Two shows from childhood immediately come to mind when it comes to stuntmen: “The Fall Guy,” starring Lee Majors, and a television special about stuntman Dar Robinson’s work in the early ’80s movie “Sharky’s Machine.”
But I’ve never gotten to meet a real stuntman ... until recently.
Bud Davis spent the better part of a half-century working in the industry, first as a stuntman, then later as a stunt coordinator. Now, at 81, he’s retired and calls Durango home.
‘They needed another guy’Davis did not start out his adult life planning to be a stuntman; the profession found him in the early 1960s.
“I was working for a finance company, and I had to wear a suit and a tie every day,” he said. “That lasted six months and I quit. I got a job as a bartender across the street from Warner Brothers, and all the stunt guys used to come in.”
One day, he said, they came in and told him they were about to do a big fight scene in the back lot. They invited him to watch. “I went over, and they needed another guy.”
And so began Davis’ new career.
“In those days, it was a lot easier to get in because the stunt people, it was all California, all Hollywood, and they went everywhere to do whatever action needed to be done,” he said. “There was a small group, I think, in New York, but there weren’t any other stunt groups.”
For Davis, getting into stunt work was not only fun, it was fairly lucrative.
“You’re paid by the stunt, the danger of the stunt you’re doing,” he said. “You come in, if you’re working one day, you come in on a daily. When I started, it was like a hundred dollars, I think, just to be there. And then to do something, they’d pay what’s called a stunt adjustment. And depending upon how dangerous it is, they’d pay more. And depending on how many times you have to do it; like if there’s a problem with the camera, and you have to do it again, they have to pay you. If you do something wrong, they don’t pay you when you do it again.”
After the initial fight scene, Davis joined the Extras Union, the Screen Extras Guild. He said the way it used to work was actors would call in every night to the board, and they would get an assignment: “‘OK, you’re working tomorrow morning at 8 o’clock on ‘The Virginian’ at CBS.’” They would show up and would be making $40 a day or whatever the salary was.
“But you were part of the group of extras, which they weren’t treated very well, they were the background,” Davis said. “But the assistant directors, who in those days picked the stunt guys, they got to know you, and they’d say, ‘Bud, we need somebody to fall off a horse.’ And so then you would upgrade from being an extra to being an actor, a stuntman.”
Early stunts In the movies, the action always looks flawless, the result of a lot of hard work and even danger.
For Davis, working in the industry when he did, there were a lot of risks. He said the most dangerous stunt for him was probably the cannon roll, a way to make a car roll over.
“They would weld a piece of oil rig pipe behind the driver’s seat, and then they would take a piece of a telephone pole with a bomb on top of it and push it up inside the pipe and nail it so it would stay there,” he said. “Then they would run the wires out and give the button to the driver. And then your job would be to get usually between 70 and 80 miles an hour and then you would put the car into a slide, which means you had to hit the emergency brake and turn the car, and when it got sideways, you’d hit that button and the bomb would go off, and it would force that telephone pole out from under the car, and cause the car to lift.”
Did his mother know what he was doing?
“Yeah. She didn’t have any say about it,” he said, laughing. “Kids were different in my day. You didn’t go home and watch television: You played baseball, you played football, you climbed trees. You were physical.
“I was a motorcycle rider, car racer and that kind of stuff. It was kind of a natural for me; to get paid for it was a bonus. It was great fun. Sometimes, you were scared, and then after it was over, you felt like King Kong: ‘I did that! I was never scared!’ You were petrified: Anybody tells you they weren’t scared is either stupid or they were lying.”
Airbags for high falls were also something that improved over time, he said.
“In those days, they didn’t have airbags; when you did a fall, you fell into cardboard boxes that were empty and you’d put them together and stack them up and tie a rope around them so they wouldn’t blow out when you (hit),” he said. “In those days, the stunt guys did everything. Now, there are specialists. The first really high fall I ever saw was a cowboy stunt guy, a guy named Terry Leonard did, he went 10 stories – a hundred feet – into cardboard boxes. It was a hell of a stunt.”
Davis said that now, there are airbags that are two-stage and are sometimes 15 feet high. There are fans blowing air into them, and the air is always circulating, so when a person hits it, it explodes the air out of the top bag, then the person hits the second bag, which slows them down.
And stuntmen did get hurt – sometimes fatally, Davis said.
“There was a case of a good friend of mine, A.J. Bakunas, did, I think, a 12-story-high fall on a movie called “Steel.” When he hit the top of the bag, it split, and he went through the bottom one and hit the cement. He lived for two days, but he never regained consciousness,” he said. “He was the best. There were two of them: Dar Robinson and A.J. Bakunas both got killed in stunts.”
So were there ever any stunts Davis didn’t want to do?
“A lot of them,” he said, laughing.
Were there any he didn’t do?
He stops laughing.
“No. You didn’t do that,” he said. “If you took the job, you did it. If you didn’t, you never worked again.”
Davis said that as stunt coordinator, he did not hire someone he knew couldn’t do a stunt. He said he also made sure he hired someone that the odds of them getting hurt were less.
And on top of the risks, the stuntmen also had to be actors, he said.
“When you fall off a running horse at 30 miles an hour onto baked, hard road, you can’t fall like you’re looking; you have to fall like you’re shot off the horse. You can’t be looking for a place to land; you have to just take it,” he said. “Stair falls are another thing – how do you learn to do that? You don’t learn to do that, you just fall down the stairs because otherwise, it looks like you’re trying to fall down the stairs.”
Stuntmen also had to learn the proper way to fight, he said: “The fighting was the hardest thing to learn because it’s choreographed, and you have to know where the camera is the whole time you’re doing the fight so it doesn’t show a miss. That was the most difficult part.”
Stunt coordinatorDavis said that when he began work, the assistant director was the one who arranged the stunts. As stunts started to become a little more complicated, the job of stunt coordinator was created, he said.
The stunt coordinator designs the stunts, hires the stunt people and creates a budget. Davis said he would meet with a film’s director and all the other departments – the electricians, the drivers, makeup, wardrobe, cameras – and would talk through the script. After that, they would go scout locations for the stunts. He said it was a fluid process.
“If he (the director) came up with an idea that was better, or if I saw something that I thought would be more exciting, we talked it through until finally we got it down to what we were going to do,” Davis said. “It was never a locked thing because there was always something that went wrong or you changed.”
A long list of moviesLooking through Davis’ filmography on IMDb, one thing is quickly apparent: The guy has done a lot of movies. From 1974’s “Policewomen,”on which he was a stuntman, to 2009’s “Inglourious Basterds,” (stunt coordinator), Davis has 119 credits listed. And the films he worked on are from all genres: “Cast Away,” “Star Trek: Generations,” “So I Married an Ax Murderer,” “Tango & Cash” and “The Town that Dreaded Sundown” – the 1976 version in which he played The Phantom Killer.
Of all the films he has worked on, though, one stands out as his favorite.
“Forrest Gump.’ Has to be,” Davis said. “People say, ‘What was the action?’ There weren’t any stunts.’ But there was: The whole Vietnam, all those explosions, all that stuff; those were all stunt guys. The special effects guys set up all the explosions, and then the stunt guys are the guys that are in there. And then we did when Tom Hanks, when he was a kid and running and the things blew off his legs, and the football games, that was all my stuff.”
“I was proud of that movie because it was an excellent movie, and it still holds up now,” he said. “That was my favorite movie, not action-wise, but as a movie because it all went together so well.”
And now, for a man who started out in a suit and tie, it’s been a hell of a ride, Davis said.
“When I was doing it, there were maybe 75 stunt people in the business, and we flew everywhere,” he said. “It was great fun; the best job I could imagine.”