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Full of drive on the comeback trail

Times Staff Writer

On a chilly night in May, two dozen of Hollywood’s top stunt drivers huddled around a director crouched on the sidewalk at the corner of Melrose and Van Ness avenues. Like football players surrounding a quarterback, they watched the director move toy Hot Wheels on the sidewalk to demonstrate the intricate maneuvers they would perform in a few minutes.

At the edge of the group, Jake Chambers, 25, a tall Ethan Hawke look-alike, leaned against a palm tree. The stunt was one sequence in a mock police pursuit that would open last week’s televised Taurus World Stunt Awards (rebroadcast tonight at 9 on the USA Network).

On the show, the taped segment would cut to a stage where actor Dennis Hopper (“Easy Rider”) rides in on a bike, as if he had been chased through the streets of Los Angeles.

Chambers’ job -- to pace the intersection’s “traffic” through which the chase proceeds -- was deceptively simple. He had to be aware of each car around him as it swerved and skidded through the split-second choreography. Anything could go wrong at any time, and if it did, he would need to react instantly.

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As a behind-the-scenes player, Chambers wouldn’t be recognizable on screen. Still, he couldn’t have been happier. He was working.

A year ago, Chambers, a second-generation stuntman whose career had just taken off, worried he might be out of the game forever.

On a windy November day in 2001, Chambers crashed during a Palmdale charity motocross race, the sort of sport he did routinely to keep his edge. Unconscious, he had to be resuscitated twice, once on the track and again in the emergency room. The accident left him with a skull fracture, a ruptured spleen, a shredded liver, and shattered wrist, rib and leg bones.

“The doctor said it would take me six months to walk. I was back in three. He said it would take me a year to run, play hockey, to work again. I did it at about the six-month mark,” he said.

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Despite his near-death experience and the constant risk of his job, Chambers wanted to prove to doubters that he could work again. What’s more, he said, “that was my life. I love my work. I really love giving people what they want.... If people like the work I do, then I’m happy.”

Chambers has been on movie sets since he was an infant joining his father on “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” Steve Chambers, known as one of the most versatile characters in the business, doubled for Paul Newman in the movie’s black-and-white silent newsreel segment.

Later, Jake rode in helicopters and carried other stuntmen’s bags for loose change on sets of television shows where his dad worked.

Steve Chambers had known friends and sons of friends who had died on the job and never encouraged his son to follow in his footsteps. He had even had a premonition that he might lose him someday -- a thought he fought off for many years, he said.

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But stunt work seemed like a natural progression to the boy, who still considers his just-retired dad “the greatest man alive,” and was undaunted by the dangers. Even when his father was flat on his back from injuries, which seemed often, “he just didn’t worry about it,” Chambers said.

Jake recalls that when he told his dad he was going into the business, he uttered a colorful phrase on the order of “I won’t get jobs for you.”

Five years later, Jake was fighting, driving, riding motorcycles and being set on fire. He had appeared in dozens of films, TV shows and commercials, always anonymously, sometimes doubling for actors like Jason Lee in “Stealing Harvard,” Colin Hanks in “Orange County” and Anthony Michael Hall in “Pirates of Silicon Valley.” He was a Coast Guard rescuer in “The Perfect Storm.” Earning less than a third of the $300,000 top stuntmen can make, Jake made a good living, enough to buy himself a house in Valencia.

He adhered to his father’s rules: Always give 110%, specialize in everything and be prepared for anything. He also added some of his own: Always admit when you’ve been hurt, and choose your associates carefully. “People will walk all over you to get a job and not think twice about it,” he said.

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Road to recovery

More than a setback, the sedentary recovery period after his crash was “the worst time in my life,” he said. After three months in a wheelchair, he gradually began walking. Then he’d try to jog, holding onto a cart or a treadmill. Sometimes, his leg muscles would give way and he’d fall, just walking. His girlfriend left him.

Noting his good looks, friends suggested he try acting, but that’s not what he wants. “If somebody needs a stuntman who can read lines, great,” he said. The only other jobs he says he’d consider are piloting helicopters, law enforcement or another passion: photography.

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His father said he is so grateful his son survived, that however he chooses to earn a living doesn’t matter to him at all -- even if it’s stunt work. “I’m so happy to have him, he can go to school, live with us, work at Ace Hardware. I don’t care. I just praise God and say thank you.”

Strangely enough, Jake said the accident turned out to be “the best agent I ever had. Everybody knew I was hurt. People to this day ask, ‘How are you? How’s your leg?’ ”

With a new titanium rod in his leg, a new girlfriend and a new perspective on life, he’s back to his regular routine, playing hockey in a league once a week and working as much as he can. Last July, stunt coordinator John Medlen hired him to play a zombie on “Buffy the Vampire Slay- er,” his first job after the crash. “I almost wanted to break down and cry, I was so grateful. It was amazing to be on the set working again,” he said.

On the relatively low-budget production for the stunt awards, Chambers blended in with the other drivers as they repeated the toy car exercise and various stunts until 1 or 2 the next morning.

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With a motorcycle camera following the action, Jake drove through the intersection for the fourth take. After a few nail-biting seconds of burning rubber and squealing tires, director David Ellis, a former stuntman himself, hollered, “That was beautiful. I can’t thank you enough.”

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Working Hollywood is a new feature that puts the spot- light on less- visible jobs in the entertainment industry.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Stunt performers

How many: 6,000 registered with the Screen Actors Guild.

Professional organizations: Stuntmen’s Assn. of Motion Pictures, Brand X, Stunts Unlimited, International Stunt Assn., V10 (for women), among others.

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Age range: 7 to 75

Estimated number of women: 25%.

Salary range: $40,000 annually for beginners; $300,000 with residuals; $700,000 for top stunt coordinators and second unit directors.

Estimated serious injuries: Two per year.

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Estimated deaths: One every two years.


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