Classic Hollywood

Stuntman Terry Leonard's career grew by leaps and bounds in Hollywood

Terry Leonard has been defying gravity and more as a Hollywood stuntman since the 19'60s

For nearly five decades, stunt performer Terry Leonard has made audiences' hearts pound a little faster.

Early in his career, Leonard set a record falling eight stories into cardboard boxes for the 1970 film "Cover Me Babe." He was the stunt double for Michael Douglas in the death-defying dive from a car plunging over a waterfall in Robert Zemeckis' 1984 "Romancing the Stone" and is best remembered as Harrison Ford's double for the iconic truck chase sequence in Steven Spielberg's 1981 "Raiders of the Lost Ark."

"You know why Steven is such a genius?" Leonard asked during a recent interview. "Every single one of those stunts is an extension of the drama. Directors of action movies ought to see 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' to see how the action extended the drama."

Leonard knows something about directing. Besides directing the 1987 military action-adventure "Death Before Dishonor," he's a well-respected second-unit director who staged the spectacular train crash sequence in the 1993 classic "The Fugitive."

He and director Andrew Davis "laid out what we were going to do," recalled Leonard, who used 16 cameras to capture the action. "Andy Davis turned me loose. You are under a lot of pressure on making it go right. You use everything in your playbook that you have learned before to try and outsmart the gremlins."

Though he's slowed down at 74, Leonard still keeps his hands in the game. "I do some driving every once in a while," said Leonard, a tall, rugged and gregarious man with a thick mane of white hair.

Leonard, who was a decathlete in the 1964 Olympic trials, added: "I don't do horse work or run or jump. I have had seven hip surgeries. That's taken my athletic moves away from me, but I can get in the car and do what we need to do in an automobile. I still love doing it."

Leonard also hasn't met a story he doesn't want to tell.

"Terry does not talk in sound bites," noted TCM host Ben Mankiewicz, who interviewed him at the TCM Classic Film Festival's screening of "Raiders of the Lost Ark" in March. "I asked him one question, and six minutes later he wrapped up the story. You looked out at the crowd and they are hanging on every word. After 'Raiders,' he wanted to come back and do a Q&A. Sure enough, a bunch of the crowd stayed."

When he was a stunt coordinator on Spielberg's 1979 action-comedy, "1941," Leonard gave Marguerite Happy her first stunt work in a fight scene. "I was working as an extra back in those days," said the now veteran stunt performer. "He's probably helped hundreds of people."

Leonard, she noted, has been successful because he's "bigger than life."

"People love working with him," she added. "He's fun to be around. If you see Terry Leonard, you usually know there's going to be some action going down. When somebody works for him and he asks us to perform a stunt, he has done it. He walked the walk."

Ironically, Leonard never had aspirations to become a stuntman. But after a back injury ended his pro football career in Canada in 1966, Leonard called up veteran stuntman Chuck Roberson about getting work in Hollywood. He had met Roberson in 1963 when he was a student at the University of Arizona and got a job as an extra on the John Wayne western "McLintock!"

Roberson invited Leonard to stay at his house.

"I stayed in his back bedroom for four months," Leonard recalled. "I took care of his horse and practiced saddle falls in his yard," he said. I bought my first falling horse. When I got in the business, stunt guys built reputations on the reputations of their horses. I had a horse called King Richard."

Leonard gave himself a year to succeed in Hollywood. "If I couldn't make a living, I would go back to the University of Arizona," he said. "I had 11 units to graduate."

He never went back to school.

Leonard proved his mettle on his first film, Howard Hawks' 1967 western "El Dorado," starring Wayne, with a spectacular fall from a church steeple.

He earned his stripes with that stunt — and it was the beginning of his Hollywood education.

"After I was doing these stunts for a while, you realize you're not bulletproof and you could get hurt doing this stuff. Then what would I do?"

susan.king@latimes.com

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