Defying death for real

Times Staff Writer

IT is the start of the summer movie season, when theater screens are filled with all manner of mayhem, when Hollywood movie stars electrify audiences in high-speed car chases, elaborate fight sequences and deafening explosions that send bodies hurtling through the air.

But two stuntmen who provide such thrills and chills admit they are lucky to be alive today. While rehearsing a scene last October as Bruce Willis' stunt double in "Live Free or Die Hard," Larry Rippenkroeger fell from a fire escape three stories to the pavement below. He managed to break his fall at the last second, but the impact smashed his face and left him unconscious.

As Johnny Depp's stunt double, Tony Angelotti was rehearsing a scene in July 2005 that involved high work on "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest" when he went into a free fall, the cabling jerked to a stop, and his legs were pulled apart like a wishbone and his pelvis nearly ripped apart. He was left hanging by his foot. Angelotti and Rippenkroeger are being honored at the sixth annual Taurus World Stunt Awards airing tonight at 10:30 on AMC. The show, often referred to as the stunt world's equivalent of the Oscars, was taped Sunday night at Paramount Pictures in Hollywood.

Both men received a grant from the Taurus World Stunt Awards Foundation, which provides financial assistance to members of the World Stunt Academy who suffer debilitating stunt-related injuries. Speaking over lunch recently at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, Angelotti and Rippenkroeger stressed that they aren't daredevils and that the stunts they perform are scrupulously rehearsed for safety reasons.

Before every stunt, Angelotti said, he asks himself: "If something goes bad, what's my out?"

But mistakes happen. Everyone who does stunt work knows the potential for danger. The first thing anyone asks when they hear about an injury or death is how it happened, so they can avoid a similar mistake.

Rippenkroeger, 50, is a four-time world jet ski champion from Sacramento who got into stunt work after being hired to ride jet skis in Kevin Costner's "Waterworld." That's the stuntman emerging from the sea with other jet skiers just as Costner's character goes overhead on the ocean's surface. In recent years, Rippenkroeger has worked chiefly as Willis' stunt double on films like "Sin City," "Hostage" and "The Whole Ten Yards."

He still doesn't remember what happened to him, and noted that no one else who was nearby that day really saw it go down. But as he scrambled down a ladder during a night shoot on "Live Free or Die Hard" in downtown L.A., his foot either slipped off a rung or he made a "mis-grab."

"I fell from three stories high head first right to the street," he recalled. "I got my hands out in front of me, so I had compound fractures of both wrists, smashed the right side of my face, fractured my skull on the back of my head, couple of broken ribs and a punctured lung."

He underwent multiple surgeries on both wrists. "I'm kind of like the Terminator," he joked, lifting up both arms to show his wrists and then drawing a finger down his cheek. "I have lots of titanium in my face and within my wrists are plates and hardware. Bruce referred to me as the '$6-million man in 2007 dollars, not '70s dollars.' "

Angelotti, 39, is a native of Tallahassee, Fla., who became an award-winning gymnast at the University of Michigan. He fell into entertainment after auditioning for a job as a Moroccan tumbler in the "Indiana Jones" show at Disney World. He moved to Hollywood in 1994, performing a fight scene in a casino on "Melrose Place." Since then, his roles have included a thug dressed in black leather in "Batman Forever" and Anthony Hopkins' whip-snapping stunt double in "The Mask of Zorro."

Angelotti said he was injured while rehearsing in a giant hangar in Palmdale. The scene called for him to be hanging high in the air, parallel to the ground, wrapped around the waist. But instead of unraveling on his way down, he went into a free fall. When the decelerator kicked in, he had plunged 35 feet before being whipped to a stop like a yo-yo.

"I was harnessed from my side and down to my ankle on one side," he explained. "So, one side of me kept going and the other side stopped like a human wishbone." He was in intensive care for four days, lost 6 units of blood, was hospitalized 2 1/2 weeks and spent time in a wheelchair and walker before learning to walk again.

Both men say they suffer symptoms of post-traumatic stress. "The mental roller-coaster you go on is one of the hardest things," Rippenkroeger said. "The nightmares ... I would be drenched in sweat."

Added Angelotti: "I would wake up at 3 in the morning and the accident would be like reliving in my head and I couldn't get back to sleep. There's no explaining it. I still get them."

Neither stuntman says he intends to sue anybody over his injuries. Stunt people, they said, rarely sue because of a belief that they might not get future work if they do.

Rippenkroeger is still recuperating from his injuries, but Angelotti said he has already returned to work, performing on the film "Get Smart" and working as a stunt coordinator and fight choreographer on the new Disneyland "Pirates of the Caribbean" show. Both men are grateful to the stunt foundation for helping pay for their rehabilitation.

The foundation was established by Dietrich Mateschitz, founder and chief executive of Red Bull Energy Drink. Mateschitz, a resident of Salzburg, Austria, endowed the foundation after learning that stunt performers who are thrown out of work by crippling injuries often don't have money to pay their bills while recuperating.

Mitch Geller, the executive producer of the Taurus World Stunt Awards show, noted that Mateschitz was filling a desperate gap that Hollywood people often seem unaware of. "It's amazing that one man sitting in Austria goes out of his way helping [stunt] people thousands of miles away," Geller said, "when people here who benefit a lot more from these guys turn a blind eye to what we are doing."

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