The Stunt King of Hollywood
For a century, American Westerns have captured the blood-and-thunder of the Wild West, cowboys and Indians, outlaws and outlanders, underdogs and undertakers, tough men and tougher women. The grits and guts of the Western were the Hollywood stunt men and women who stood in for lead actors and did bone-crunching and death-defying pyrotechnics that left film goers breathless.
But many did not DEFY death—between 1925 and 1930 alone, 55 stunt men and women were killed making Hollywood movie stunts and 10,000 actors and extras were injured. (No records could be found of how many horses died.)
The king of the stunt world was a 6’3” darkly handsome former rodeo world champion with an exotic, Indian sounding name. In fact, most of Hollywood assumed Yakima Canutt was a Native American with mystical iron grace and steely nerves. His real ancestry, however, was pure American mongrel—Irish, Scottish and German. But he WAS a child of the frontier, had grown up on horseback, as a grandson of eastern Washington state pioneers who ranched in wild Indian country.
Yakima Canutt, born Enos Edward Canutt in the Snake River Hills in Washington, was a natural athlete and fearless. He started bronc riding when he was 11, at 16 rode in the Whitman County Fair in Colfax in 1912, and at 17 won the World's Best Bronco Buster title. He went on to win his first World Championship at the Olympics of the West in 1917 and numerous other rodeo championships around the country. During this time, Canutt also broke horses for the French government in World War I. In 1918, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy and was stationed on a mine sweeper. In the fall of that year, he was a given a 30-day furlough to defend his rodeo world championship. (He got his nickname, “Yakima” on the rodeo circuit when two of his buddies, who were from Yakima, bragged about their rodeo prowess but both were then thrown from their broncs. When Canutt was also thrown from his horse, his friends joked he must be from Yakima. The name stuck.
During the 1916 season, he crossed paths with Lady Bronc-Riding Champion, Kitty Wilks. Petite, beautiful and gritty, she wore a diamond set in her front tooth, which she occasionally pawned for rodeo entry money, and was nicknamed “Diamond Kitty.” They married, but both strong-willed and independent, divorced five years later.
After WWI ended, he traveled to Los Angeles for a rodeo, and decided to winter in Hollywood, where he quickly mixed with Hollywood celebrities and met Tom Mix. The cowboy film giant invited him to be in two of his pictures and Canutt got his first taste of stunting in a fight scene in “Lightning Bryce.” His career as a stuntman quickly catapulted into stardom.
Canutt profoundly influenced two of Hollywood’s greatest Western icons: Tom Mix and John Wayne. Mix, a flashy dresser, admired Canutt’s style and borrowed two of his two-tone shirts, then asked his tailor to make 40 copies for his own on-camera wardrobe! A young John Wayne greatly admired Canutt, who taught him how to fall off a horse. Canutt was the quintessential cowboy in Wayne’s eyes and—by his own admission—studied Canutt’s manner of walking and talking and adopted the stuntman’s slow drawl and graceful, hip-rolling walk. They became Wayne’s own famous signature style!
Canutt starred in or served as stunt director in hundreds of movies and performed Hollywood’s greatest stunt sequences, including:
Ben-Hur’s chariot scene-- Canutt won a 1959 directing award from the National Board of Review for directing Ben-Hur’s chariot scene and later won a special Academy Award for his work on Ben Hur and other films. Although the race itself lasts 10 minutes on screen, it took five months of preparation, 45 days to shoot, 90 horses, and three months of training for the actors. The set was about a quarter of a mile long.Yakima trained the two leads, Chartleton Heston and Stephen Boyd to drive chariots and perform other dramatic close-ups. Yakima performed most of the extremely dangerous scenes. But one scene required a close-up of Massala, Roman Centurion bad guy and Heston’s nemesis, played by Stephen Boy, to be crushed under a chariot. A dummy was used for the actual trampling scene. But, under Canutt’s direction, Boyd himself shot close-up scenes wearing steel armor while being dragged under the horses, attempting to pull himself up from the harness! Heston’s horses were played by Andalusians. The other chariot horses were Lipizzans. The film won an unprecedented 11 Academy Awards. The chariot race is still considered perhaps the greatest stunt sequences ever to grace a cinema screen.
Gone with the Wind — Canutt doubled as Clark Gable in the burning of Atlanta scene in which a burning, multiple-story warehouse collapses behind him as he is driving a horse and buggy.
Stagecoach — performing several death-defying stunts on falling horses, jumping from the stagecoach to the horse teams, and dropping down under the galloping teams, then being dragged under the stagecoach.
Zorro — Canutt actually appeared more on-camera than the lead, John Carroll, and performed all the scenes wearing a mask and on his horse.
Spartacus — engineered the scenes of the slave army rolling flaming logs down onto the Roman army and fight scenes with Kirk Douglas, Tony Curtis and John Ireland.
Swiss Family Robinson — managed the transport and animal wrangling of many exotic animals to the remote West Indies for shooting.
Cat Ballou – as second unit director and stunt coordinator, conceived the famous scenes of a drunken Kid Shelleen flopping like a rag doll drunk in the saddle on his faithful horse throughout the movie.
Canutt was a huge innovator in stunt technique and equipment development and he began a career in stunt directing. Arguably his greatest accomplishment in this area was the chariot race in Ben-Hur. The original 1925 Ben-Hur cost the lives of one stunt man and five horses. But, as a testament to Canutt’s devotion for safety, there were no serious injuries in the 1959 remake, although Yakima cut his lip in this stunt when he was thrown ten feet in the air above the chariot pulled by galloping horses when it ran over another chariot wreck.
He engineered many other stunt innovations that made stunting easier and much safer. One was a step that attached to the saddle so that he had leverage to jump to another moving object, like a wagon or a train. Another was the "shotgun," a spring-loaded device that disengaged the tongue of a running wagon from the horses, thus cutting the horses loose. It also included a shock cord attached to the wagon bed, which caused wheels to cramp and turn the wagon over on the precise spot that was most advantageous for the camera.
In his colorful life, he accumulated mountains of trophies, awards and other accolades. He won an Honorary Academy Award for his many achievements as a stunt man, stunt director and developer of safety devices that protected stunt men, women and animals. He’s included in the National Cowboy and Rodeo Hall of Fame, Stuntmen’s Hall of Fame and Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. Some of cinema’s greatest stars, including John Wayne, Charlton Heston, Kirk Douglas, Roy Rogers, Tom Mix, Gene Autry, John Ford, and Steven Spielberg, admired him, learned from him and owed him much in enhancing their careers.
Yakima Canutt lived a charmed life and despite defying death thousands of times, and breaking many bones in his body, he lived to the ripe old age of 90. As the famous film director for Republic Pictures, William Whitney, said: “There will probably never be another stuntman who can compare to Yakima Canutt...he could do it all.” He was the genuine article. An original. And a true son of the frontier.
PHOTOS: (1) One of several spectacular Yakima Canutt stunts in John Ford’s 1939 Western classic, Stagecoach. In this stunt, Yakima jumps from the front seat onto a galloping horse team, then proceeds to jump from one pair to the next to the front team. Canutt engineered apparatus on yokes and tongues for extra footholds and handholds to jump to the next team. (2) Yakima in Stagecoach doing his "drop" part of his most famous stunt in which he jumps from a galloping horse to the front pair of stagecoach horses running at a full run, then is “shot” and falls under the horses hooves, where he is drug between all three pairs of the horse hitch, then under the length of the stagecoach. In the 1981 film Raiders of the Lost Ark, director Steven Spielberg paid homage to Canutt, recreating the stunt when Terry Leonard (stunt double for Harrison Ford) 'dropped' from the front grill of a Nazi truck, was dragged underneath, then climbed up the back and round to the front again! (3) Falling and somersaulting horses were mainstream stunts in Hollywood Westerns but were deadly for many horses. One of Yakima's inventions was the 'Running W' stunt, bringing down a galloping horse by attaching a wire to its fetlock anchored to the ground. The stunt flipped the horse and launched the rider spectacularly but often broke the horse’s leg, in which case it was put down. The 'Running W' is now banned and replaced with other falling-horse techniques. The last time it was probably used was on the 1983 Iraqi film Clash of Loyalties when stunt man Ken Buckle, who had been trained by Canutt, performed the stunt three times during a cavalry charge sequence. (Apparently the Iragi film was not operating under the American Humane Society guidelines.) (4) Yakima Canutt posing with many of his Rodeo Championship trophies. He held several World Bronc Riding trophies and rodeo championships. (5) Yakima and his stunt horse, Roy, named after Roy Rogers, whom Canutt worked with. (6) Canutt was a huge innovator in stunt technique and equipment development and began a career in stunt directing. Arguably his greatest accomplishment in this area was the chariot race in Ben-Hur. The original 1925 Ben-Hur cost the lives of one stunt man and five horses. But, as a testament to Canutt’s devotion for safety, there were no serious injuries in the 1959 remake, although Yakima cut his lip in this stunt when he was thrown ten feet in the air above the chariot pulled by galloping horses when it ran over another chariot wreck. (7) In this scene, Charlton Heston’s nemesis, a Roman Centurion named Messala, played by Stephen Boyd, is crushed under a chariot. A dummy was used for the actual trampling scene, but Boyd shot other close-up scenes wearing steel armor while being dragged under the horse, attempting to pull himself up from the harness. (8) Canutt won a 1959 directing award from the National Board of Review for directing Ben-Hur’s chariot scene and later won a special Academy Award for his work on Ben Hur and other films. Although the race itself lasts 10 minutes on screen, it took five months of preparation, 45 days to shoot, 90 horses, and three months of training for the actors. The set was about a quarter of a mile long. Heston’s horses were played by Andalusians. The other chariot horses were Lipizzans. The film won an unprecedented 11 Academy Awards, matched only much later by Titanic and Lord of the Rings. The chariot race is still considered perhaps the greatest stunt sequences ever to grace a cinema screen.
© 2019 NOTES FROM THE FRONTIER
Posted October 10, 2019
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