It’s not many stuntmen who can spin a wildly successful career making film stars look good by doing all the really dangerous work into a job writing and directing a cult classic. Hal Needham was one who managed it. He died on Friday morning at the age of 82.
Born in Memphis, Tennessee, Needham was initially raised in Arkansas and Missouri before enlisting as a paratrooper in the Korean War. Following his service, he worked several jobs, including tree maintenance and modelling (he was the face of Viceroy Cigarettes), but his true calling was as a stuntman on TV and in movies.
Needham got his first job working as the stunt double for Richard Boone on Western series Have Gun, Will Travel and, thanks to extensive studies with Chuck Roberson (John Wayne’s stuntman of choice), he went on to become one of the top performers in his industry.
After a successful string of stuntman jobs, Needham also began to develop innovative equipment into the profession, including better air bags to cushion high falls and various rigs that brought increased safety.
As well as forming Stunts Unlimited, a company to help stunt workers land jobs, he also harboured a desire to see a screenplay he’d written – Smokey And The Bandit – come to life. Thanks to a longstanding friendship with Burt Reynolds (who he’d doubled for years and who even lived in his guest house), Needham got his chance, writing and directing the action comedy.
In addition to a well-deserved Lifetime Achievement Award from the Taurus World Stunt Awards, he also received a Governors Award from the Oscars. He died shortly after being diagnosed with cancer and will be fondly remembered.