The Adrenaline Junkies : Movie Stunt Men and Women Get Paid to Leap From Buildings and Crash Cars. Some People Call Them Daredevils. They Call Themselves Professionals

Charles Champlin is The Times' arts editor

The small car bobs like a cork along the raging, rain-swollen Mexican river as the roar of an approach ing waterfall grows thunderously loud. The camera moves to a long shot, downstream and low, the better to savor the instant when the car hovers at the lip of the 70-foot precipice, teeters, tilts and then goes over. As it does, two human figures, our hero and our heroine, leap away and plummet toward the whirlpool far below.

The fall seems unthinkably perilous--and in fact it proved to be as dangerous as it looked. What the camera didn't show was that the car was mounted on a stationary, quick-release platform just above the water and tilted downward at 45 degrees. The stunt men, Terry Leonard and Vince Deadrick Jr. (doubling for the film's stars, Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner, respectively), stood on smaller platforms attached to the sides of the car that were intended to work like springboards and let them leap clear of the car and land in calmer water just outside the whirlpool below.

"I'd been hoping to do a swan dive," Leonard says, "real Errol Flynn stuff." But the support on his side suddenly buckled. With less push-off than he needed, he fell right into the whirlpool.

"I thought I was history," Leonard says. He fought the fierce downward pull of the water until finally, with what he thought might be his last effort, he gave a kick and a breast-stroke and broke to the surface.

Deadrick had angled into the water, taking the brunt of the impact in the ribs, which left him stunned and barely able to move. A rescue team of Mexican firemen was floating in the pool outside the whirlpool and got to Deadrick with a rope. They helped the two men ashore, and none too soon. What the camera also didn't show was that the waterfall was one in a series of three, and the second, just around the bend, was larger than the one they'd gone over.

Their fall was voted the most spectacular stunt of the year by their peers in the annual Stuntman Awards last year (and scheduled again for this Friday). The film's action sequences were also one reason 20th Century Fox's "Romancing the Stone" became one of the year's biggest box office successes, leading to the recent sequel, "Jewel of the Nile."

In another of the film's remarkable stunts, Deadrick, now doubling for Michael Douglas, and stunt woman Jeannie Epper did a tumbling, rumbling, cascading fall down a mud slide. "Twelve hours a day for eight days, and once you got going no way to stop until you hit some cargo nets," Deadrick says. "It was the most physically demanding stunt I've ever done."

Watching those stunts, and the several others from movies and television (including Buddy Joe Hooker riding an ostrich for an episode of "The Rousters") that were excerpted on last year's awards broadcast, I began to wonder what it is that induces men and women to put their flesh, bones and lives at such considerable risk.

Years ago, doing a magazine story on the late Grand Prix race driver Jim Clark, I had asked the same question of Clark and his colleagues. One of them, Sir John Whitmore, the aristocrat of fast drivers, confessed that he simply could not abide living the same tame, dull lives of his Etonian contemporaries who had become stockbrokers and merchant bankers. Dicing with death kept him alive, he said.

Jackie Stewart, the Scotsman who was then Clark's young protege, said he felt a release in finishing a race--not necessarily winning a race, just finishing it intact--that was so strong and sweet that it was nearly sexual.

For Clark, cautious and conservative, it was a quest for the perfect mating of man and machine. He drove with a cool, unemotional precision and quickness that was the envy of other drivers. One of them said most drivers try to get to ten-tenths of the speed at which a given curve can be taken; Clark practiced at ten-tenths and hoped to do better.

Clark was in fact better than his machines, and he died alone on a backstretch during a race in Germany, when his Lotus failed and took him into a tree.

Clearly, stunt men, like Grand Prix drivers, sense that masses of men live lives of quiet desperation, and stunt men want no part of such lives. They find that you can exist at the edge and still pursue excellence but that taking risks is by no means the same as putting your life foolishly at risk.

"I guess we're all adrenaline junkies," Terry Leonard says. "I like to have that pump going. People get into drugs from leading boring lives. My life is not boring."

On the other hand, he says, "whatever stunt I do, I have to go to work tomorrow. If I get hurt, that's it. Any injury is threatening to my income." The idea is to make every stunt look as dangerous as possible and yet be as safe as calculations and special riggings can make it.

"We're different from daredevils," Vince Deadrick Jr. says. He is 31 and actor-handsome. He started doing extra work at 18 and has been a professional stunt man for eight years. "We want to work the next day, and the day after that. Safety's always your first consideration. You calculate all the variables."

Despite the precautions, stunt work can be a dangerous business. Last August, two stunt men and two cameramen were seriously injured when a car, hurtling up a ramp, lost its brakes and slued out of control toward the camera during a sequence for "The Fall Guy" series. In January, 1985, 22-year-old stunt man Reid Rondell was killed in a helicopter crash during filming of the TV series "Airwolf."

Stunt people are not the only ones at risk. The infamous "Twilight Zone" tragedy killed actor Vic Morrow and two children in July, 1982, during night shooting when a helicopter fell on them. Three people have died in recent years in accidents on the sets of "Magnum P.I.," "The Dukes of Hazzard" and the television movie "The Five of Me."

In some ways, perhaps, that element of danger--and of conquering that danger--is part of the attraction of stunt work. "I'd be crazy not to say it's thrilling," Deadrick says. "I like the feeling it gives me, knowing you're doing something well. It's like athletes achieving their personal best. But I like the excitement of it and, if I admit it, I like the risk." In one stunt for "That's Incredible," he drove a car up a ramp and soared 100 feet through the air at an altitude of 30 feet. The impact left him with a concussion and headaches for three months.

Terry Leonard, who is 45, has thought four times that he was about to be history, most recently when he went into the whirlpool. Stunt-driving on "Return to Macon County," he lost the brakes on his car and had to hit a tree to avoid a crowd. A high fall during a shooting for a film called "Black Sampson" in Pasadena left him unconscious for three days. And he was run over by a stagecoach on "The Legend of the Lone Ranger."

"You can't be a stunt man and not get hurt," Leonard admits, but the idea is not to take unnecessary risks.

"Sometimes you just have to say no," Deadrick says.

Leonard, who was stunt coordinator on the just-completed "Cobra," which stars Sylvester Stallone, played football at the University of Arizona and spent three years in professional football with the British Columbia Lions. He looks as if he could take over a linebacker spot tomorrow. He'd had a taste of movie work as an extra in "McLintock" when he was still in college. After his football days, looking for something more adventurous than teaching gym, he came to Hollywood, encouraged by John Wayne's longtime double, Chuck Roberson, whom he'd met on "McLintock."

Vince Deadrick Jr. is a second-generation stunt man (like many film trades, stunt work is frequently a family affair). Vince Sr. has doubled for Steve McQueen and Lee Majors, and, at 54, still does stunts, sometimes working for his son, who has lately been stunt coordinator for the television series "MacGyver." (The pattern for stunt people, looking to the day when the flesh won't take the poundings it once did, is to become stunt coordinators, second unit directors handling the action sequences and possibly directors, like Hal Needham, the most famous stunt alumnus, who has done "Smokey and the Bandit," "Hooper" and several other movies. Leonard, in fact, is about to direct his first film, "Death Before Dishonor," shooting in Israel this spring.)

A growing number of stunt performers are women, although one of them, Tracy Keehn, estimates that no more than 50 make a full-time living at it. Not long ago, Keehn doubled for Melanie Griffith in a not-yet-released film called "Cherry 2000," shot in and around Las Vegas.

"Tracy's got a couple of real pumpers in that one," says Leonard, for whom she did some work when Leonard was stunt coordinator on the television series "Hunter."

In one sequence in "Cherry 2000," a thriller set in an apocalyptic future, she is clinging to a car that is being lifted by a crane, which is itself atop a dam, so that she is 800 feet above ground level when the car, in one sickening moment, slips 20 feet. "It took five days to rig the shot, and all one day to shoot it," she says. "Thank the Lord it all went well. With many stunts you've got an option. If a car catches fire, you can go out a window. But with this one, you're relying solely on the mechanicals. That's why the special-effects guys are so important; they do the rigging. The car drop was more a mental problem than anything else: Nobody asked, 'When's the big stunt?' I didn't want to talk about it. The hardest stunts are the ones where you don't have control."

The other pumper was a breeze by comparison, only a 300-foot tumble down one of the dam's watercourses.

Keehn, who is 25 and delicately pretty, has been doing professional stunt work for four years. Like Deadrick, she began doing extra work when she was 18, to earn spending money while she was at Pierce College in Woodland Hills, majoring in theater arts. Her stepfather was a rodeo cowboy who taught her early to ride and rope (she still does rodeos every weekend). She also has two older brothers who, she says, gave her no choice but to be a tomboy. "If I didn't do what they were doing, there was nothing to do." She was riding motorcycles when she was 10, and for the last three years has been under contract to drive in Honda commercials.

"When I was in high school, I worked in a ski shop," she says. "It was fun, but I hated knowing what every single day was going to be like. Now I look forward to going to work because it's totally different every day. I get paid for having a real good time."

Dangling 800 feet above Hoover Dam, of course, is not everybody's idea of a swell time. "But," she says, "I'm not a daredevil, and I'm not fearless. Excitement gets the adrenaline going. Fear is a warning to be sure everything's absolutely right before you start. If I can fit on an extra safety pad, believe me, I'll do it." In that regard, stunt women face a special hazard. "I was doing a stair fall in a short dress; couldn't wear any padding at all. The wardrobe woman was watching, and she said, 'This is ridiculous. Hereafter I'll see you have clothes to wear.' But you can't always control wardrobe."

The psychic reward of the work is evidently much the same for Tracy Keehn as for Terry Leonard and Vince Deadrick, and in a nutshell it's knowing that you've done something extremely well that few people would dare to do at all. "You find out what the director wants. You work it out and set it up, and then you have the satisfaction of knowing you did it well. And someone appreciates what you've done."

No one appreciates the stunts more than the actors the stunt people are doubling for. John Russell, the veteran cowboy actor who was the chief villain in last year's "Pale Rider," says, half-seriously, "I don't step off a curb if I don't have to."

Burt Reynolds, who did some stunt work in his early Hollywood days, says: "In 26 years in the business, I've seen thousands of stunts applauded. I was applauded once. I fell down a flight of stairs. Why I wasn't maimed for life I don't know. I've left it to others ever since.

"The stunt guy does it, dusts himself off and says goodby. Those are the guys who make us look terrific. Clint, Sylvester, me. Those stunt guys put their lives on the line for you. They could be killed or paralyzed, but they do it, and you finish it.

"Errol Flynn was the greatest athlete in the world, for three frames. They'll say they do it for the money, but it's pride. They know they're damned good, and they are. I've always had a real admiration for the stunt man. That's your real hero; that's John Wayne."

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