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Jack Williams, 85; stuntman known for horse-riding skills

Times Staff Writer

Jack Williams, a top Hollywood stuntman who got his first taste of stunt work on a horse at age 4 -- he was tossed from one rider to another in the 1926 silent film “The Flaming Forest” -- and later worked his way through USC riding horses and doing stunts in films such as “Gone With the Wind” and “Dodge City,” has died. He was 85.

Williams, a charter member of the Stuntmen’s Assn. of Motion Pictures and an inductee of the Hollywood Stuntmen’s Hall of Fame, died of heart failure Tuesday at a Sylmar hospital, said his stepson, Robert Vairo.

Beginning with “The Charge of the Light Brigade” in 1936, Williams performed stunts in dozens of films over the next six decades, including “Santa Fe Trail, “They Died With Their Boots On,” “Fort Apache,” “Red River,” “3 Godfathers,” “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” “Rio Bravo,” “Spartacus,” “El Cid,” “The Alamo,” “The Magnificent Seven,” “Cat Ballou” and “The Wild Bunch.”

He also worked steadily doing stunts on dozens of television series, such as “Maverick,” “Laramie” and “The High Chaparral,” as well as playing small parts in numerous films and TV shows.

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During his heyday as a stuntman, Williams was best known for having trained his horse to fall dramatically on cue at a given spot as if it had taken a bullet or arrow.

“He was the top falling-horse stuntman in the business,” said stuntman Bob Hoy, who first worked with Williams in 1950. “He had a great horse called Coco, and they were inseparable. The horse had an instinct. A lot of horses will fight you when you get to the spot where they’ll make the fall and won’t go there. But Coco went there. She was just so great.”

Said stuntman Joe Canutt: “You can get great falls a lot of times out of horses, but when you’re attacking the Alamo, for example, and you’ve got bombs and cannons going off ... some of them don’t work at all. That mare [Coco] consistently got spectacular falls.”

But beyond doing the falling-horse stunt, Hoy said, “Jack drove stagecoaches, he wrecked wagons, he could transfer from the horse to the train -- he could do anything pertaining to horse work.”

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And, Hoy recalled, “in all the years I knew him, he never said ‘ouch’ on any of the stunts he did. That’s saying he hit the ground, but he never complained.”

Williams was born April 15, 1921, in Montana and moved with his family to Burbank a few years later. His mother, Paris, was a world-champion trick rider on the rodeo circuit, and both she and Williams’ cowboy father, George, found work doing stunts in movies.

His father taught him the horse-falling stunt when Williams was a teenager.

“There was probably no feat I could have imagined that was as fascinating as that. So I took the technique and perfected it,” Williams, who worked in a number of pictures with his father, recalled in a 2005 interview with the Santa Clarita Valley newspaper the Signal.

The right combination of horse and rider, he said, is what it takes to get a horse to fall on cue.

“It’s as hard to get a horse that has all of the things you need to do this as it is to find a Willie Mays,” he said. “The other part is communication -- I could communicate with the horse. There were cases” on movie sets “where they’d been wasting valuable production time trying to get a horse to fall, and I’d be the guy they’d call in who could put it on film in one shot.”

Coco, who died at 33, is buried near Williams’ adobe-style home on his 300-acre ranch in Agua Dulce in northern Los Angeles County, not far from Vasquez Rocks Natural Area Park, a location for countless movie and TV westerns. Williams, who played polo at USC, served in the Coast Guard during World War II and was a navigator on a tank-landing ship in the invasion of Okinawa.

For decades, he worked as a real estate broker and developer when he wasn’t doing films.

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His last credit as a stuntman was “Wild Wild West” in 1999, the same year he received a Golden Boot Award from the Motion Picture & Television Fund for his work in westerns.

As he once told the Signal: “Riding horses and performing stunts is in my blood.”

In addition to his stepson, Williams is survived by his wife, Clare; his stepdaughters, Donna Diamond and Toni Shoemaker; six step-grandchildren; and seven step-great-grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Wednesday at Eternal Valley Mortuary, 23287 N. Sierra Highway, Newhall.

dennis.mclellan@latimes.com


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