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Shooting Pains : Students at Kim Kahana's Stunt School Learn That Failure Means Fractures for Those Taking Falls on Film

March 22, 1987|DOUG SMITH | Times Staff Writer

Jeff R. stood on a platform two-thirds of the way up a telephone-pole tower above the rooftops of a placid Chatsworth neighborhood.

"My name is Jeff," he said deliberately, concentrating on a rectangular air bag 40 feet below. "I'm going to do a header."

In real life, Jeff R. (as an actor, that is his whole name) was an architect who found office life boring and repetitive. He was lured away by images of excitement and danger that flickered through his thoughts. They led him to Kim Kahana's Stunt School.

Now, the images would become real life.

Jeff had jumped easily from the lowest platform, 20 feet off the ground. He was doubling the distance.

Toeing the edge of the platform, he spoke the invocation to safety and courage.

"Spotters ready?" he called out.

"Spotters ready," the other students standing around the bag responded in unison.

"Fan on?" he said.

"Fan on," they said, checking the electric fan that kept the bag inflated.

"My name is Jeff," he repeated. "I'm going to do a header."

Jeff's tall body leaned, then pitched. His arms flung out. He screamed dramatically, as he was taught to do.

Everyone knew that it was wrong. Jeff tucked too soon. He rotated too far. His heels hit first.

With a whack, Jeff's body sank out of sight into the bag. A long moment of silence preceded the deathly groan.

Kahana ordered Jeff to wiggle his toes. Then he got mad. "Your feet again," he scolded. "Your feet, your feet, your feet. That's a good way to snap your back, guys."

After several minutes, they helped Jeff to a rusted chair. He sat ashenly, holding his chin up with his thumb. He would learn later that he had dislocated his neck and fractured three ribs with his chin.

For the moment, his pain was merely a sideshow.

"OK, put it up," Kahana said, pointing to the bag. "Who wants to be next?"

Kahana likes to say that if your friends all think you're crazy, you should consider being a stunt man.

In spite of the occasional and highly publicized death or maiming of an experienced stunt actor, the inexperienced and hopeful are still drawn to Hollywood.

"We always get letters saying, 'I want to be a stunt person,' " said Mark Locher, public relations director of the Screen Actors Guild. "It's one of the adventurous, glamorous parts of the movie business that people want to get into these days. It's also one of the most difficult."

Inevitably, many find their way to the Chatsworth complex of Kahana, a flamboyant, 5-foot, 7-inch Hawaii-born hardhead who, in his 57 years, accumulated two wounds in Korea and uncounted broken bones, bruises and dislocations in Hollywood.

Through hundreds of movies and television shows, Kahana has been beaten, burned, sliced, dropped, shot at, catapulted, hit by cars and exploded, sometimes merely in illusion, sometimes in fact. He's been paid $52,000 to drop by means of a cable from a jet helicopter to a hole in the side of a 747.

Surviving all that, he thought he had something to teach.

Set Son on Fire

So, in the way of the closed society of stunt men, Kahana taught his three sons and daughter the trade. For the movie "The Exterminator," Kahana set his son on fire. He let Kim Jr. burn 42 seconds inside a protective suit.

"They hired me for this job," he said. "There was nobody who could put me out, so I put my son in it so I could put him out."

In the mid-1970s, he opened a school for the public. It remains the only stunt actors' school licensed by the state Office of Post-Secondary Education.

Kahana said he often receives criticism, and he brushed it off with characteristic directness. "They assume that I bring in people off of the streets and guarantee them jobs and scam them, which I don't," Kahana said. "The first thing I tell them is that I don't offer them nothing."

The disclaimer applies to personal safety as well.

"If you die, it's not my fault," he told Jeff's class. "I just taught you how to die."

The Van Nuys office of Cal-OSHA has no record of any complaint against the school.

Kahana estimates that he has instructed 1,500 students over the past decade. Maybe 400 have found work in the business, he said.

Bucking those odds, they come from all over the country.

The class of six that convened early in February included, in addition to Jeff, an ex-Marine from Washington, a college dropout from San Francisco, a commercial diver from New Orleans, an actor from New Jersey and a young woman sponsored by her parents in Indiana.

They each paid $2,000 for the six-week course. It covered the basics: exercise and trampoline, fights, falls, horseback tricks, karate, automobile hits and weapons.

As part of the course, the students got composites, action pictures of themselves falling through space and bouncing off automobiles. And they acquired loads of Kahana wisdom, often laced with Kahana anger.

Class began in Kahana's studio on Devonshire Street, a storefront with mats on the floor and a boxing ring in the back.

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