It's a life of hard knocks

Times Staff Writer

It is a chilly evening on the set of the Warner Bros. television pilot "Supernatural" as 70-year-old Hollywood stuntman Eddy Donno climbs behind the wheel of a black Chevy Impala, adjusts his goggles and revs the engine.

Wearing a mop-haired wig to double for an actor, Donno waits for the director to call "Action!" and then, with cameras rolling, he sends the car hurtling toward a two-story, paint-peeled house that is shrouded in drifting smoke to create the illusion of a haunted, fog-shrouded night.

The Chevy plows through a fence, crosses the yard and barrels through the front door in an explosion of splintering wood and clouds of dust, coming to rest next to the fireplace.

The first man to reach the car is Donno's 30-year-old son, Tony, also a stuntman.

"Dad, are you OK!?" he calls out.

Seconds later, Eddy Donno gingerly climbs out the passenger-side door. Standing amid the debris, he is greeted by applause from the cast and crew.

In four decades as a Hollywood stuntman, Donno has crashed his body into the windows of moving automobiles and suffered a blood clot on his brain after being accidentally dropped through a roof while dangling by his feet from a rope. He's taken tumbles down more stairs, been yanked off more saddles and rattled his molars in more car wrecks than he cares to remember.

But there is one thing he and thousands of other stunt professionals have never experienced: the chance to compete for an Academy Award. Just last week the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences voted not to create a new annual award for them.

Donno said he doesn't really care whether the academy recognizes stuntmen, but he questions why his craft doesn't have its own Oscar category when "they give the fifth makeup man an Oscar, and they give the eighth writer on the script an Oscar." Stunt professionals in recent years have been honoring their own, staging their own televised awards gala, the Taurus World Stunt Awards, on the back lot at Paramount Pictures.

As Donno enters the twilight of his career, many of his peers wonder what their profession will be like a generation from now. Already, they note, rapid advances in computer wizardry, prevalent in blockbuster action films like "The Matrix," are encroaching on human stunts.

"We may start the fall, say 10 feet, and then [computers] make it look like 100 feet," said Henry M. Kingi Jr., 34, who recently performed stunts on director Michael Bay's upcoming sci-fi film "The Island."

Another worry of Hollywood stuntmen is that runaway production and the influx of stunt performers from other countries is making it harder to hustle up work.

"I started in 1977," said stunt coordinator Glenn Wilder, 49. "Back then, if you went on an interview for a show, maybe 15 other guys were there.... Now there are 150 or 200 guys there. And they're from all over the world."

The Screen Actors Guild said 6,595 of its members identify themselves as stunt performers, 75% of them men. But working stunt professionals say the figure is really closer to 2,500 -- and 200 to 300 of them are older than 60.

The bad old days

Donno is a throwback to an era when car stunts were performed without safety harnesses, roll cages or fireproof suits.

In his prime, before sending a car airborne, he would simply tie himself in with a rope, lean over on the front seat and roll the car. It was called a "tie down." If you walked away after the roof caved in, you did good.

Donno's specialty is stair falls. "I love a good stair fall if it's one that's real steep," he said. The trick to not breaking your neck? "You always want to put your chin on your chest because it stops your head from whipping."

While doubling for an actress in a wig and high heels in the 1972 film "Welcome Home, Soldier Boys," Donno was thrown out of a car doing 40 mph, launched himself into a handstand and kept on going.

"That was my first flip," he recalled, "and I didn't stop flipping until I was up the embankment on the other side of the freeway. The director said, 'I love it! I'll put a camera on the fender and we'll do it again.' " Donno said he turned to the driver and said, "OK, but next time make it 25 mph."

As filmmakers strive for bigger and more daring stunts, stunt professionals know they can be injured or even killed if something goes awry. "There's a lot of luck involved not to get hurt in this business," Donno said. Indeed, over the years a number of stunt people have lost their lives working on the set. One of the more sensational accidents occurred in 1994, when Sonja Davis, a rising stuntwoman, plunged 47 feet into an air bag and hit her head while filming "Vampire in Brooklyn" for Paramount Pictures. She died soon after.

But Donno still feels lucky. A gray-haired fireplug of a man, he has no plans to retire soon, despite the aches and pains that come with the job.

"Bones hurt every night whether I take a fall or not," he said. If an arm hurts, he might rub on a little Tiger Balm. If his head throbs, he might take some prescription pain medication. Otherwise, he added, being a stuntman beats pumping gas.

"Eddy is probably one of a handful of stuntmen over 70 that can still perform the big car crashes and loves to do it," said veteran stuntman Jack Gill.

But much has changed since Donno set out in the business. For one thing, he said, today's performers take better care of themselves. "I didn't have a gym when I did this stuff in the beginning," he recalled. "You didn't see a cowboy go to a gym. You'd go to a bar. These guys today, when they get done shooting, they have their own gym in their hotel room. They go to the gym first, God bless 'em."

Donno said he stays in shape by spending an hour in the morning at the gym, punching a bag for 20 minutes and sitting in the sauna.

A chance encounter with his fate

In the old days, Donno often performed a stunt trick used in westerns called the "Running W." It was particularly cruel to the horses -- and dangerous for riders -- and wouldn't be tolerated today. "They would run the horse as fast at it goes while its hoof was tied to a cable, and then the cable would come to an end, the horse would stumble, and you'd fly over the head," Donno said.

"You jack your feet up in the stirrups so you're sitting like a jockey, and you're leaning forward, so when the horse goes down it just pitches you right out. I could land on my feet and keep on running."

The boy from South Philadelphia might never have become a stuntman had he not decided to stop off in Brackettville, Texas, to visit his boyhood friend Frankie Avalon on the set of "The Alamo," which John Wayne starred in and directed. Donno had been on his way to Hollywood with dreams of becoming a famous singer like South Philly greats Eddie Fisher, Bobby Rydell and Mario Lanza.

But in Brackettville, someone asked Donno if he could stand in as a rider. "They put me on a horse, and when I screwed the scene up, Wayne said, 'Who the hell is that? How long has he been riding a horse?' " When Wayne heard that Donno's entire experience astride a horse was three minutes, the director told the stunt coordinator, "When we ride, mount him up."

Donno became a close friend of Wayne during the years they spent riding, shooting and barroom brawling in such pictures as "Big Jake," "Chisum" and "The Comancheros."

He recalls that when Wayne asked him to play an Australian sailor, "I said, 'Duke, I'm not good with accents.' He said, 'Eddy, I'm just going to throw you through the window.' I said, 'OK.' "

Donno's home office is filled with 40 years of memories. One photograph on his wall shows him at the wheel of a car doing a flip amid a fiery explosion on the set of "The Hitcher." Another photo, from comedian Jack Benny's old TV show, depicts Donno seated on a motorcycle, with Benny holding on behind him.

Like a number of stunt performers, Donno has passed along his vocation. Tony Donno has worked for years in the business, with credits ranging from the film "Pearl Harbor" to the TV series "24."

He expresses amazement at his dad's durability, but he doesn't think he'll be doing stunts when he's Eddy's age. "I really don't want to be falling down at 70," Tony said with a smile.

On the set of "Supernatural" at the Sable Ranch near Santa Clarita last March, executive producer and writer Eric Kripke reveled in describing Eddy's stunts. "Eddy got splattered with blood last night, and it was great," Kripke said with a laugh. "We fog up the windows and we splatter this blood ... against the window, but Eddy is inside the car igniting the mortar" -- an explosive that would lift the vehicle -- "and all the blood goes flying all over Eddy, and Eddy comes out and says, 'You don't pay me enough for this [expletive].' "

The following night, Donno climbed into the Impala and crashed it into the house.

It is at such moments that Donno, who turns 71 next month, knows why he doesn't retire. "There is nothing I can think of that makes me feel young like when they say 'Roll 'em!' and 'Action!' " he says. "Your whole life becomes like new."

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Times staff photographer Myung J. Chun contributed to this story.

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