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Legends of the Fall

FAMILY ALBUM / The Eppers

For four generations, from 'Psycho' to 'Wonder Woman,' these stuntwomen and -men have been doing Hollywood's dirty work.

January 31, 1999|MARTIN MILLER | Times Staff Writer

Back then, Jeannie Epper was a 42-year-old mom accustomed to being punched, kicked, burned, trampled by horses, thrown from high buildings and nearly drowned. All part of being a Hollywood stunt professional. But then came the "Russian Swing."

The contraption looks like a modified child's swing set that can send its passenger flying 30 feet or more. In other words, like most things a stunt person does, it's potentially fatal.

On this particular occasion in 1983, Epper was doubling for Kathleen Turner, who was starring in "The Man With Two Brains." The Russian Swing was there to create the illusion that Turner was being thrown high and far after being struck by a car.

Epper carefully reviewed the stunt. How high would she have to go? Where would she land? How good would her timing be?

After a few more minutes, she made a rare professional decision--she wasn't going to do it. But she knew someone who would--her 22-year-old daughter, Eurlyne, who ended up performing the feat flawlessly.

"I wasn't really scared, but my adrenaline was definitely pumping," remembers Eurlyne Epper, now 38 and a working stunt-mom of three children who lives in Simi Valley. "The stunt went great and it was good having my mom there."

"I was so proud of her," adds Jeannie, now 57 and president of the Studio City-based Stuntwomen's Assn. of Motion Pictures Inc. "She did it perfectly."

In a way, the stunt represented the passing of the torch to the next generation of Eppers. Although Jeannie had some of her best work ahead of her, notably in 1984's "Romancing the Stone," it was a signal that the daughter could now do things that the mother could not.

"I've done a lot of high work: falls, explosions and fires," says Eurlyne, whose credits include "Charlie's Angels," "Waterworld" and "Star Trek: Insurrection." "You just get known for doing something and that's what you tend to do."

And the torch may be passed yet again. In the coming years, Eurlyne may be watching her oldest son, Christopher Epper, pull stunts that she can't--or won't--do anymore. At 14, Christopher has already piled up a host of impressive movie credits, including "Dennis the Menace" and "Without Limits."

"I started when I was 5 by running off the roof onto an air bag," says Christopher, now a ninth-grader at a Simi Valley high school.

In all, 16 Epper family members from four generations have been or are now Hollywood stunt people. No doubt you've seen them hundreds of times in commercials, television shows and the movies and never known it.

Remember the person who stabbed Janet Leigh in "Psycho's" famous shower scene? That wasn't Tony Perkins in Mommy drag, it was Margo Epper, Jeannie's sister. Remember when cars flipped over and crashed as meteors slammed into New York City in last summer's "Armageddon"? Chances are that was Richard Epper, Jeannie's son, driving the cars.

And remember when Wonder Woman would swoop down on the bad guy? That wasn't Lynda Carter, it was Jeannie.

"There was a saying going around Hollywood that the Epper kids were born with elbow and knee pads," says Jeannie, who has also doubled for actresses Linda Evans, Cybill Shepherd and Shelley Long. "We were all born for stunts."

A Horseman Came Riding

The Epper stunt line began with patriarch John Epper, a cocksure horseman who left his native Switzerland for America in the 1920s. After a short time on the East Coast, he decided to put his equestrian knowledge to work out West, where he established a riding academy in Los Angeles.

As family lore has it, John's entry into the business was like a scene out of a corny Hollywood movie. Makers of a film (whose title Jeannie can't recall) put out a call for a special stunt horse--one that could jump with a rider over a car. Apparently, the horses they were using couldn't make the leap.

John told the filmmakers he had a horse that could easily execute the stunt. They borrowed his animal and went off to film. But Epper's horse didn't make the jump. The stunt coordinator then asked John if he could ride the horse and do the trick.

"He did it in one take," says Jeannie proudly.

A stunt star was born. John quickly made a name for himself in scores of westerns and other pictures, doubling for such actors as Ronald Reagan and Gary Cooper. If a movie called for a horse stunt, there was a good chance John Epper would be in the saddle. (Of course, he was just as skilled riding bareback.)

"I've seen some of his horse stunts in old movies," says great-grandson Christopher, who prefers motorcycles to horses. "And I can't believe it. I don't think I could ever do what he did on a horse."

But six years ago, Christopher made a promise to his great-grandfather that he'd do something a lot tougher than jumping a horse over a car. He told the 86-year-old Epper, who was then in the last few weeks of his life, that he'd live up to the Epper name.

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