Yakima Canutt, a rough-and-ready bronco rider who became a famed Hollywood stunt man, doubling for John Wayne in dozens of movies and choreographing the chariot race in "Ben Hur," died Saturday night at North Hollywood Medical Center of natural causes. He was 89.
Canutt, whose career in films began with the first silent Westerns in the 1920s, was considered a pioneer in setting up action sequences as a stunt director in the later part of his career.
"He always did his best. He set marks in every business he was in," his son, Joe Canutt, said Sunday.
Enos Edward Canutt was born Nov. 29, 1896, in Colfax, Wash. He was raised as a ranch hand and, after only a brief stint in school, began breaking horses at age 12.
Five years later, he entered his first Wild West show, winning prizes for his riding and roping stunts. He joined the rodeo circuit soon afterward.
Canutt got his nickname in 1914 from a newspaper article that called him "The Cowboy from Yakima," referring to the Washington valley where he grew up. In later life, his friends and professional acquaintances simply called him Yack.
In 1917, he won the World's Champion All-Round Cowboy title at the Pendleton Roundup in Oregon. He had become one of the best saddle and bareback bronc riders on the rodeo circuit, at a time when such contests were between tough range riders, instead of circus performers.
In between rodeo performances, Canutt broke horses for the French in World War I. Late in the war, he joined the U.S. Navy and served briefly aboard a minesweeper.
With the war over in 1919, Canutt quickly regained his world championship cowboy crown, the second of five he earned in his life.
Roles in Silent Westerns
He moved on to Hollywood in the early 1920s, and had leading roles in two silent Western films, "Romance and Rustlers" and "Ridin' Mad," both released in 1924. His movies were typically fast-paced and action-filled, and Canutt rarely used a double.
Trouble, however, came with the talkies. Canutt, whose voice was once described as like a hummingbird's, didn't come across well on sound tracks. As a result, he soon became a full-time stunt man and occasionally played quiet , angry, villain roles.
As a stunt man, Canutt did the tough stuff for such luminaries as Errol Flynn, Tyrone Power, Clark Gable, Henry Fonda, Roy Rogers, Randolph Scott and Tex Ritter, as well as Wayne.
His favorite stunt was said to be in John Ford's 1939 epic, "Stagecoach." Playing an attacking Indian, Canutt leaped at full gallop from his own horse to the six-horse team pulling the coach. He then fell between the horses, dragged along the ground, finally lying motionless as the horses and coach sped over him.
Canutt, who had a faint scar over his lip that he said he got from a steer's horn, was seriously hurt on the job several times. He was twice injured doubling for Gable.
Broke Ribs in Stunt
In the 1936 film "San Francisco," Canutt replaced Gable in a scene in which a wall was to fall on the star.
"We had a heavy table situated so that I could dive under it at the last moment," Canutt told The Times in a 1960 interview. "Just as the wall started down, a girl in the scene became hysterical and panicked. I grabbed her, leaped for the table, but didn't quite make it."
He broke six ribs. The girl was unhurt.
In "Boom Town" (1940), it was Canutt--not Gable--who was thrown off a bucking horse into a bass drum. Canutt punctured a lung in the process.
He began directing low-budget Westerns in the 1940s, including "Sheriff of Cimarron" in 1945 and "Oklahoma Badlands" and "Carson City Raiders" in 1948.
80 Yugoslavian Horses
For the chariot race in the 1959 production of "Ben Hur," Canutt started work in Italy two years before regular production began, teaching 80 Yugoslavian horses how to pull chariots.
"He was the best as a stunt man and as a second unit director," the film's star, Charlton Heston, said.
The actor credited Canutt, who also coordinated stunts in the Heston vehicle, "El Cid" (1961), with changing stunting from "a ragtag" occupation into a respectable part of the motion picture industry.
"It's no longer an idiot undertaking," Heston said.
Giving Heston Lessons
He recalled taking weeks of chariot lessons from Canutt in preparation for the climactic race of "Ben Hur."
"He spent about six weeks teaching me to drive the chariot," the actor said. "He said, 'Chuck, you just stay in the chariot and you're going to win the damn race."'
In 1966, Canutt was awarded a special Oscar, crediting him with helping to create the stunt-man profession and with developing safety devices used by stunt men everywhere.
In addition to his son, Canutt is survived by his wife, Audrea; a brother, Tap, and a sister, Honey Dittman.
Funeral arrangements were incomplete.