Polly Burson, 86; Pioneering Stuntwoman, Rodeo Rider

Times Staff Writer

She’d broken her back several times and suffered broken arms and legs, dislocated shoulders, and assorted concussions, bruises and cuts.

But they were all part of the job for Polly Burson, a renowned rodeo trick rider who became a pioneer Hollywood stuntwoman in an era when few women were jumping off horses onto moving trains or turning over a Conestoga wagon.

Burson, 86, died April 4 in a Ventura hospital after a short illness. She launched her career as a stuntwoman in 1945 when she was 25, doubling for actress Mary Moore in the Republic Pictures sci-fi serial “The Purple Monster Strikes.”


Over the decades, the slim and athletic horsewoman was the stunt double for prominent actresses in films and television, including Sophia Loren, Shelley Winters, Ruth Roman, Barbara Stanwyck, Yvonne De Carlo, Anne Baxter and Doris Day.

Among her memorable, though uncredited, movie moments:

She doubled for Betty Hutton in “The Perils of Pauline,” a 1947 biographical comedy, in which she did a series of stunts, including jumping from a horse onto a train and then climbing on top of the moving train and jumping from car to car.

She took the place of Jean Peters in the 1953 drama “Niagara,” in which Peters’ character is hoisted into a helicopter from a rock she had been clinging to near the falls.

She doubled for a bathing-suit-clad Julie Adams in the 1954 cult horror classic “Creature From the Black Lagoon,” when the Gill Man gets up on the boat, grabs the woman and dives overboard with her in his arms.

And she was Kim Darby’s horse-riding double in the 1969 western “True Grit.”

“She was an icon in our business,” Bonnie Happy, president of the United Stuntwomen’s Assn., told The Times. “She had integrity. She never said she could do something that she couldn’t do. But there was very little she couldn’t do.”

Happy said Burson also was the first female stunt coordinator, on William Wellman’s 1951 film “Westward the Women.”


Stuntman Neil Summers said Burson “was the cream of the crop as far as the very few stunt ladies in the ‘40s and ‘50s that actually doubled women [at a time] when men did most of the doubling for women. It was an old boys’ network back in those days.”

Bob Hoy, a stuntman who first worked with Burson in the 1940s, said she was good at the job because “she had a natural athletic ability, No. 1. And she had what was known as go-ahead: She had courage.”

Burson pulled off another first while on location in Oregon for “Pillars of the Sky,” a 1956 western starring Jeff Chandler, he said.

Hoy, who was stunt coordinator on the film, said, “We needed six Indians for a horse chase and all we had were five guys. I said, ‘Let’s get Polly.’ One of the local cowboys said, ‘You can’t; she’s a girl.’ I said, ‘She’s a hell of horseman.’ She got into the [Indian] leathers and the wig, and off we went. So she’s the first woman to double a man.”

Despite the occasional occupational hazards, Burson took her movie work in stride.

“After rodeoing,” she told the Chicago Tribune in 1995, “stunt work seemed like whipped cream.”

Born on Christmas Eve, 1919, in Ontario, Ore., Burson spent her early years on her grandfather’s ranch, where he raised horses for the Army.


“I started rodeoing when I was 7, first riding calves and later doing trick riding,” she said in the 1995 interview. “My ambition was to trick-ride in Madison Square Garden in New York, and I finally had my dream come true in 1941.”

Among her many stunt credits were “Winchester ‘73,” “Fancy Pants,” “The Greatest Show on Earth,” “Vertigo,” “The Ten Commandments,” “Some Like It Hot,” “Spartacus,” “How the West Was Won” and “McLintock!”

One of her most memorable moments on screen came during the dam-break scene in the 1974 disaster film “Earthquake”: Burson stood on a crumbling porch while having 3,000 gallons of water dumped on her.

“I broke my left leg and some bones in my face and decided maybe it was getting time to quit the business,” she told the Chicago Tribune.

Although she bought a sailboat and sailed the South Pacific for several years, Burson occasionally returned to stunt work.

She was in her early 70s when she made her final film appearance, in the 1992 Dustin Hoffman movie “Hero.”


For her work in westerns, Burson received a Golden Boot Award from the Motion Picture & Television Fund. She also was inducted into the ProRodeo Hall of Fame, the Hollywood Stuntmen’s Hall of Fame and the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame.

Burson was divorced three times. No immediate family members survive her.

A memorial service will be held at 4 p.m. Saturday at Hollywood Beach Mobile Home Park, 4501 W. Channel Islands Blvd., Oxnard.