When he was a little boy growing up near Winnipeg, Canada, he fearlessly jumped off the barn cradling chickens, sure the feathered fowl would enable him to fly.
That was only the beginning.
Russell M. Saunders, a world-class acrobat of fabled Muscle Beach who could somersault over 14 people and who was a stunt double in more than 100 motion pictures, has died. He was 82.
Saunders doubled for Alan Ladd in the classic fight scene of "Shane" and, doubling for Robert Cummings, jumped off a 60-foot bridge and swam 100 yards while handcuffed in "Saboteur." He died Friday in Los Angeles, said Paula Boelsems, his acrobatic partner for more than 50 years.
Circus trapeze artist Fay Alexander once called Saunders "without a doubt the best all-around acrobat I have ever known. He's one of a kind."
She had watched him carefully as she helped rig the legendary stunt in which Saunders doubled for Gene Kelly in the 1948 version of "The Three Musketeers." The Saunders-Kelly personification of D'Artagnan memorably leaped from rooftop to rooftop, caught a waving flag that ripped, then swung on its shreds to land in a window. Alexander said the stunt "took the most coordination, timing and ability for anything I've ever seen."
Small wonder Saunders is the only stuntman credited in the documentary "Great Moments of MGM."
Saunders' half-century career before the movie cameras stretched from 1940's "The Great Profile," starring John Barrymore, in which Saunders performed as part of an acrobatic troupe, to "Mississippi Burning" in 1988.
His patient teaching of acrobatics at Muscle Beach went on even longer--even though the institution officially ceased to exist in 1959, when the Santa Monica City Council had the acrobats' platform torn down. Seen as bohemian, the Muscle Beach crowd included too much of a criminal bent, the conservative city fathers insisted, and could be a bad influence on the neighborhood.
Nevertheless, Saunders, along with others, continued to visit the Muscle Beach site just south of the Santa Monica Pier into his 70s to teach gymnastics and acrobatics to youngsters on Sunday afternoons. He dubbed his child trainees the Muscle Beach AcroBrats.
"This has got to be the only place in the world where someone can just walk up and receive free gymnastic instruction from pros," he told The Times in 1986.
Although Saunders was never into the bodybuilding that gave Muscle Beach its name, he befriended all those who trained there, including Vic Tanny, Steve Reeves and Jack La Lanne. Many pioneers of gymnastics, acrobatics and physical fitness programs got their start on the strip of sand.
"Russ is one of the finest gentlemen and all-around acrobats and athletes I have ever known," La Lanne said in a recent issue of the Muscle Beach Alumni Newsletter. "He is very unselfish and is always trying to help people. . . . [He is] a role model for young people."
Not that Saunders ever had to worry about his own body beautiful, however. In 1950, Salvador Dali selected him as the model for his painting of "The Christ of St. John," now in a Glasgow, Scotland, museum.
"I didn't even know who he [Dali] was at the time," Saunders recalled in 1984. "I was working for Warner Bros. Studios and tested in front of this guy with a cane and a waxed mustache. I got paid $35 a day to pose."
In Canada, the youthful Saunders became a national diving and gymnastics champion. Once he moved to Southern California, it didn't take long for him to gravitate to Muscle Beach, reveling in the fact that he could work out on the sand even in the winter.
He was offered diving scholarships by both USC and UCLA but went to Hollywood instead.
There he performed stunts regularly for Alan Ladd and Gene Kelly, as well as Richard Widmark, Gilbert Roland, Charles Boyer, Lloyd Bridges, Danny Kaye and Red Buttons.
Saunders also appeared in such action films as "The Poseidon Adventure," "The Towering Inferno," "Earthquake" and "Hindenburg." He was a charter member of the Hollywood Stuntmen's Assn. of Motion Pictures.
Boelsems met Saunders on Feb. 29, 1940, and, she recently recalled, "Just hours [afterward] I was being tossed through the air for him to catch me." The two performed together around the world for more than 50 years and in 1975 became the first two American judges accredited by the International Federation of Sports Acrobatics.
Drafted into the Army in 1942, Saunders was naturalized as a U.S. citizen on Jan. 1, 1944, at the U.S. Embassy in London while serving in England.
He dived with a special Armed Forces aquacade, was decorated by President Harry S. Truman as an outstanding Army war correspondent, served in France as well as England and was one of the first soldiers into Berlin.
Saunders is survived by two sisters, Edna Hall of Penticton, Canada, and Doris Sandore of Newport Beach.
Funeral services are scheduled for noon today at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, 6000 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood.