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Legends of Hollywood

Breaking Bones and Barriers

Tired of seeing white colleagues 'painted down,' a black stuntman pulled off his toughest trick: pushing for change in Hollywood.

June 07, 2002|TODD LONGWELL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Pasted in a corner of Eddie Smith's scrapbook is a small, yellowed newspaper clipping from 1969 telling of a helicopter crash on the set of a war movie in which a pilot and two stuntmen "escaped injury." The movie was "MASH"; Smith was one of the stuntmen; and as he walks across the den of his Culver City home on this spring day more than 30 years later, he still has a limp from that accident. Although he's free to grouse about the pain now, back then he held his tongue.

"I couldn't mess it up for the rest of the group, man," says Smith, 78. "We fought too hard. We had to show ourselves."

The group he speaks of is the Black Stuntmen's Assn., or BSA, which he co-founded in 1967 with African American film extras, horsemen and athletes. They risked their necks in front of the cameras and behind the scenes, fighting to break through the color barrier in the stunt business.

"Our thought was that you'd have to be better than good to get the job," says the group's co-founder, Henry Kingi, 58. "All they needed was to have one of us mess up so they could say, 'See, they don't know what they're doing.' "

Smith brought together several old BSA members at his house last month to talk about their trials and triumphs. A few days later, "The 2nd Annual World Stunt Awards" (which aired May 31 on ABC) would be taped in Santa Monica. There were no awards for any BSA members, and no one here is complaining. Instead of bitter railings against injustices they faced, the bulk of the conversation is devoted to fond memories and former running mates ("Whatever happened to ol' Half-Foot?"). But their nonchalance belies the importance of their struggle--a lost piece of civil rights and Hollywood history.

Actor-director Sidney Poitier, who worked with black stuntmen on "Uptown Saturday Night" and other films, says the BSA made a contribution "that is all too often not remembered or recognized by the industry. A lot of the guys, like myself, we've moved on in years, and some of them have retired by now and some have gone on to other things. But they were quite a force, and they were substantive in their skills and their contributions."

In the first few decades of the film business, whenever an actor of color needed to be doubled for a dangerous action sequence, a white stuntman would be coated with the appropriate shade of makeup. As the civil rights movement gained momentum in the '60s and blacks and other minorities were featured more prominently in movies and on TV, the practice--known as a "paint-down"--became even more glaring. Not only was it insulting, but it also robbed nonwhite performers of a potentially rich source of income, a fact readily apparent to show-business journeyman Smith.

Smith had been kicking around Hollywood since 1955 as a film extra and freelance TV news cameraman covering breaking stories for local stations in areas where most white newsmen feared to tread.

Working on the sets of films and TV shows, he noticed the discrepancy between his earnings as an extra and those of white stuntmen: "A white stunt guy would say, 'I had a pretty good week. I guess I'll go down to Palm Springs.' And I'd think, 'I ain't made enough money to take the Red Car to Watts.' "

The catalyst for the black stuntman group came on the set of the 1963 film "It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World" when Smith witnessed a white stuntman being painted to double black actor Eddie "Rochester" Anderson for the climactic struggle. Smith complained to director Stanley Kramer.

"Eddie asked, 'Why isn't a black stuntman doubling Rochester?' " Kingi says, "and Kramer said, 'Well, find me one.' And Eddie said, 'Uh, OK.' "

"Man, I couldn't get no brothers nowhere," recalls Smith, who officially retired from stunt work in 1996 but still works regularly as a recruiter of African American extras for film and TV projects. "But I told him, 'Next time I'll be able to supply you with what you want.' "

Recruiting, Then Tutoring Stuntmen

The BSA didn't actually come into existence until 1967, when Smith approached Kingi and other friends who rode in a re-creation of the all-black U.S. 10th Cavalry Unit, known as the Buffalo Soldiers, and asked if they'd like to be movie stuntmen.

"We were doing stunts off of horses and fights already," says Len Glascow, leader of the Los Angeles chapter of the Buffalo Soldiers. "Eddie said, 'You guys might as well join.' " Augmented by an assortment of extras and former athletes, the future stuntmen trained strenuously on weekends, riding motorcycles, learning to fall off horses and piloting rental cars through traffic cones. At Athens Park in South L.A., the group practiced fight scenes and high falls off backstops and bleachers onto mattresses.

"We'd look across the street and there'd always be cops in unmarked police cars watching," Kingi says, laughing. "We figured they thought we were another Black Panther group forming."

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