On March 16th of this past year, I attended a screening at the 92Y Tribeca of BODY SLAM (1986), attended by its director, the literally legendary Hal Needham. BODY SLAM was the last theatrical feature he directed, and probably not his best, although it was still a whole mess of fun, like pretty much everything else he’s ever done. Now, Hal Needham is arguably best known to the mainstream as the director of THE CANNONBALL RUN, but that really is only a small part of what makes him a Hollywood legend.
Honestly, I sat in awe through most of the Q&A after the movie, since I know more than most people do about Hal Needham’s career, and still I knew only a little. Hal Needham doesn’t have a household-auteur name like Spielberg or Scorsese, but rest assured that his is an essential career in American movies. If you look over his list of credits, you will see that he worked on over a hundred films in the stunt department, whether as a coordinator, actor, or stunt performer, or some combination henceforth. Here is a partial list of movies with his vital contributions (I’m sticking to the ones I personally have seen or else we’ll literally be here all day):
THE SPIRIT OF ST. LOUIS, THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE, DONOVAN’S REEF, 4 FOR TEXAS, MAJOR DUNDEE, OUR MAN FLINT, BANDOLERO!, 100 RIFLES, LITTLE BIG MAN, RIO LOBO, THE NIGHT STALKER, THE CULPEPPER CATTLE CO., WHITE LIGHTNING, BLAZING SADDLES, CHINATOWN, 3 THE HARD WAY, THE LONGEST YARD, and THE END.
Before getting into directing, Hal Needham was Hollywood’s number-one go-to stunt man. He made over 300 movies and broke over 50 bones.
Here are some other facts about Hal Needham, which I excitedly sent out on Twitter after meeting the man in person:
Hal Needham worked on THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE, and was in the bar fight in DONOVAN’S REEF. Both alongside John Wayne & Lee Marvin.
(Here’s a pair of Hal Needham bar-fight scenes:)
Hal Needham jumped from one airplane to another, mid-flight.
Not Hal Needham. But it could be.
Hal Needham drank with Billy Wilder.
Hal Needham was best pals with Burt Reynolds and lived for fourteen years in his guest house, “rent-free.” This was during the time when Burt Reynolds was the biggest box-office draw in the country. Reportedly, it was exactly the party it sounds like.
Hal Needham got paid $25,000 to drive a car straight into a concrete wall. ”It was easy,” he told us.
Hal Needham escaped a Russian invasion and lost his hearing in an explosion in Czechoslavakia.
When Hal Needham talks about the Rat Pack, he refers to Sinatra, Martin, and Davis as “Frank, Dean, and Sammy.” BECAUSE HE KNEW THEM PERSONALLY.
Hal Needham broke the sound barrier in a car.
Remember the blonde who drives the car with Adrienne Barbeau in THE CANNONBALL RUN?
Hal Needham did that too.
Hal Needham gave Jackie Chan and everybody else who does it the idea to run the blooper reel over the end credits. I asked him if he ever saw ANCHORMAN, specifically the end credits, which hilariously just rerun the blooper reel of THE CANNONBALL RUN. (Adam McKay and Will Ferrell, along with their protegee Danny McBride, are obviously familiar with the Needham catalogue. EASTBOUND & DOWN is a reference to the theme song of SMOKEY & THE BANDIT.) Hal Needham told me he hasn’t seen ANCHORMAN, but would check it out.
Many of the above stories are written about at length in Hal Needham’s autobiography, STUNT MAN!
That’s Hal Needham on the cover, by the way. You’ll recognize him because he’s on fire. (He said it didn’t hurt.)
When writing about Hal Needham’s accomplishments, it starts to feel like making up Chuck Norris Facts. The difference? Hal Needham is a badass for real.
At the screening and Q&A, Hal Needham was a great sport, and a great, great storyteller. The crowd was cool and asked about almost everything I would have asked. So most of my questions were about THE VILLAIN. (Hal Needham started Arnold Schwarzenegger’s career!) THE VILLAIN is a little-remembered comedy-Western which Needham treated as a live-action Tex Avery cartoon. Arnold plays the well-intentioned but dopey hero, Handsome Stranger, Ann-Margret is at her all-time most luscious as Charming Jones, and Kirk Douglas plays the Wile E. Coyote styled black-hatted title character, Cactus Jack (which is sometimes the title of the movie in some markets). Paul Lynde has a very funny cameo as Indian chief Nervous Elk, and Western-movie veteran Strother Martin plays the excellently-named Parody Jones. Look guys, I’m not gonna argue that this is a great movie in the classical sense, but goddamn did it make me laugh. And I really shouldn’t have glossed over just how attractive Ann-Margaret is in the movie. It’s about as good as a lady can, possibly.
BODY SLAM is equally silly — like THE VILLAIN, probably second-tier Needham — but it has plenty of moments. This was at the peak of pro-wrestling’s popularity in the 1980s, and it’s easy to see why a stuntman like Needham would feel an affinity for pro-wrestlers, who are also under-appreciated athletes. Like John Carpenter, he also saw the star power of “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, who was famous in the wrestling as a ‘heel’ but in movies like BODY SLAM, THEY LIVE, and HELL COMES TO FROGTOWN* — *the greatest movie title of all time — made a thoroughly likable, blue-collar, and naturally funny (also very, very Canadian) protagonist. Most of BODY SLAM is concerned with the antics of Dirk Benedict’s character, as the fast-talking, somewhat shady promoter who takes on Piper’s character as a client. It’s also concerned with ogling Tanya Roberts, as the love interest prone to wearing very, very, very small bikinis. I was way into all of that as a kid — Dirk Benedict was on The A-Team, of course, and I knew Tanya Roberts from Charlie’s Angels and SHEENA: QUEEN OF THE JUNGLE. Throw in Billy Barty, Sydney Lassick, and Captain Lou Albano, and there you go, another [very strange and occasionally awkward] party. The wrestling scenes are great, though. I’m also a big fan of the Latin-freestyle theme song, though a saner person might not be.
Can’t find a trailer, but here are some clips from BODY SLAM:
That’s Hal Needham, man. He likes to make movies with pretty girls and silly gags, some amiable shit-talking and braggadocio, and a couple big crazy stunts. If he wasn’t so busy jumping from planes and trains, he could have been a big hit as a staffer at MAD. He’s not one who’s out to change the world with his art. He just wants to brighten up your day. Sometimes that’s a noble cause. I know I’m someone who believes it to be.
In the end, there was little I could say to the man besides “It’s an honor. Your movies have given me and my friends a lot of happy times.” I don’t tend to get overly excited about meeting famous people. I had a fun run-in with Stan Lee once, and meeting Clint Eastwood was a highlight, but yeah I will admit this was a really cool experience. For a Yankee born and bred, I’m a huge fan of the work of this man who is quite possibly the most successful Southern filmmaker of his era.
I’m finally posting this tribute officially because I read some good news for once: It was announced today that Hal Needham is getting an honorary Academy Award for his decades of pioneering stunt work. (Read about it here and here!) It’s well-deserved, especially considering how the ‘major’ awards show so little appreciation of the value that stunt performers bring to action cinema. We wouldn’t have most of our favorite movies without them. They literally risk their necks for our entertainment. (To be fair, they do usually pull the babes also. It’s a trade-off!)
Hal Needham is one of the most prolific stuntmen ever to work in American movies, and as a director he created some endlessly enjoyable party movies. Obviously I’m willing to praise his work all day, but it’s great to see that he’s finally getting his due from his peers, his industry, and other fancy people in tuxedos.
Me on Twitter: @jonnyabomb