When R. David Smith was a boy, other children teased him because he was born without a left forearm. The cruelest taunt: that he'd never fulfill his dream of becoming a firefighter. Well, that was true enough, but his missing forearm turned out to be the key to another fantasy job--as a stuntman.
Producers hire Smith--and people he's recruited--to add a measure of grisly reality to scenes showing a limb getting chopped off, yanked off, blasted off or otherwise removed. "That's what we bring to Hollywood, more realism," says Smith. "That sort of detail can really enhance a scene."
A stunt performer and actor for more than 15 years, Smith's "million-dollar nub" helped him earn gigs in "Predator II," "Terminator 2" and TV's "Tales From the Crypt" and "Baywatch."
His success prompted him to found Stunts-Ability, a San Diego organization that trains and helps find work for the disabled--especially amputees--in stunt and other film and TV roles.
"We want Hollywood producers, directors, casting, stunt coordinators and special-effects professionals to know that they don't have to--and shouldn't--tie up (stunt people's) limbs any longer,"he says. "And we want to show what performers with disabilities can do."
Smith has assembled an industry advisory board--whose members include Oscar-winning special-effects designer Stan Winston ("Jurassic Park," "Interview With the Vampire") and veteran stunt coordinator Red Horton--that provides contacts and career advice to the 30 or so Stunts-Ability students.
The 2-year-old group also holds monthly classes at a stuntman's ranch in Chatsworth. "Students there learn all aspects of stunt work and how to market themselves to the entertainment industry," says Smith. "They learn high falls, squibs, ratchets and the air-ram." (Ratchets are the harness-and-line gizmos that yank the stunt worker through the air to make it appear as though he's been blasted by a shotgun; the air-ram launches the stunt performer into the air after, say, he's stepped on a land mine.) "It's a six-month course with six more months to review and continue training," he says. "We're trying to teach specialties. For example, for leg amputees to go up and lose a leg on simulated explosions on the air-ram."
Once training is done, they're ready for show biz. Stunts-Ability students have found work in dozens of TVand film roles. One was hired to squeeze into a gorilla suit in "Congo," the Paramount production of Michael Crichton's novel, for a scene in which an ape lost an arm.
The most important thing that Stunts-Ability teaches, Smith says, is confidence. "Even if students don't become stuntmen, their self-esteem just grows," says Smith."It blows me away. We worked with a double-leg amputee who became a part of our school, and in the training, jumped out of a three-story building just nine months into his injury. I still cannot believe what the spirit will allow you to do."