>There's a series of beer commercials on the air now in which the spokesman is presented as "The World's Most Interesting Man" — a suave, hottie-draped fella who intones: "Stay thirsty, my friends."
He obviously never met Hal Needham.
Needham will take part this week in the Little Rock Film Festival, including introducing a special, outdoor showing of 1977's "Smokey and the Bandit" — which he conceived and directed — at the Riverfest Amphitheatre on Sunday, June 5, beginning at dusk. Admission is free.
Born desperately poor in Memphis and raised in sharecropper shacks all over Arkansas, Needham was a tree-trimmer and airplane wing-walker who went on to become a pioneering stuntman in Hollywood, personally bringing many safety and technique innovations to the business. When he wasn't falling from high places, Needham directed 10 films, including "Smokey and the Bandit," "Hooper" and "Stroker Ace." In his free time, he tried to break the sound barrier on wheels in a rocket car. If that wasn't enough, he lived in Burt Reynolds' poolhouse throughout the 1970s — very, very good years to be a houseguest and friend of Burt Reynolds.
World's Most Interesting Man? Yeah, I think Needham's got a lifetime lock on that title.
Plainspoken, with a hint of Southern twang, Needham, 80, is retired now. Little, Brown and Co. recently published his memoir, "Stuntman! My Car-Crashing, Plane-Jumping, Bone-Breaking, Death-Defying Hollywood Life." In places, it's a tale so crazy it sounds like fiction.
The stepson of a farmer who regularly uprooted his family to follow the crops, Needham lived outside of at least eight different towns in Arkansas before he was 10 years old (I say "outside" because he said his family always seemed to light 10 to 12 miles from civilization). They were too poor to own a car, so when they moved, the family traveled by mule-drawn wagon.
"We were bottom of the totem pole," Needham said recently in a phone interview. "We didn't have running water. A couple of times we had a well out in the yard, but most of the time we had to go carry water from a spring or the river or some damn thing. No electricity, obviously, and the only heat we had was a fireplace and cookstove. We were poor. Really poor."
Needham's stepfather moved to St. Louis during World War II to work in the materiel plants there, and the family soon followed. When Needham was older, he killed off his fear of heights working as a tree-trimmer, and soon found work on weekends in a stunt show at the airport, dangling upside down from a rope ladder under a biplane while crowds gasped below.
From there, it was on to Hollywood, where Needham slowly worked his way into stunt work. It was tough going in the early years. "The stunt business is kind of a closed business. A lot of it is father-and-son, or father-and-daughter," he said. "When you were like me, and you had no relatives and no help or anything, it was tough skiddin'. You had to go out and politick, and if you got an opportunity, you really had to show your stuff and be good."
Once he got his shot — showing off his tree-climbing skills while working as an extra on an episode of "Have Gun, Will Travel" about lumberjacks — Needham quickly made a name for himself as a man who would go bigger than everybody else. Before long, he was in high demand, doubling for John Wayne and doing stunts on just about every 1960s TV show you can name, from "Bonanza" to "Star Trek."
While earning his stripes as a stuntman, Needham also kept his eye out for ideas to make stunts safer and more spectacular. He was the first to introduce a trunk-mounted cannon to flip over a moving car (the initial testing broke his back, punctured a lung and knocked out several teeth). While speaking on a college campus, he happened to see pole-vaulters jumping into a large, air-filled bag. After talking to the manufacturer, he was the first to use an airbag system to cushion stuntmen doing high falls. Before that, they'd done their falls on whatever was handy, from stacks of boxes to piles of sticks covered with a tarp. After Needham introduced the airbag, the height a stuntman could safely jump instantly rose from around 40 feet to over 100. Soon, the jumps got higher.
"I started directing about that time, but the young-gun stuntmen started getting bigger bags and going higher," he said. "Today, they go 300 feet. You couldn't throw me off a building 300 feet [high], you know?"
He hears the Academy is considering giving him a special Oscar this year for his contributions to filmmaking, though that's still up in the air. While he undoubtedly deserves it, Needham is firm when it comes to his feelings on giving awards for stunts, and balks at the idea that the craft warrants an Academy Award category (it's one of the few aspects of filmmaking that doesn't have one).
"Myself, I've never been for it," he said. " My belief is, when a person goes in and pays his money to see a movie, and he sees his hero up there doing something spectacular, you don't want him to stop and think: 'I wonder if that's the star, or if it's a stuntman?' You want them to enjoy the movie. I think stuntmen should take their check and go on their way."
Even putting his stunt work and directing aside, Needham has lived a hell of a life. "Cannonball Run," the screwball comedy he directed about an illegal, coast-to-coast race, was based on his actual experience running in the Cannonball Rally with automotive journalist Brock Yates. As seen in the film, Yates and Needham cooked up a scheme: build a high-horsepower ambulance capable of going over 120 miles an hour, dress like EMTs, strap a woman to a gurney in the back, and tell any cops who stopped them that they were taking her to California by road because her horrible lung condition didn't allow her to fly. "If they stopped us and took us to jail for some strange reason, and something happened to that patient, they'd be in trouble," Needham said, laughing. "Intimidation was our whole theory when we started that trip, and it worked!" Later on, Needham tried to break the sound barrier in a wheeled rocket sponsored by Budweiser, and founded a NASCAR shop that fielded the legendary Skoal-Bandit race team.
When all is said and done, though, people outside the movie business will likely remember Needham for the first film he directed — "Smokey and the Bandit." Born out of a friend's comment that bringing Coors beer east of the Mississippi was considered bootlegging, the film — with a big truck, a cute dog and a hot car with Needham's friend Burt Reynolds at the wheel — is reportedly second only to "Star Wars" in total lifetime gross for films made in 1977, and has become a redneck favorite since it made the jump to TV. While it's undeniably a low-brow classic, Needham said he had no idea that it would ever become so popular.
"I've talked to people who have seen that movie 30 or 40 times!" he said. "It's amazing. I think it's a real down-home folksy kind of movie, with Burt being the number one box-office star, and Jackie Gleason being a master of comedy, and the music with Jerry Reed — 'East Bound and Down' — being number one on the Country/Western charts for 16 weeks. That all helped."
Paste magazine's Tim Basham will interview Needham at 2 p.m. Sunday at Riverdale, and Needham will introduce "Smokey and the Bandit" on Sunday around 8:30 p.m. at the amphitheater.
To read a long Q&A interview with Hal Needham, go to arktimes.com/needham.