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The Adrenaline Junkies : Movie Stunt Men and Women Get Paid to Leap From Buildings and Crash Cars. Some People Call Them Daredevils. They Call Themselves Professionals

March 16, 1986|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Charles Champlin is The Times' arts editor

The small car bobs like a cork along the raging, rain-swollen Mexican river as the roar of an approach ing waterfall grows thunderously loud. The camera moves to a long shot, downstream and low, the better to savor the instant when the car hovers at the lip of the 70-foot precipice, teeters, tilts and then goes over. As it does, two human figures, our hero and our heroine, leap away and plummet toward the whirlpool far below.

The fall seems unthinkably perilous--and in fact it proved to be as dangerous as it looked. What the camera didn't show was that the car was mounted on a stationary, quick-release platform just above the water and tilted downward at 45 degrees. The stunt men, Terry Leonard and Vince Deadrick Jr. (doubling for the film's stars, Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner, respectively), stood on smaller platforms attached to the sides of the car that were intended to work like springboards and let them leap clear of the car and land in calmer water just outside the whirlpool below.

"I'd been hoping to do a swan dive," Leonard says, "real Errol Flynn stuff." But the support on his side suddenly buckled. With less push-off than he needed, he fell right into the whirlpool.

"I thought I was history," Leonard says. He fought the fierce downward pull of the water until finally, with what he thought might be his last effort, he gave a kick and a breast-stroke and broke to the surface.

Deadrick had angled into the water, taking the brunt of the impact in the ribs, which left him stunned and barely able to move. A rescue team of Mexican firemen was floating in the pool outside the whirlpool and got to Deadrick with a rope. They helped the two men ashore, and none too soon. What the camera also didn't show was that the waterfall was one in a series of three, and the second, just around the bend, was larger than the one they'd gone over.

Their fall was voted the most spectacular stunt of the year by their peers in the annual Stuntman Awards last year (and scheduled again for this Friday). The film's action sequences were also one reason 20th Century Fox's "Romancing the Stone" became one of the year's biggest box office successes, leading to the recent sequel, "Jewel of the Nile."

In another of the film's remarkable stunts, Deadrick, now doubling for Michael Douglas, and stunt woman Jeannie Epper did a tumbling, rumbling, cascading fall down a mud slide. "Twelve hours a day for eight days, and once you got going no way to stop until you hit some cargo nets," Deadrick says. "It was the most physically demanding stunt I've ever done."

Watching those stunts, and the several others from movies and television (including Buddy Joe Hooker riding an ostrich for an episode of "The Rousters") that were excerpted on last year's awards broadcast, I began to wonder what it is that induces men and women to put their flesh, bones and lives at such considerable risk.

Years ago, doing a magazine story on the late Grand Prix race driver Jim Clark, I had asked the same question of Clark and his colleagues. One of them, Sir John Whitmore, the aristocrat of fast drivers, confessed that he simply could not abide living the same tame, dull lives of his Etonian contemporaries who had become stockbrokers and merchant bankers. Dicing with death kept him alive, he said.

Jackie Stewart, the Scotsman who was then Clark's young protege, said he felt a release in finishing a race--not necessarily winning a race, just finishing it intact--that was so strong and sweet that it was nearly sexual.

For Clark, cautious and conservative, it was a quest for the perfect mating of man and machine. He drove with a cool, unemotional precision and quickness that was the envy of other drivers. One of them said most drivers try to get to ten-tenths of the speed at which a given curve can be taken; Clark practiced at ten-tenths and hoped to do better.

Clark was in fact better than his machines, and he died alone on a backstretch during a race in Germany, when his Lotus failed and took him into a tree.

Clearly, stunt men, like Grand Prix drivers, sense that masses of men live lives of quiet desperation, and stunt men want no part of such lives. They find that you can exist at the edge and still pursue excellence but that taking risks is by no means the same as putting your life foolishly at risk.

"I guess we're all adrenaline junkies," Terry Leonard says. "I like to have that pump going. People get into drugs from leading boring lives. My life is not boring."

On the other hand, he says, "whatever stunt I do, I have to go to work tomorrow. If I get hurt, that's it. Any injury is threatening to my income." The idea is to make every stunt look as dangerous as possible and yet be as safe as calculations and special riggings can make it.

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