventually confessed that he was interested in possibly doing some stunt work. I wished him well. Being the bookish, indoorsy type, stunt work has always seemed about as appealing to me as working on a bomb squad. Although, I truly admire the people who do it.
Over the years, I’ve worked with some terrific stunt coordinators who were great at making actors feel confident while keeping things safe and fun. I’ve also worked with a couple of guys who were not so much fun. My first unhappy experience came many years ago when I was doing a truly awful off-Broadway play. At one point in the show, I had to attack one of the other actors, who then had to beat me into submission. This was followed by a scene where we played Russian Roulette with a loaded pistol. Like I said, it was an awful play.
The minute I laid eyes on the stunt guy (who we’ll call “Bill”) I sensed I wasn’t going to like him. He was as big as a house and had an ego to match. He’d been working on some movie and seemed to think he was doing us a favor by even being there. When I confessed that I wasn’t exactly the rough-and-tumble type, he seemed to take it as a challenge to his authority. For the next two hours, he proceeded to choreograph a fight that was like something out of a James Bond movie. His idea seemed to be that my character was a glutton for punishment and that no matter how many times the other actor punched me in the face, kicked me in the stomach or kneed me in the groin, I just kept coming back. Finally, when Bill suggested that it might be fun if the other actor used a chair to knock me over the sofa, I felt compelled to point out that if his character really did all this to me, I’d be dead. This got a huge laugh in the rehearsal hall which made Bill dislike me even more.
Finally, the director stepped in, suggesting that maybe something a little less spectacular would work better for me. Bill, clearly miffed, shrugged his shoulders and agreed to pare the fight down to “something this guy can handle.” I was instructed to stand off to one side as Bill and his assistant demonstrated “the backhand.” I had to admit Bill was good. Every time he smacked his assistant across the face, it looked and sounded painfully real. In an effort to drive home the finer points of the backhand, Bill repeated it rapidly, over and over! Smack! Smack! Smack!
Suddenly, I heard a pop. My vision went a little blurry. I wanted to say something, but my brain couldn't formulate any words. The only thought I could crystallize was that I'd been shot in the head - which didn't make any sense. All of a sudden, the director was in front of me asking if I was okay. “No,” I answered as my knees started to buckle. Grabbing my arm, he steered me into a nearby chair. That’s when I was informed that Bill’s bulky metal wristwatch had come loose while he was demonstrating the rapid “backhand” and it had struck me in the forehead going about sixty miles an hour. Within seconds, a huge goose egg popped up over my right eyebrow. Somebody found some ice and gradually my ability to form words came back -- as did my ability to feel intense, searing pain! Rehearsal was called off for the rest of the afternoon and when I next saw Bill a few days later, he was much nicer to me (probably because he feared a law suit). In the end, most of the fight wound up occurring behind a conveniently-placed sofa where my fellow actor punched a pillow and I made a bunch of “Oooff” sounds.
My next scary stunt moment didn’t come until many years later. I was shooting a scene in a TV show where I had to sneak up on a lovely actress named Jill while she was seated on a sofa having a phone conversation, and hit her in the back of the head with a shovel. It was meant to be funny, but Jill and I were both anxious about it – and rightfully so. The “stunt shovel” was made out of rubber -- so, although it wasn’t deadly, it would certainly hurt if it made contact.
As planned, I wasn’t actually going to hit her with it. I was just going to swing at her, then jerk the shovel back at the last possible second. In order for everything to fit into the shot, I had to hold the shovel at the very end of the handle which made it heavy and awkward to manipulate. Plus, I had to step into the shot, hit my mark, and somehow time the whole thing out so I popped her just as she finished her phone call. It was tricky and the first few takes didn’t go well; mostly because Jill and I were both so nervous.
Tony, the stunt guy, was very nice and encouraged us to just relax and “go for it.” Finally, we got one decent take, but Tony wanted to try for one more. Feeling a little more confident, I again snuck up behind Jill and raised the shovel, but this time she hesitated in her lines. I wasn’t sure if she’d dropped a cue or was taking a pause. Following Tony’s advice, I “went for it” and took the swing. But unfortunately the timing was off. Jill moved her head and I accidentally smacked her in the back of the skull; knocking her off the sofa. Needless to say, I was mortified and apologized profusely. Thankfully, Jill was very gracious about it, but also made it clear that she didn’t want me on the other end of the shovel anymore. The director wisely chose to finish up with a couple of tightly-framed pick-up shots (with Tony wielding the shovel off-camera instead of me). When the episode aired, they wound up using the take where poor Jill actually got hit -- which I have to say did look pretty funny.
For a wimpy character guy, I’ve surprisingly been punched, slapped, stabbed, kicked and head-butted quite a few times on stage and screen over the years and so far have lived to tell the tale. I always give it my best shot and try not to look completely terrified when I realize I’m about to go rolling across the floor. And I’m always grateful to the camera guys and editors who somehow manage to make it look real. Just last week, I got offered a small role in an edgy little thriller in which I get to be shot in the head and fall over a chair. I can hardly wait!
Copyright 2010 Quitcher-Bitchyn Entertainment, Inc.
David Dean Bottrell is an actor (“Boston Legal”) and screenwriter (“Kingdom Come”) who writes a weekly blog about being strangely middle-class in Hollywood at www.partsandlabor.tv