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Harold Brett "Hal" Needham (1931–2013)

Hal Needham was an American stuntman, stunt coordinator, writer, and director who performed stunts in scores of films and television shows. The director of hit movies like Smokey and the Bandit, Smokey and the Bandit II, Stroker Ace, Cannonball Run, Cannonball Run II, and Hooper, Needham was considered a pioneer in the stunt industry, having introduced techniques and safety equipment still in use today.

Harold Brett “Hal” Needham was born on March 6, 1931, in Memphis, Tennessee, the third of three children of Howard and Edith Needham. Needham’s father left the family soon after he was born. Eventually, Needham’s mother married a sharecropper named Corbett, who moved the family to Arkansas when Needham was four. She and Corbett had two children of their own. Due to his stepfather’s transient and desperately poor livelihood following the crops, Needham and his four siblings lived all over the state during his childhood, including El Dorado (Union County), Georgetown (White County), Pangburn (White County), and West Helena (Phillips County), usually moving from place to place by wagon.

After the outbreak of World War II, Needham’s stepfather moved to St. Louis, Missouri, to work in war materiel plants, and his family soon followed. As a teenager living in St. Louis, Needham worked as a bowling pin setter and tree trimmer. After a stint in the military as a paratrooper during the Korean War, Needham moved to California, where he was approached by a former paratrooper friend about helping perform a stunt for the television show You Asked For It!, in which Needham would jump from a low-flying airplane onto the back of a galloping horse. After successfully completing the stunt, Needham was hooked and set his sights on becoming a professional stuntman. Eventually, he broke into the business. During his career, he performed stunts on more than 4,500 episodes of television shows, including Have Gun, Will Travel, Gunsmoke, Charlie’s Angels, and the original Star Trek. He also worked extensively in film during his career, performing and coordinating stunts and directing in more than 310 films, including Little Big Man, Stagecoach, McClintock, How the West Was Won, White Lightning, and Shenandoah.

While speaking at a college campus in the early 1960s, Needham saw pole vaulters jumping into a large, air-filled bag and got the idea to use a similar bag to allow stuntmen to safely fall from high buildings—an innovation that revolutionized how high-fall stunts were performed. Later, after a filmmaker asked him to develop a way to flip a moving car without a ramp, Needham designed a trunk-mounted, car-flipping cannon still used in film-making today—though Needham’s first test of the system snapped the car in half and landed him in the hospital with a broken back.

In 1961, he married Marie Arlene Wheeler. They were divorced in about 1973. While having no children together, Needham adopted Wheeler’s three children from a previous marriage. In 1981, Needham married actress Dani Janssen. They divorced in 1987.

A friend and house guest of the actor Burt Reynolds in the 1970s (he was Reynolds’s stunt double for the 1973 movie White Lightning, filmed in Arkansas), Needham conceived the story for his first motion picture, 1977’s Smokey and the Bandit, after hearing someone at a party mention that bringing Coors beer east of the Mississippi River was considered bootlegging. Needham went on to direct Reynolds in the wildly popular film and its sequel, which have since become classics. While not directing or performing stunts, Needham founded the Skoal Bandit NASCAR team, drove a high-horsepower ambulance cross country in an illegal coast-to-coast rally race (an experience later dramatized in Needham’s 1981 film, Cannonball Run), and tried to break the sound barrier on land in a rocket car.

After retirement, lived in West Hollywood, California, with his third wife, Ellyn Wynne Williams, whom he married in 1996. In 2011, he published his autobiography, Stuntman!: My Car-Crashing, Plane-Jumping, Bone-Breaking, Death-Defying Hollywood Life. Needham received an honorary Academy Award in 2012.

Needham died on October 25, 2013.

 For additional information:
“Hollywood ‘Stuntman!’ Reveals Tricks of Trade.” NPR Fresh Air, February 7, 2011. http://www.npr.org/2011/02/07/133308299/stuntman-high-jumps-tall-stories-from-a-veteran (accessed May 22, 2014).

Koon, David. “Man on Fire: A Q&A with Writer/Director/Stuntman Hal Needham.” Arkansas Times, June 1, 2011. http://www.arktimes.com/needham (accessed May 22, 2014).

———. “The World’s Most Interesting Man.” Arkansas Times, June 1, 2011, pp. 18–21. Online at http://www.arktimes.com/arkansas/the-worlds-most-interesting-man/Content?oid=1764541 (accessed May 22, 2014).

Needham, Hal. Stuntman!: My Car-Crashing, Plane-Jumping, Bone-Breaking, Death-Defying Hollywood Life. New York: Little, Brown and Co., 2011.

David Koon
Little Rock, Arkansas

Staff of the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture

Last Updated 5/22/2014

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