Bud Ekins, 77; stuntman did famous motorcycle jump in ‘The Great Escape’
Bud Ekins, a pioneering champion off-road motorcyclist and a veteran stuntman who doubled for Steve McQueen on the famous motorcycle jump in “The Great Escape,” has died. He was 77.
Ekins died Saturday of natural causes at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, publicist Paul Bloch said.
A 1999 inductee of the Motorcycle Hall of Fame, Ekins was one of the first Americans to compete in the World Championship Motocross Grand Prix circuit in Europe during the 1950s. And by the mid-'50s, he was the top scrambles and desert rider in Southern California and had been district champion seven times.
His friendship with fellow motorcyclist McQueen, whom he helped teach off-road racing, launched Ekins’ career as a movie stuntman.
Over the years, he amassed numerous stunt credits including the TV series “ChiPs” and films such as “Diamonds Are Forever,” “Earthquake,” “The Towering Inferno,” “Animal House” and “The Blues Brothers.”
But Ekins’ most famous stunt work was on his first job: doubling for McQueen in the climactic motorcycle jump over a high, barbed-wire fence in the 1963 World War II prisoner-of-war movie “The Great Escape.”
“Steve could have done it himself,” said Bob Hoy, a stuntman friend of Ekins. “He did the lead-up to it and rode the bike wherever he was running in that escape, but Bud did the jump. It was a tough jump. You only can do that kind of thing once; you either make it or you don’t make it.”
Susan Ekins, the stuntman’s daughter and an executive film producer, said her father was “very proud” of the spectacular jump, which was shot on location in Germany.
She said her father and McQueen dug out a ramp in the dirt and practiced jumping the motorcycle over a rope to see if it would be able to clear the fence.
“Steve was a very capable rider, but my dad did the jump because they wouldn’t let a star do a jump of that nature because they couldn’t afford to have him hurt,” she said.
In the 1968 crime drama “Bullitt,” Ekins also did stunt work for McQueen when his detective character drives his green Mustang in a high-speed chase with the bad guys in a black Charger over the hills of San Francisco.
But that wasn’t all Ekins did on the hit film.
“One of the great things Bud did in the picture, he laid a motorcycle down on the blacktop during [the chase]. It was a hell of a shot,” Hoy recalled. “Anything mechanical -- cars, motorcycles -- Bud was a perfectionist doing stunts. He could blueprint an accident and make it look real.”
But, Hoy added, “Bud was an all-around stunt man. He could do fistfights and hold his own, he could say a couple of lines as a heavy and do a fall and what have you.
“All in all, he was a good friend and a wonderful man.”
Ekins was born into a working-class family in Hollywood on May 11, 1930. As a teenager, according to a biography on the Motorcycle Hall of Fame Museum website, he spent nearly two years in reform school after he and some friends were caught joy-riding in a stolen car.
Hooked on motorcycles after riding his cousin’s 1934 Harley-Davidson, Ekins bought a used 1940 Triumph and began spending his spare time riding all over the Hollywood Hills.
After entering the Big Bear Endurance Run in 1949, he bought a 1950 Matchless and, according to the biography, immediately began winning races.
In 1955, Ekins won the Catalina Grand Prix, one of America’s most prestigious off-road motorcycle races. During the same decade, he won the Big Bear Endurance Run three times.
His most prestigious accomplishments on the international level came in the 1960s when he won four gold medals and one silver medal during seven years of competing in the International Six Day Trial (now called the International Six Day Enduro). (In 1964, Ekins, his brother, David, and McQueen were part of the U.S. team.)
Ekins, who owned two motorcycle shops in the San Fernando Valley over the years, also was a founder of the Baja 1000, and in the early ‘60s he made record runs down the Baja California peninsula.
He later became one of the country’s leading collectors of vintage and rare motorcycles; at one time his collection included more than 150 motorcycles.
Recalling her father’s motorcycle shop, Susan Ekins said, “It was a hangout. My dad taught Warren Beatty how to ride; he taught everybody how to ride motorcycles.”
Producer Jerry Weintraub, who knew Ekins for 30 years and described him as “a man’s man,” agreed.
“He taught most of the movie stars in this town how to ride motorcycles,” Weintraub said. “If somebody wanted to buy a great motorcycle . . . they’d go to Bud Ekins. He was an icon.”
In addition to his daughter Susan and his brother, Ekins is survived by another daughter, Donna Ekins Kapner; his sister, Vivian Gorrindo; and two granddaughters.
Services will be private. A celebration of Ekins’ life at the Petersen Automotive Museum is pending.
Instead of flowers, the family requests that donations in Ekins’ memory be made to Project Sunshine, c/o Joseph Carbone, 12608 Alameda Drive, Strongsville, Ohio 44149.