Wednesday, August 08, 2018

Once upon a Hollywood, there was a hell of a stuntman. Hal Needham

The son of sharecroppers, Needham was born in Memphis, Tenn., in 1931, and spent most of his childhood so deep in the Ozarks that, as he liked to joke, "You had to pump the sunshine to us." Dropping out of school after eighth grade, he worked as a tree trimmer in St. Louis before joining the Army's 82nd Airborne Division in 1951. When he left the service he headed west with three pairs of jeans, six T-shirts, a buddy and no particular plan.

The Bud Rocket... it did run on Muroc and Bonneville, it was fast, and Hal Needham owned it.

Needham didn't drive the Bud Rocket though, Stan Barret did, and Barret was Paul Newman's stunt double, and was sparring with Bruce Lee. He also was on the Dean Martin Roast of Ronald Reagan, and since Needham was friends with Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis, they starred in the movie Cannonball Run, which we'll get to at the bottom of this post.

His run was witnessed by some famous people who knew about speed... Chuck Yeager, Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins, and William J. "Pete" Knight, who, to this day holds the all-time speed record for level flight, when he flew an X-15 at Mach 6.7.

Unfortunately, there is no accurate or verifiable way to know what speed it ran. But that's what you get with publicity stunts vs real hardcore attempts at landspeed records. There was no FIA, no SCTA, etc etc to get an accurate high speed, average speed, and they didn't turn around for a return run to get a both ways required run for the international record. But, they really didn't care about all the hoopla. They made money, got rich, caused a hell of a media splash.. and didn't have to hire Evel Knievel.

But there once was a time in America when crazy guys built these land speed rockets in their garages. Not warehouses, not military testing facilities, but in their garages. That's where Breedlove built his Spirit of America.

Paul Newman climbing into the Budweiser Rocket at Bonneville, Newman was responsible for putting together the relationship for Budweiser to be the lead sponsor.

After 9 runs at Bonneville, the Budweiser Rocket kept digging into the unstable salt surface which presented a serious safety issue, and Chuck Yeager interceded and got them permission from the Air Force to run at Muroc, now part of Edwards AFB.

It wasn't Needham's 1st land speed vehicle though, the SMI Motivator was. You've probably never heard of that, because it never accomplished anything.

During 1976 Needham tested the Budweiser/SMI Motivator –sponsored vehicle in excess of 600 mph on a huge dry lake located in Oregon. So... credit him that, and give him 2 of those ballcaps that celebrate breaking the 300 mph barrier... or a 400 and a 200. I just don't thing they ever made a 600 mph hat, as only a couple people have ever, or will ever go faster on wheels.

The `SMI Motivator' was made available to two drivers:  Needham and the wife of his partner Duffy Hambleton. Kitty O'Neil was a 28-year-old Irish and Cherokee woman from Texas, who was to drive the 'Motivator' to a new women's record, while Hal went for the speed of sound.

Nothing but a publicity gambit.

Needham's sponsor had paid out more than $75,000 to get him the drive, but after a high-speed foray on Mud Lane at Tonopah in Nevada, he run out of lake and into the sage brush on the surrounding desert, vowing never to drive the car again. (I've never heard of a dry lake near Tonopah, and the internet turned up no info)

Lets face it, no one even tries, and if they wanted to, Bonneville probably can't support that if everything I've heard about the condition of the salt is correct.

In May 1977, his movie directorial debut was released... and Smokey and the Bandit which cost 12 million reaped tenfold that amount in less than 6 months. And that was the summer all movies had to compete with Star Wars for ticket sales, which had been released 2 days earlier than Smokey.

Burt Reynolds became the highest paid actor in cinema history up to that point, for this movie, making five million dollars for four weeks work.
Roger Moore never drove an Aston Martin in the Bond movies, but he drove a DB5 in Smokey.
The Ferrari 308 used in the movie belonged to Director Hal Needham.
Ron Rice, owner of Hawaiian Tropic, loaned his black Lamborghini to his buddies Burt Reynolds and Hal Needham.
The moustache worn by Burt Reynolds in this movie was subsequently auctioned for the charity, UNICEF. The auction was held in Geneva, Switzerland, and the winning bid was twenty-five thousand dollars from Freddie Mercury

And that's when Needham might be considered to have created redneck buddy movies. He directed, Burt Reynolds drove, and everyone was happy.  He created movies with fast cars, car stunts, bar fights, country music and devil-may-care men who’d do anything for a buddy, and for a good time.

Just in time for Dukes of Hazard to catch the wave and ride it to CBS in Jan 1979. It was based on a 1975 movie, Moonrunners, which was identical in every way to the tv show, just not as cute and funny.

The movie was narrated by Waylon Jennings who introduces and comments on the story of cousins, who run moonshine for their widower uncle Jesse who knows the Bible better than the local preacher. He makes liquor, according to his "granddaddy's granddaddy's" recipe, in stills named Molly and Beulah.  In the opening, one of the cousins is in the county jail for a bar fight at the Boar's Nest. So, you can see, it's a movie version of the tv show, with a couple character names changed. There's a Cooter, and a county boss bad guy who owns the Boar's Nest and the local brothel. He sells moonshine to yankees. To get at Jesse’s supply, Sheriff Rosco Coltrane harasses the cousins who use bow and arrows because they are on probabtion and can't own guns. There's the whole Dukes of Hazard County in a nutshell.

Anyway.... getting back to Hal Needham.

He was a paratrooper in the Army. No wonder he got a job in Hollywood as a stuntman

As the highest paid stuntman in the world, Hal Needham broke 56 bones, his back twice, punctured a lung and knocked out a few teeth. His career has included work on 4500 television episodes and 310 feature films as a stuntman, stunt coordinator, 2nd unit director and ultimately, director.

Needham wrecked hundreds of cars, fell from tall buildings, got blown up, was dragged by horses, rescued the cast and crew from a Russian invasion in Czechoslovakia, set a world record for a boat stunt on Gator (1976), jumped a rocket powered pick-up truck across a canal for a GM commercial and was the first human to test the car airbag.

He wrote Cannonball Run II, Stroker Ace, Smokey and the Bandit one and two
In addition, he directed Smokey and the Bandit one and two, Cannonball Run one and two, Hooper, Stroker Ace, and others that really aren't important or impressive.

(By the way, Norm Grabowski was in both Hooper and Cannonball Run)

Jackie Chan makes one of his first U.S. film appearance in Cannonball Run, and inspired by Hal Needham's notion of including bloopers during the closing credits, Chan began a tradition of doing the same in most of his movies.

The ambulance used in the movie, is the actual ambulance that Hal Needham and Brock Yates souped up and raced in the real Cannonball Run. It had been upgraded with a hemi, and topped out at 145 mph, and was equipped with 4 gas tanks, and 4 filler holes, so that the max ninety gallons could be pumped quickly from one gas station island. Needham and Yates didn't win the race (the transmission blew in Palm Springs, California) so Needham kept it in storage for several years, until the time came to make this film.

Stan Barret related the true story about how he was the stunt double for Burt Reynolds on the movie Hooper and  loaned Burt his Rolex to wear in the movie as Burt played the role of Hal, and they kept passing it back and forth as Stan wore it in the stunt scenes and Burt wore it in the regular scenes. The action movie Hooper was loosely based upon his and Hal Needham's careers as stuntmen.

He invented and introduced to the film industry, the air ram, air bag, the car cannon turnover, the nitrogen ratchet, the jerk-off ratchet, rocket power and The Shotmaker Camera Car to make stunts safer and yet more spectacular at the same time.  He also directed the 1980's hit BMX movie Rad.

Needham co-owned a NASCAR race team and was the first team owner to use telemetry technology.

In February 1981 Needham and Burt Reynolds debuted their Skoal Bandit Racing team at the Daytona 500. They intended to run 19 races with (previously featured at the beginning of this article) Stan Barrett at the wheel.  The Skoal-Bandit race team was one of the most popular NASCAR teams ever - second only to that of Richard Petty

After running the Bud Rocket and using real time telemetry, Needham decided to employ it on his stock car. With permission from Bill France, it was installed in the car for the Talladega race. Every other team in the pits had a fit because they were getting real time updates in the pits from the car on exactly what was going on. It was the only time France allowed it.

Journeyman driver Harry Gant was enlisted to assist crew chief Travis Carter in setting up the car for Barrett.  After Gant, driving for another team, finished second to Cale Yarborough at the Atlanta race, Needham approached Gant about driving a second car for the team.

Gant's first start for the team came a month later at Darlington and he finished second. Halfway through the year Barrett was gone and the team now competed fulltime on the NASCAR circuit. After five more runner-up finishes, Gant broke through and won his first race at Martinsville in April 1982.

After 17 years of racing, most of them in NASCAR's lesser divisions, Gant was a star and his fans that cheered him on the short tracks had a Winston Cup hero. Gant won eight more races and finished in the top-five in points four times before Needham bowed out of the sport after the 1988 season.

Gant credits Needham with being a major force in changing the face of stock car racing. "Hal was the first to dress the crew in matching embroidered uniforms. He had a big hauler with the car painted on it. He brought people from Hollywood to the races. He even had cheerleaders in the pits once."

In 2012, Needham received a Governor's Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The academy, which gives no Oscars for stunt work, cited Needham as "an innovator, mentor and master technician who elevated his craft to an art and made the impossible look easy."


  1. I read his biography, Stuntman! My Car-Crashing, Plane-Jumping, Bone-Breaking, Death-Defying Hollywood Life and really enjoyed it. In there he talks about how invented the the car cannon turnover, and broke his back doing it, how he started as a stuntman by climbing a tree faster than anyone had seen and became Richard Boone's permanent stand-in during the show Have Gun Will Travel. He's a legend.

    1. well, then you're qualified to tell me how my short bio of him stacks up against a bonafide biography, keeping in mind I'm only posting the vehicle relevant stuff that my readers are also interested in

    2. Well I read it when it came out 7 years ago, but what you have seems to line up with what's in the book.