When British TV personality Richard Hammond was searching for an A-list American stuntman to teach him the techniques of one of Hollywood’s oldest trades, he turned to Rick Avery, a former Santa Barbara police officer who has doubled for Dustin Hoffman, Richard Gere and John Travolta.
Avery, who has worked on hundreds of movies, including “The Dark Knight Rises” and Warner Bros.’ upcoming “Gangster Squad,” gave Hammond a four-day course on his craft, instructing him on the basics: how to stage fights, jump off buildings, roll a car and even set himself on fire.
The exercises, filmed in June in the Los Angeles area, were captured in an episode of BBC America’s “Richard Hammond’s Crash Course,” in which Hammond, best known as the co-host of the wildly popular English TV car show “Top Gear,” attempts to learn challenging occupations, from wrangling deadly snakes to performing at a New York City comedy club.
The series began its second season Monday with the “Stuntman” episode, casting a spotlight on the work of stunt performers, who still play a vital role in movies and TV shows despite the growing use of computer-generated effects.
Like magicians, stunt performers are typically reluctant to discuss their trade secrets. But Avery was happy to oblige Hammond, whom he says was an able and willing student.
“I didn’t really know Richard’s capabilities and how far they intended to go with the stunts,’’ said Avery, who lives in Granada Hills. “But he had a lot of driving experience, common sense and was in great physical shape. We hit it off immediately.”
Hammond said he was eager to learn. “It was a fascinating experience,’’ said Hammond, who lives in London. “To be honest, who wouldn’t want to spend a week with a legendary stunt performer?”
Avery trained Hammond to drive up a ramp at 40 miles per hour and roll over a car along the L.A. River, where Avery has staged stunts for movies including John Candy’s “Armed and Dangerous” and “The Dark Knight Rises.”
Under Avery’s tutelage, Hammond also performed a high-fall jump off the 6th Street bridge and learned how to throw fake punches in a fully choreographed fight sequence. Hammond was also thrown through a glass window and set on fire after he was coated with a special gel that protects the skin from burns.
“I probably put too much on him because it was dripping off him,’’ Avery recalled, “but he was game for it.”
A founding member of the International Stunt Assn., Avery is a veteran of the stunt community. About 7,000 members of SAG-AFTRA’s 165,000 members have listed themselves as stunt performers. Like actors, only a few like Avery work regularly.
Stunt performers include former rodeo riders, ex-circus performers, race car drivers, motorcycle racers and martial arts competitors. Many have skills in multiple areas.
Avery, for example, is a licensed helicopter pilot, fifth-degree black belt champion and scuba diver. He got his start in the business three decades ago when he was doing private security work for Travolta, who offered Avery a job as his stunt double when he learned of his interest in the trade.
With at least 500 credits to his name, Avery is best known for coordinating the massive car wreck scene in the 1980 comedy “The Blues Brothers,” which he proudly notes made the Guinness World Records for the “biggest car wreck in history.”
One of his scariest feats involved sliding down the side of the Grand Bay Hotel in Miami and crashing into a pool for the 1991 Travolta movie “Chains of Gold.” Another scene required him to fall down an elevator shaft upside down while attached to a cable harness and stop just a few feet from a group of hungry alligators.
For the 2008 comedy “Get Smart,” Avery drove an SUV off a highway ramp in San Pedro and landed 17 feet below -- while the truck was on fire.
“Many times you get a call to do a 30-foot-high fall and when you get there they tell you it’s in the middle of the night, you’re carrying a dog and you have to hop on one foot,’’ he said. “You just have to overcome your fear.”
Avery’s stunt work has garnered recognition from his peers. In 2009, he and his colleagues won a Screen Actors Guild Award for best stunt ensemble in a motion picture for their work on “The Dark Knight,” in which he drove a police car chasing the Batmobile.
Avery just returned from Sofia, Bulgaria, where he doubled Robert De Niro in “Killing Season.” In the movie, which was also filmed in Atlanta, Avery rolled a car, survived class-three rapids, and was hung upside down and beaten.
Despite the nature of his work, Avery has avoided serious injuries by learning to manage risks.
“I’m fairly fortunate,’’ he said. “I’ve only had three knee surgeries, broken ankles and broken wrists.”
Stunt work runs in the family. Avery’s ex-wife, Joni, and sons Brian and Mike all work as stunt performers.
Mike, his youngest, now 28, got his start when he was 3 1/2 on a Stan Winston movie. He jumped off a table while dressed as a garden gnome.
L.A. plays Tehran in Ben Affleck caper ‘Argo’