My Stint as a Very Stupid Stuntman
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
No one wants to die to please.
By Eugene S. Robinson
Intoxicating. No other word to describe it. To work for two days and make more than $100,000 for working two days? Intoxicating, and anyone who tells you anything else? A liar. You see, I had just done a Miller Genuine Draft commercial.
They paid $2,000 a day for two days of actual work in Los Angeles. But when the residual checks started rolling in, it was something else entirely, and not only did it change all of that work I did poring over the great acting teacher Uta Hagen’s class notes, it also changed why I wanted to be in front of the camera in a really fundamental way.
Namely: cash. Sure, sure, the art and all of that, but how much art was there to be found in a beer commercial (which I got) or a Burger King commercial (which I didn’t)? Commercials kept actors with dreams of theatrical glory employed. Films and TV were the ultimate goal — films like Bill Cosby’s Leonard Part 6 and TV shows like Midnight Caller — but as I’d been onstage since I was 2 years old, getting paid, and paid well, made me a little crazy.
“Hey, are you any good at stunts?”
My agent called. Why even bother asking? is what I was wondering. You think drug dealers ask drug users “if they want to try …”? They could save everyone a lot of time by saying, “Here, try.” But I guess she had to play her little Hollywood games. Cue mock outrage.
I knew two people who had died from stunts. One from a fall. One from an equipment malfunction. But this was on a speedboat. What could go wrong?
“So you’ve done them before. Great. I’ll let them know.”
I had been run down by a horse in one of the worst movies every committed to film, the aforementioned Cosby flick. The horse jumped through a candy-glassed window, shattering it, and knocked a disbelieving me across the room. So, yeah, I did “stunts.” I agreed to do stunts. I agreed to do a stunt not knowing what the stunt was.
“Heya … I don’t want to be a pest,” I said when I called my agent back. “But what’s the stunt?”
“Um. Actually, I don’t know. I’ll call you when I know.”
The reality of it is, in Hollywood there are a thousand ways to say yes, and if you can say yes, you should say it as often as possible — so at least the ride to, maybe, an eventual NO will be fun.
“Can you drive a speedboat?” she asked in a subsequent call.
“Yes.” Which was not entirely untrue. I spent a few weekends at Lake Hopatcong, New Jersey, on a friend’s non-sailboat. This qualified me, I think. Besides which, the commercial had a James Bond theme. I was either saving or kidnapping a couple while flirting mercilessly with the woman. What it advertised? No idea. But this was the plot.
“Have you ever driven a speedboat at high speeds?” She barely waited for me to say “yes,” assuming, as well she should have, that I was going to say “yes,” before she rang off with “I’ll get back to you.” I knew two people who had died from stunts. One from a fall. One from an equipment malfunction. But this was on a speedboat. What could go wrong?
“Have you actually driven one down a river?”
“Yes.” Lake, river, whatever.
“OK. The stunt coordinator is going to look at it, and they’ll get back to me.” I talked to my agent more in this one day in October 1996 than I ever had before. Total.
“OK. We’ve got a little clarification. So I have to ask you: Have you ever driven a speedboat really fast between rocks and down a river with rushing rapids?” She waited. And I knew I had to respect her wait. Which is to say: Act like I was really thinking about this. And I was.
I just conflated everything I had ever done, like, ever. I used to canoe down the Delaware River. Fast-moving water, also known as rapids. Between rocks. And, separately, the speedboat on the lake. And I had seen James Bond movies, soooo …
“Yes, yes, yes. There’s nothing that floats on water that I can’t handle. I could, if truth be told, probably do it drunk with my eyes closed.”
Look, I was trying to get the gig.
“Let me see what they say.” She hung up without saying goodbye.
Sometimes when you audition for a commercial, like the aforementioned Burger King one, and you don’t get it, like I didn’t, you get to see who did if you watch TV. The guy who beat me out for the Burger King bit looked like a guy who eats at Burger King. So this made sense.
“The coordinator went out there to look at it,” she said when she called back. “And, yeah. It’s WAY too dangerous.”
“No, it’s NOT!! Since when did commercials become kindergarten classes? This is an outrage, and I’m …”
“I’ll call you later.” The line went dead.
Better the line than me, I guess. So no ultra-dangerous commercial. I never saw who beat me out for the role because either no one was stupid enough to agree to it, or (more than likely) the company was too smart to agree to it. Instead I’d have to get my danger demerits playing an intergalactic space pirate-prostitute in an indie film called Gearbox. A role I got because they couldn’t find an actor who could act while jumping around with a 250-pound vintage harpoon gun. I could and did. Bedridden for a week afterward from the strain. But, well, yeah. That’s entertainment.