Seeking recognition for stunts from the Academy Awards

The veteran stuntman has jumped from exploding boats, leaped off a 12-story building and driven motorcycles through balls of flame, surviving two broken backs and a broken neck.

But the one feat that Jack Gill has been unable to perform is persuading the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to recognize his craft.

For two decades, the former professional motocross rider, who began his stunt career jumping cars in "The Dukes of Hazzard," has been waging a one-man crusade to persuade the academy to give out an award to stunt coordinators, who create and choreograph elaborate action scenes in movies and TV shows.

The Academy of Television Arts and Sciences and the Screen Actors Guild already honor stunt performers. On Sunday, SAG recognized the stunt crew on the final "Harry Potter" film and HBO's "Game of Thrones" in a ceremony held before its prime-time telecast.

For years, Gill and others have said it's time for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' board of governors to do the same, at least for stunt coordinators. Stunts, they argue, are an integral part of the commercial success of movies, and stunt coordinators are responsible for the safety of the cast and crew.

But despite support from noted filmmakers, including Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese and James Cameron, Gill and his peers have been unable to persuade the academy's board of governors to add a separate award category for stunt coordinators.

"It's ridiculous that we're not honored," Gill, 56, said in an interview at his 11-acre ranch in Agoura Hills. "These films can't get made without stunt coordinators."

A spokeswoman for the Academy Awards declined to comment. In previous years, academy officials have praised the contributions of stunt coordinators but have cited concerns that adding another category would lengthen the show. Currently, there are 24 award categories for actors, writers, directors, visual effects practitioners and makeup artists, among other specialties, plus a host of other "technical" awards presented during a separate pre-Oscar ceremony.

Gill's efforts have resonated in the tightly knit and proud community of stunt performers, who still play a key role in movies and TV shows despite — or perhaps because of — the ubiquity of computer-generated effects.

Demand for real explosions, car chases and other stunts remains strong because audiences have become attuned to the differences between real action scenes and those created on computer screens. As Gill and many of his colleagues point out, spectacular stunts — such as Tom Cruise scaling a Dubai skyscraper in "Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol" — help drive people to theaters. Even performance-capture films such as "Avatar" require dozens of stunt performers to make the action look real.

"The audience knows what we do, we know what we do, so let's have the Academy say, 'Bravo,' you've done a good job," said "Southland" stunt coordinator Peewee Piemonte, who won an Emmy in 2011 for his work on the TNT show.

Although digital technology has made it safer for stunt performers — enabling them to use thicker safety harnesses that can be digitally removed — serious accidents and fatalities still occur. In October, one stuntman was killed and another was seriously injured on the Bulgarian set of "The Expendables 2" when a planned explosion went awry.

"I've been to more funerals than I care to remember," said Piemonte's spouse, Julie Michaels, an actress who also works as an assistant stunt coordinator on "Southland." "If you know how much stress and injury risk we take, you'd say there has to be some respect for that."

Like actors, only a fraction of stunt performers work full time in the business. Nearly 7,000 SAG members listed themselves as stunt performers as of April 2011. The union does not break down its numbers, but Gill estimates there are about 5,000 stunt coordinators in the U.S., about 1,000 of them in the Los Angeles area.

Stunt performers include former rodeo riders, mixed martial arts competitors, ex-circus performers, race car drivers and motorcycle racers.

The latter was Gill's path to Hollywood. Gill, whose father was a general in the Air Force, was raised in Atlanta. During a stopover in Florida between races, Gill met legendary stuntman and director Hal Needham, who persuaded him to move to California.

Within two years Gill found himself working on "Dukes of Hazzard," which filmed many scenes on the Paramount movie ranch near Gill's house.

"We tried to do things that had never been done before," said Gill, sitting on a plastic chair inside a warehouse where he keeps a dozen motorbikes, vintage cars and posters from movies he's worked on, including "Wild Hogs," "Fast Five," "The Rock" and "Talladega Nights." (He also displays the race suit worn by Will Ferrell's character, Ricky Bobby.)

Next to the posters are framed photos of some of his stunts, including one of Gill being blown off the side of a mountain in a gasoline-induced fire bomb for a movie called "The Exterminator." Another photo shows him jumping off a building near the Bonaventure hotel in downtown Los Angeles for a TV pilot. To make sure he landed on the air bag, he threw a bean bag off the ledge and studied its trajectory.

These days, Gill doesn't perform stunts but supervises others who do them.

"We have the lives of actors and crew in our hands every single stunt that we do," he said. "There is no other person on that crew that can say that."

richard.verrier@latimes.com

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