Thursday, July 16, 2009

Stunt Man

With only a few minutes left before take-off, a bear of a man bears toward me down the aisle of this small airplane. He's white-bearded, huge and solid, and he is--I feel this the same way you wince at the arms of a train crossing lowering just as you're about to clear the tracks--clearly bound for the seat next to mine. For a moment, I tense. I'd been enjoying having the arm rest all to myself . . .

But Harry Madsen shared our small space with aplomb, a practiced adjustment of his bulk. He pulled a book from the bag he'd tucked under the seat in front of him, without elbowing me; I glanced at it and said nothing, not until we were in the air and New York had dropped away from us like a crowded plate.

His reading appeared to combine philosophy and horse wrangling. I had to ask. He answered me carefully at first, as if he wasn't sure I was the right person to hear what he had to say.

"This is somebody I helped out with some guns."


"He lives down on a ranch in Arizona. He's got problems there."


"Coyotes. You like books?"

"I do. I'm a writer."

"Me too. At least, I am now. I'm writing a fantasy. Or trying to."

"It's hard work, isn't it?"

"No, not compared to what I used to do."

He smiled, and his teeth were perfect, as white as his beard.

Harry had worked for years in Hollywood, as a stunt man on tv series like Kojak and McCloud, and for Burt Lancaster in his films ("except I was a little too short--he was nice about it though, a great guy"). He threw himself around in comedies like Ghostbusters and, once, for Helen Hayes, wearing a pink blouse and a gray wig. I asked him how he'd found his way into stuntwork, and he waved his paw of a hand and said his father, who'd owned a ranch and silver mine in Oaxaca, Mexico had wanted him to become an educated man--but that four years of college had been nothing but boring, so Harry decided to join the rodeo circuit instead, working up and down the East Coast. One thing led to another, and one summer he found he was stunting in New York on the original The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3.

"I love that movie!" I say, delighted. "Were you down on the train tracks with the electric rail? Did you bite it?"

"That was me, all right."

I told Harry he looked good, considering how rough and gritty the work had to be, and he laughed and said:

"Well, if ribs don't count. I got to know all my other bones by their first names."

The stunt he was most proud of was a perfectly executed hit-and-roll off a speeding car. His timing was so perfect, and the hit appeared so horribly real as the car smashed into him, that when the take was over the film crew, certain he'd been killed, had rushed into the shot, nearly ruining it.

"That was magic," he blinked, remembering.

Over time he became so successful at his work and so well-known that he was hired as a stunt coordinator, sometimes supervising as many as 35 stunt people for a single film, as he did for Martin Sheen's The Kennedy Years. Then three of his friends were killed in a single year. Two died in high falls, and one in a car-dive into the Hudson River. Dives were tricky; you took the engine out of the front and filled the trunk with sandbags and weight, to keep the nose up, but still it was dangerous, especially on the driver's side.

Harry looked down at his book of philosophy and said, "I told him not to do it. My friend. He called me the day before and asked, and I said, 'You can't do it like you're planning, not that way if you're going to be on the driver's side.' But he did it anyway, and the windshield crashed in, and that was that."

Not longer after, Harry was doing a bit of car-work himself and realized, just before the take, that he wasn't feeling anything. He wasn't sweating. His heart wasn't beating fast. That was when he knew he was done. Fear was what saved you. A stunt man had no business being a stunt man unless he was worried.

"So what do you do now?"

"I write. I travel. I live in the East Village with my wife. It used to be so rough in my neighborhood, but it's so quiet now. New York has lost its edge, too," he said, and told me he was on his way to the mountains of the Sierra Nevada, to visit an old friend who lived in a peaceful little cabin, near Truckee.


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