The silver-haired man who looks a little like Spencer Tracy bends over the table to get some mental leverage as he hauls up a cobwebbed memory about how they shot the movie “Jesse James.”
When someone asks: “Who were the stars?” John (Bear) Hudkins waves off the question. They were Henry Fonda and Tyrone Power, but that is not important.
What is important is the stuntmen. Hudkins was just a novice when the film was made and Cliff Lyons and Yakima Canutt, two of the all-time greats at falling off buildings and being dragged by horses, decided to teach him a lesson.
During a crucial bank robbery scene, they tied their horses on either side of his, effectively keeping him from getting to his animal for the getaway. Then they warned him: “Don’t hold us up, kid.”
When the scene was shot, however, Hudkins raced out of the bank first, bounded over the inside horse and onto his own, then rode off hellbent for leather.
“Don’t hold me up, boys!” he calls out now, mimicking the way he shouted it all those years ago.
Laughter erupts among the other gray-haired stuntmen gathered over coffee in a corner of Charles’ Restaurant in Studio City.
What the Algonquin Hotel was to an elite group of New York authors, Charles’ Restaurant on Ventura Boulevard is for these men-of-a-thousand-falls. On many mornings, up to a score of them can be found slamming back coffee, swapping stories, comparing old wounds and wondering what became of old whatshisname.
Some are still active, while others are looking for their first big break. But the acknowledged lords of this domain are a handful of all-but-retired old-timers who wear their crowns crustily, trading verbal jabs that land a lot more often than the punches they threw in the old shoot-'em-ups.
Hudkins, 73, had a standard put-down to any director who asked him to do something stupidly dangerous: “Listen, kid, I’ve screwed up more film than you’ve shot.”
He did stunts for Tracy and George C. Scott, as well as the Jonathan Winters fight scene that wrecked the filling station in “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.”
Al Wyatt, 75, doubled for Gary Cooper, Randolph Scott and other tall heroes of steely gaze and incorruptible spirit. He never suffered serious injury. “All I ever did was lose a lot of skin,” he said.
Joe Brooks, 68, had a brief career facing the cameras as the lookout who could not see on the 1960s Western sitcom “F Troop.” Ten years after the show was canceled, he came down with a disease that has nearly robbed him of his eyesight.
“I must have overacted,” he joked.
The stuntmen have been coming for three years to Charles’ Restaurant, a hideaway of brown leather booths and Formica tables at which any Denny’s customer would feel at home. It is on the route that Hudkins rode as a young man from his family’s hillside stables across the Los Angeles River to the Warner Bros.’ lot in Burbank.
These days, the Studio City stretch of Ventura Boulevard features a series of watering holes where entertainment people get together to network, places such as Residuals bar and Jerry’s Famous Deli. The stuntmen gravitated to this one because the owners, Charles and Lovina Bolwell, allow them to sit for hours without badgering them to buy, buy, buy.
As a result, they frequently do buy, buy, buy, downing bowls of oatmeal and, if they are feeling reckless about their health, plates of potatoes and eggs, over easy.
Shortly after 8 one morning recently, Hudkins arrives from Northridge. Wyatt drops in a little later from North Hills. As the group builds, each newcomer nods curtly at those already there and sits down at one of a series of small tables along a wall.
Other customers look on with curiosity as the waitress fusses over these men and their banter begins.
“I have many times had to go out to the car and put my safety pads on because the stunt talk got so heavy I was afraid I would get hurt,” said John Moio, 48, who sits across from Hudkins.
Moio survived his trial by fire, and is so liked in the business that, after his infant son, Matthew, died last year of a rare bacterial infection, hundreds showed up for the funeral in the Hollywood Hills. It comforts him to know that his child is buried in the same hills where the old Westerns were filmed.
Occasionally, he waxes emotional about those movies and colleagues who broke their bones to make them. But he does so at his peril--when he describes being around these men as “a pure form of euphoria,” Hudkins jumps in.
“Besides, somebody has to pick up the check,” Hudkins said.
Wyatt, Hudkins and Brooks got into the business in the 1930s and ‘40s, before sophisticated safety equipment. Instead of air bags--big pillowy sacks that break the falls of stuntmen today--they used cardboard boxes.
“I broke my back on ‘Fort Apache,’ ” Bear said. “I was doing a drag and the horse stepped in a hole, fell on top of me and drove me into the ground.”
Doctors fused his spine and he went back to work.
Hudkins does not brag, but there is one stunt that he never heard of anyone else doing: a dive from a galloping horse through a window of a stagecoach.
He had the window widened to make the jump easier, but the director filmed the wrong side of the coach. So Hudkins had to go through the small window anyway, with horse and coach “flying through the sagebrush.”
Heads nod appreciatively around the room. Though danger is always present in their job, there have been few deaths over the years. So few that they still chew over the 1965 death of one of their colleagues in a wagon rollover for “The Hallelujah Trail.”
“It was almost like he wanted to commit suicide,” said Wyatt. “We ran the movie frame by frame. He rose up once but did not get off.”
“He was eaten up with cancer,” said Hudkins.
This fraternity, perhaps more than most because of the danger, takes care of its own. Moio sprained a leg badly during a scene for the Karl Malden series “Streets of San Francisco,” and thought he would have to withdraw. But Wyatt, stunt coordinator on the series, offered another day’s work.
“I can’t even walk,” Moio protested. Still, Wyatt insisted.
When Moio staggered onto the set the next day, he heard Wyatt explaining to the director that, in the coming scene, the character should have a limp.
Wyatt, Hudkins and Brooks take jobs only occasionally now. Hudkins drove a car on the movie “Dick Tracy.”
“Bear turned down more jobs in recent years than most people get,” said Wyatt.
Hudkins is uncomfortable comparing the old-time stunt men with today’s bunch. All he will say is that it is a lot easier to work with cars than horses. A stuntman can be strapped in for a rollover, but when you fall off a horse, there is no substitute for hitting the ground.
Wyatt does not like what he sees as self-promotion among the new generation of stuntmen and stuntwomen.
“They’re on an ego trip,” he said. “They’re trying for publicity and records, where Bear and I and Joe were in the background. We didn’t want anybody to know who we were.”
The group at Charles’ Restaurant works hard to remain informal. There are no promises, none stated anyway. “We never say, ‘See you tomorrow,’ ” Hudkins said.
But when tomorrow comes, often as not, they are here. Brooks calls their sessions “good therapy for me. I lost my wife, so now I come over and talk to these (expletives).”
Sometimes the talk turns to the decay of their once agile bodies. Wyatt walks with a cane now and looks frail. Brooks carries a huge magnifying glass to supplement his failing vision.
But the subject of death is treated as roughly as everything else. Moio tells of a demanding stunt boss being buried on a steep hill. As his pallbearers labor up to the grave site, one of them moans: “It’s just like Benny--he makes us work to the last.”