Before long, Needham was actor Richard Boone's stunt double on "Have Gun — Will Travel," a job that lasted six years and opened the door to a long career of crashes, explosions, stampedes and countless good-ol'-boy car chases.

The first time Needham broke his back was in a 1974 promotion for General Motors. The idea was to rig a GM pickup with a rocket, roar up a ramp at 90 mph and vault 140 feet across a canal.

"The nose of the truck kept rising, and I couldn't see the ramp or the ground on the other side of the canal, just blue sky through the windshield," Needham wrote.

When the truck crashed down, it crumpled nearly in half and Needham had to be pried out.

Four years later, he broke his back again. On a dry lakebed outside Los Angeles, he tried to flip a car for a stunt in John Wayne's "McQ." Using a homemade cannon aimed at a hole in the car's floor, he blasted a chunk of wood into the ground, figuring the car would bounce up and turn over. It worked all too well; the blast, a lot more forceful than Needham anticipated, catapulted car and driver 30 feet into the air.

Needham's directing career started in 1977 with "Smokey and the Bandit" — the first in a string of mostly successful movies he made with Burt Reynolds, a friend so close that Needham lived in his guest house for 12 years. The two also owned a NASCAR team.

Critics weren't crazy about the films, which included "Hooper" and "Stroker Ace." In 1981, Roger Ebert called "The Cannonball Run" the story of a wild, cross-country car race, "an abdication of artistic responsibility at the lowest possible level of ambition."

"In other words," Ebert wrote, "they didn't even care enough to make a good, lousy movie."

Needham didn't take such criticism too seriously. "Cannonball Run" earned more than $72 million and was the year's sixth top-grossing movie. Needham even featured withering excerpts from its bad reviews in a Variety newspaper ad — right next to a photo of himself sitting on a wheelbarrow laden with cash.

In 2011, NPR's Terry Gross asked him to engage in a moment of introspection.

"So when you turn on the TV and one of your films or TV shows is on and there you are risking your life doing a stunt, what goes through your mind?" she asked.

"I got a residual coming," he said with a laugh.

Information on survivors was unavailable.

steve.chawkins@latimes.com