Shooting Pains : Students at Kim Kahana's Stunt School Learn That Failure Means Fractures for Those Taking Falls on Film

Times Staff Writer

Jeff R. stood on a platform two-thirds of the way up a telephone-pole tower above the rooftops of a placid Chatsworth neighborhood.

"My name is Jeff," he said deliberately, concentrating on a rectangular air bag 40 feet below. "I'm going to do a header."

In real life, Jeff R. (as an actor, that is his whole name) was an architect who found office life boring and repetitive. He was lured away by images of excitement and danger that flickered through his thoughts. They led him to Kim Kahana's Stunt School.

Now, the images would become real life.

Jeff had jumped easily from the lowest platform, 20 feet off the ground. He was doubling the distance.

Toeing the edge of the platform, he spoke the invocation to safety and courage.

"Spotters ready?" he called out.

"Spotters ready," the other students standing around the bag responded in unison.

"Fan on?" he said.

"Fan on," they said, checking the electric fan that kept the bag inflated.

"My name is Jeff," he repeated. "I'm going to do a header."

Jeff's tall body leaned, then pitched. His arms flung out. He screamed dramatically, as he was taught to do.

Everyone knew that it was wrong. Jeff tucked too soon. He rotated too far. His heels hit first.

With a whack, Jeff's body sank out of sight into the bag. A long moment of silence preceded the deathly groan.

Kahana ordered Jeff to wiggle his toes. Then he got mad. "Your feet again," he scolded. "Your feet, your feet, your feet. That's a good way to snap your back, guys."

After several minutes, they helped Jeff to a rusted chair. He sat ashenly, holding his chin up with his thumb. He would learn later that he had dislocated his neck and fractured three ribs with his chin.

For the moment, his pain was merely a sideshow.

"OK, put it up," Kahana said, pointing to the bag. "Who wants to be next?"

Kahana likes to say that if your friends all think you're crazy, you should consider being a stunt man.

In spite of the occasional and highly publicized death or maiming of an experienced stunt actor, the inexperienced and hopeful are still drawn to Hollywood.

"We always get letters saying, 'I want to be a stunt person,' " said Mark Locher, public relations director of the Screen Actors Guild. "It's one of the adventurous, glamorous parts of the movie business that people want to get into these days. It's also one of the most difficult."

Inevitably, many find their way to the Chatsworth complex of Kahana, a flamboyant, 5-foot, 7-inch Hawaii-born hardhead who, in his 57 years, accumulated two wounds in Korea and uncounted broken bones, bruises and dislocations in Hollywood.

Through hundreds of movies and television shows, Kahana has been beaten, burned, sliced, dropped, shot at, catapulted, hit by cars and exploded, sometimes merely in illusion, sometimes in fact. He's been paid $52,000 to drop by means of a cable from a jet helicopter to a hole in the side of a 747.

Surviving all that, he thought he had something to teach.

Set Son on Fire

So, in the way of the closed society of stunt men, Kahana taught his three sons and daughter the trade. For the movie "The Exterminator," Kahana set his son on fire. He let Kim Jr. burn 42 seconds inside a protective suit.

"They hired me for this job," he said. "There was nobody who could put me out, so I put my son in it so I could put him out."

In the mid-1970s, he opened a school for the public. It remains the only stunt actors' school licensed by the state Office of Post-Secondary Education.

Kahana said he often receives criticism, and he brushed it off with characteristic directness. "They assume that I bring in people off of the streets and guarantee them jobs and scam them, which I don't," Kahana said. "The first thing I tell them is that I don't offer them nothing."

The disclaimer applies to personal safety as well.

"If you die, it's not my fault," he told Jeff's class. "I just taught you how to die."

The Van Nuys office of Cal-OSHA has no record of any complaint against the school.

Kahana estimates that he has instructed 1,500 students over the past decade. Maybe 400 have found work in the business, he said.

Bucking those odds, they come from all over the country.

The class of six that convened early in February included, in addition to Jeff, an ex-Marine from Washington, a college dropout from San Francisco, a commercial diver from New Orleans, an actor from New Jersey and a young woman sponsored by her parents in Indiana.

They each paid $2,000 for the six-week course. It covered the basics: exercise and trampoline, fights, falls, horseback tricks, karate, automobile hits and weapons.

As part of the course, the students got composites, action pictures of themselves falling through space and bouncing off automobiles. And they acquired loads of Kahana wisdom, often laced with Kahana anger.

Class began in Kahana's studio on Devonshire Street, a storefront with mats on the floor and a boxing ring in the back.

The first day, Kahana yelled at Elisabeth Palmer, the woman from Indiana, when she drove up a few minutes late in a gray Trans Am.

He said he'd throw her out if she came late again.

He gave the quarter-inch lecture. The gist of it is that, in stunt work, a miss of a quarter-inch can kill you.

Then the phone rang.

Kim Jr. and an advanced student named Mitch Michael led the class in a series of grimace-producing calisthenics.

"This is Austria," Kahana said. It was a magazine requesting photos for a piece on stunt men.

"Would you like fire and cars and stuff?"

When he hung up, the students were in lines, diving through the air, landing on their backs.

Tricky Maneuver

Often their heads bounced. Seeing that made Kahana yell.

"Once you touch your head you go into concussion," he said. "Concussion goes into death."

Soon the phone rang.

"Washington Post?" he said. The Post wanted to send a reporter out. "When do you want to do it?"

Elisabeth didn't show up for the second day of class.

Kahana wasn't surprised.

"She wasn't used to being yelled at," he said.

Some afternoons, Kahana takes his students to his office in a mirrored building a block away to watch videos. They sit at an oval conference table, on one side a panoramic view of the Valley, everywhere else a clutter of TVs, video equipment, leather stunt harnesses, samurai swords, rifles and pictures of Kahana as a Mexican bandit, a martial-arts warrior, a motorcycle devil.

One such afternoon, Kahana showed the students videos of themselves, recorded in practice. Then he showed videos of great stunt artists at work.

He showed the late Dar Robinson driving a motorcycle off an aircraft carrier deck.

A Famous Scene

"This became a famous scene," he said. "But it's no big deal. Funny that he would die on a motorcycle."

He showed A.J. Bakunascq falling 320 feet in dreamy slow motion and then breaking through his air bag and being carried away to die.

He showed his son on fire.

"You are just a passenger during the fire gag," he said. "You want the best man in the world to put you on fire. You may not be able to afford it."

"So who do you trust?" a student asked.

Kahana laughed. "You have to trust the guy who puts you in the suit. He may have just called Kahana and asked, 'Hey, Kahana, how do you do a fire gag?' "

The phone rang.

"This guy's from Iran," Kahana announced. "He wants to come over and be a stunt man."

One day, his class went to Kahana's backyard, which recalls the days when Chatsworth was rural and movies were made in the strange rock formations a short distance away.

Kahana has built a small Western town in his yard, except for where side streets melt into Polynesian huts. Two horses are in a corral; a clutter of old motorcycles, campers, sheds and discarded tools and garden equipment lie here and there.

In contrast, the air bags are meticulously dusted, folded and stored away.

The Injuries Begin

The injuries began with Tresa Black, an 18-year-old from Sacramento who ventured into stunt work against her parents' wishes. The impact of a fall drove her knee into her eye socket.

"We get lots of broken noses like that," Kahana said.

A dirt lot just behind Kahana's studio provided the arena where the students learned how to hurl themselves at a moving car. One day, as homeowners on the other side of a block wall tended their gardens, a battered, windowless Matador inscribed angry circles in the dirt.

The students rolled off its roof onto the ground. They bounced on its hood as it passed. Then they learned how to throw themselves at its side as it spun into a turn.

Mitch Michael, a former dancer, demonstrated how to barely make contact, then leap backward and roll, to create the illusion of impact.

Most of the students did the exercise tentatively and backed away early.

Jay Strebb, a tall, tough-minded young man from New Jersey, did the opposite. There was a metallic thud. Strebb was driven to the ground, landing on a derelict gas tank. He grimaced in pain. But only his knee was skinned. He got up and did it again.

Armed Expedition

The last day of class brought an expedition into the mountains above Pacoima. Driving a camper filled with his students, Kahana negotiated a rutted dirt road into a steep canyon whose floor was covered with orange and yellow shotgun shells and dotted by the bodies of automobiles, all violently torn by bullets. He stopped by a creek.

As the students set up cans and bottles for targets, Kahana unpacked an arsenal of rifles and pistols. He announced that there was beer for everyone. But he prohibited taking even a sip until the shooting was finished.

Then he aimed a black assault rifle at the target area. In a second, the hill erupted into dust, and the canyon echoed with the report of 30 rounds.

Kahana smiled.

"This one's too fast for you guys," he said.

Kahana handed out little plastic bags filled with ammunition. He marked a firing line.

"If anyone turns around with a weapon, I will probably blow your head off," he said. "I'd rather shoot you than have you blow my head off."

The students shot all the guns, ending with the Mauser. Kahana said it was the best sniper rifle in the world. He showed them, raising a cloud of dust on a hill a quarter-mile away.

One by one, the students popped beer cans, as each shot three rounds through the Mauser.

Taking the last turn, Tom Chalise, a 20-year-old from San Francisco, picked up an empty pop bottle.

"Mr. K., if I throw this in the water, can I shoot it?" he asked.

"Yeah," Kahana said.

Outbreak of Hostilities

It was like the beginning of a war. They all started throwing cans in the water and shooting.

Kahana laughed.

"OK, everybody pick up a rifle and take a group photo," he said.

They mugged like a platoon in Vietnam.

Driving out of the mountains, Kahana sipped a beer and delivered some closing remarks, as always fraught with the contradictions of his life and work.

He said he believes his life has been motivated by fear, the fear he first felt in a Korean foxhole.

He doubted that the crazy things he's done add up to a great deal. "If there's an accomplishment, it's doing it safely," he said.

He didn't miss the irony.

"Do what I say," he said. "Don't do what I do. You should never do what I do."

There is an epilogue. On graduation night, the young man from New Jersey, Jay Strebb, reported to his job as a waiter. On the way home, driving with a friend, the two were hit by another car as they turned through a green arrow.

Strebb is being treated at UCLA Medical Center for a broken back.

From his hospital bed, he said he will go home to New Jersey to begin a rehabilitation program and try to find the meaning in what has happened.

He said he'll be back if he recovers.

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