Monday, April 24, 2017

The Spectrum Files: Sharky's Machine

When I was a boy, most of my schoolmates at Somers Elementary School wanted to be firemen or policemen.  I think I remember one tow-headed youngster wanted to be an astronaut. Another friend wanted to be a wide receiver, but only if he played for the Green Bay Packers. 

Not me, friends. 

I wanted to be a stuntman.

One evening of thousands in the Will household, I was sitting Indian-style with my bowl of ice cream in front of an action masterpiece being watched by my namesake.  I remember there was a particular movie where Burt Reynolds or some other 70’s stalwart was thrown from a moving car, rolled to his knee and fired 5 shots from a somehow functioning pistol.  

I remarked to my dad that, wow, Burt Reynolds was some tough customer for managing all that obviously incredible physical activity. 

“Well, Robby,” he said with his trademark grin, “That wasn’t Burt.”
“What?!” I shrieked incredulously, “Of course it was!,” I continued, like the complete idiot I was,  “I just saw him do that!”

My dad went on to explain the intricacies of movie magic.  How stuntmen made the movie stars look good, and editing finished the job.  I was both disappointed in Burt and excited as hell for ugly people like myself.  After all, you can get a job not only in the movies, but throwing yourself around like a lunatic.

Heck, that’s what I do 15 hours a day anyway, I remarked to myself.

Imagine.  In my way of thinking, put on some padding and learn how to fall right, and you can get paid for being 8 years old!  Holy Crap! My dad also explained that it only looked like Burt Reynolds, Peter Fonda, and Barry Newman were driving those muscle cars.  Stuntmen did that shit for them too!  What a magical world we live in!!  A job jumping off roofs, faked fisticuffs, and pushing the limits of the greatest cars known to man!!

For a job!!  A career even!!

“That’s what I’m gonna do!” I thought to myself.  From the age of 8 until I tore my first muscle, I decided I was going to be a stuntman.  I was already known around the house for not only running around on the knuckles of my feet, inducing cringes from the masses, but leaping off furniture, sliding down stairs, and climbing shit outside, just to jump back down off of it.  I even provided my own sound effects to go with it.  I’m sure in my 8 year old mind, I began to wonder where those noises came from, and if I could pull double duty as a stunt-sound effects wizard.  I often stole dialogue from my favorite movies for the shadow boxing that took place in the back yard. This was pre-martial arts, so I began to think I could fight the baddest of movie bad guys. Heck, if stuntmen did the falling and driving the cars, I’m sure someone threw their punches too!!!

As a side note, Incidentally, as a younger kid there was a short film about stuntmen with a butt-kicker of a finale that my mom would always let me know was on. (For some reason, this brief thing aired in afternoons on occasion in The Midwest.)  It was hosted, I believe, by a celebrity like Steve McQueen or Robert Blake. I don't know, it's there and it's gone.  I've searched for hours over periods of years looking online for it, and damn if I can't find it.

Anyway, I became a stunt production designer in my own back yard.  Antenna towers became skyscrapers.  Picnic tables were stand-ins for boats.  The sandbox became quicksand. The AC unit was battlefield cover. Every surface and mildly large object also became something to be shot, punched, kicked, or blown off of, screaming to my imaginary (and tiny-distanced) doom. 

My imagination was my best friend for the moment, but someday, I was going to be stupid enough to drive a car off of a cliff. 

A few years later, after dad had passed, my dream of being a stuntman stayed.  One Saturday evening Spectrum aired Sharky’s Machine.  Another opus from Mr. Reynolds.  The movie has a bit of a cult following today.  It’s not among the most famous of Burt’s oeuvre, though it’s definitely one of his better films.  However, it may have the greatest stunt ever pulled off in a Burt Reynolds movie. 

Dar Robinson’s jump.

Dar Robinson was, and is still seen as, the greatest movie stuntman in history.   In “Sharky’s Machine” he doubles for the villain, who after being shot by Reynolds’ titular Sharky, goes out the window of the 220 foot high Atlanta Regency Hotel and drops down.

To this day, the highest live fall used in a film from a building. For some reason, they only used the part where Dar goes through the window initially, and then it cuts to a dummy for the rest of the fall.   He still made the drop though, and that is pure-cane insane. (He had previously bested that for the movie “Highpoint”, where he dropped 770 feet.  That, however, was off the CN Tower in Canada).

As far as Sharky's Machine goes, wow!.... As a kid, I thought that was the coolest thing ever, crashing through a window and dropping that far?  Dang!  (Yes, I thought the word “Dang” in my head).

After a lull in the action-movie intake, that film rekindled my love of the work of the stuntmen.  

Sadly Dar Robinson was tragically killed, not on a movie set, but in a motorcycle accident.  The world is cruel sometimes. 

In another show of the world’s cruelty, I never became a stuntman.   Though I have pulled some pretty cool stunts in my life.  

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