Date and Issue: Number 30, January 1980. Pages: 5 pages.
Pictures: 1 b&w photo and 2 color photos.
Article: Article about the stunt-women.
Author: Keren E. Wilson. Country: USA.
The assistant director yells for quiet on the set. All movement and conversation ceases instantly as the camera focuses on Wonder Woman standing on a freeway overpass. On the cue of "Action!" she vaults over the edge, falls 27 feet to the ground and lands safely. Running easily, she is off to do battle with the forces of evil everywhere.
If you were convinced-even for a moment- that Diana Prince was endowed with super-human powers, then the Society of Professional Stuntwomen fulfilled their highest goal-making the camera as well as the viewer believe that a piece of the action is real and continuous. Ten of the top stuntwomen in Hollywood, Julie Ann Johnson, Jeannie Epper, Leslie Hoffman, May Boss, Regina Parton, Jeannie Coulter, Debbie Evans, Stevie Meyers, Stephannie Epper and Kevin Johnston joined forces three years ago to form this elite group of professionals.
According to Jeannie Epper: "Our aim is to have the best stuntwomen in the business, and be the best. We can supply any kind of stuntgirl a director wants, for any kind of stunt. Highfalls, fights, horsework, drivers, whatever-we have a girl who is highly qualified in each division."
This regard for quality is well-illustrated by their work in many science-fiction and action films: Brave New World, Avalanche, Fantasy Island, Charlie's Angels, 1941, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Wonder Woman, Logan's Run, Bionic Woman, Earthquake, Star Trek (TV), Escape to and Return from Witch Mountain, Embryo, The Black Hole, Time Express, Deathsport, The Cat from Outer Space, and hundreds of mainstream films.
Logan's Run offered Regina Parton the chance to experience what she likes best about stuntwork-challenge. In one scene, 40,000 gallons of water burst through a plate glass window, crashing into a holding tank containing Parton, who was doubling for Jenny Agutter, and Michael York's stuntdouble. For a few anxious moments, they were hurled into the wall on the far side and forced under by the strong current. Their efforts to keep each other from drowning were real.
"An athlete thrives on challenge," Parton comments, recalling the incident. "You have to give it your all. You can't be afraid of being hurt. The first priority in my work is safety. Staying alert. Being prepared, body and mind, for anything." The ability to react quickly saved several lives on the Earthquake set. Fifteen stuntpeople were being washed away by a river of water in a stormdrain. The film crew was positioned on either side of the drain, unaware that a gate had failed to operate and the water was spilling over the sides toward the power outlet. Parton was alert, traced the power source and forced the electrician who was numb with panic to pull the plug.
This ability to react quickly enabled her to respond to explosive stunts on Wonder Woman, and in 1941 to perform near misses with cars. She was dodging them while helping a naked man wearing a garbage can down the street with another stuntwoman.
"You learn to sell yourself in relation to the camera. I watch my actress; take on her posture, her gestures and attitudes. We are there for her benefit, to save her body. Any real pro knows an actress' money is in the closeup, not the long shots. I fall on my face for a living."
Practically every woman in the group doubled for Wonder Woman a one time or another, but the principal stuntwoman was Jeannie Epper. "I didn't do all of Lynda's stunts," she says, "I did probably 75 percent of them. I did the high jumps off buildings, all of her running, jumping and car work. A lot of times I would double her as Diana in a jeopardy situation so I was doing two characters, which kept me very, very, busy. The character was so versatile. Being a superhero, there wasn't anything she couldn't do. Ride a motorcycle, or a horse; drive a car; jump to the tops of buildings. Sometimes it would be too much for me so we brought someone else in to do, say, the motorcycle stunts. We brought in the best woman cycle rider in the world, Debbie Evans, because Wonder Woman should ride a motorcycle as well as she does everything else.
"Working on Wonder Woman taught me so many things. We did a lot of stunts that took total precision and concentration. I would run and jump through a plate glass window, and maybe on the other side would be a desk and a plant. I had to jump totally over it, land on my feet and keep running doing everything with grace and ease. Now, that is very hard to do!"
"I was almost trying to be Wonder Woman. Running along the tops of buildings, five, six, seven stories tall, along the edge without a safety wire. Keeps you on your toes! I was Wonder Woman. You get into that costume and put everything on_ and say to yourself, `Now, Jeannie-you've got to perform!
"As far as being in the costume, it was fun. Little children would come up and just stare at me. They didn't know I wasn't Lynda Carter, all they saw was the costume. It was fulfilling the fantasy we all had as little kids, to be a superhero. And my little boy would go to school and tell everyone I was Wonder Woman's double, but they wouldn't believe him," she says, laughing.
All in the Family
Several stunt ladies grew up in the business. Jeannie and Stephannie Epper are sisters. Their parents, brothers, sisters and even children are stuntpeople. "My daughter, Eurlyne, was Diane Kay's double on 1941," Jeannie says. Regina Parton's father had been in the business for 36 years. Others like Leslie Hoffman and Debbie Evans became stuntwomen because of unusual ability and skill.
Stevie Meyers was used in filming several flying stunts for Disney's The Black Hole. She comments that "in the last few years stuntwork has become very scientific. There are newer and better ways of doing stunts. Instead of cardboard boxes to do highfalls into, we have nice, big airbags." These technological advances were evident in the flying techniques used for Black Hole.
"You put on a safety belt with wires attached," Meyers explains. "These wires are attached to a harness with weights and it's a balance procedure from there. You use your balance to go in whatever direction they want. You can do spins, backflips, frontflips. When the weights are right and you have your balance you can walk on water if you want to. The wires were black so they wouldn't show on the screen. A little black paint hides a multitude of sins a lot of times."
Some stunts, even with a safety harness, have a high risk factor. In Disney's The Cat from Outer Space, Julie Ann Johnson spent four hours at 4,000 feet above the ground with one foot on the wing of a plane, and the other on the skid of a helicopter. She was doubling Sandy Duncan who was transferring the cat.
"Cables can break; you can't spook yourself out. You have to keep yourself together," she says in a quiet voice. On Charlie's Angels she doubles for Kate Jackson, and has earned the additional honor of being the first woman stunt co-ordinator on the show.
"We are pioneers in stuntwork," Regina Parton claims. "Our group of women parallels the men's group, Stunts Unlimited. We are of a competitive nature, but not against other people; we compete with the camera. You have to give it your all or it's not going to convince the viewers."
The members of the Society for Profe sional Stuntwomen are pioneers in many aspects of the movie industry. Stevie Meyers is the first woman Ramrod, in charge of training and supervising the horses and wranglers for many shows, including Wonder Woman. In the CBS Sports Spectacular stunt competition, Debbie Meyers came in second overall in addition to being the highest-placed woman in the National Motorcycle Trials Championships last year. Demonstrating her skills in Deathsport, Debbie jumped a 30-foot-deep ravine that was 8-to-10 feet wide. This led to the opportunity to perform most of the motorcycle stunts on Wonder Woman, including jumps over jeeps and smashed cars.
"A lot of the jobs we do are just things the actress shouldn't be doing," Debbie says. "Or she'll get hurt-but they're easy for us. I also feel if a woman is doing the acting a woman should do the stunts. Deathsport got a little crazy. They wanted Claudia, the girl I doubled, to ride the motorcycle and Claudia cannot ride a motorcycle. They wanted a close-up shot for a lead-in, and she was only going about five miles an hour. So they put the camera up on a tripod really high, and she was supposed to ride by it. The director said, `Now Claudia, whatever you do, don't hit the camera.' So Claudia's all nervous, pops the clutch and heads straight for that camera. Instead of looking away from it, she looked straight at it and that's where she went. The bike knocked out one of the legs, the camera and cameraman came flying down, Claudia crashed, and someone had to catch the camera. I hate to act. And there's no way an actress can do what we do."
"People think they can jump right in and do stunts, but that's just not true," says Jeannie Coulter. "You have to be blessed with an incredible sense of timing," adds Jeannie Epper. "1 know how to perform in front of a camera, and that's really what it's all about. We're just out there to create the illusion.
"I doubled for Lorraine Grey all the way through 1941. 1 started out the film as myself. I was a USO girl in the huge USO fight with all the action where they crash an airplane into the street. There was one stunt where a cannon weighing 5,000 pounds comes bursting through a house and almost runs over me. It took three or four weeks to get that shot, and then I was almost snuffed out one night.
"This cannon was cabled to stop just outside the door of the house, and I was on the other side of the door. So it was supposed to stop, then we'd cut. At first I was very nervous and apprehensive, but we did it six times, and about the sixth take I started to relax, thinking the safety cable would hold. Once the door is closed, l can't see, although the camera can see me. So, I shut the door and this time the cable snapped and the cannon came right on through. It implanted itself in the staircase right where I had been standing. God moved me out of the way because I didn't know I was in any trouble. You would not believe the panic on the crew's faces.They all thought I had been killed; here I was standing right next to this tank and they were looking under the tank for me. I didn't know I was in any danger. Lorraine Grey-it just scared her to death."
Comments on Spielberg
Epper worked with Spielberg on Close Encoun!ers as well as 1941. She had this to say about the director: "Spielberg has a dream. He gets too involved in a project and doesn't step out long enough to visualize that people are people. They get hurt and they break. We aren't superhuman. I understand that the film is fantastic. I hope so for the cast's sake. They worked so hard. He gave a lot of kids a big break on this show."
On Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Jeannie Epper doubled for Melinda Dillon. She claims the stunts were easy; they just required good timing. "There was a sequence where Melinda grabbed a little boy from in front of a moving truck. I did that. The only concern I faced on that stunt was that I was working with a small child. I told the driver and the cameraman and Spielberg that if I had to go early to get that kid, I'm going. You guys are not putting me in the position of getting a child hurt -and they knew that when they brought me down there.
"We did that shot several times before we got the one he wanted. It was an easy stunt, just timing. Good timing is 90 percent of being able to perform a stunt. And a lot of common sense. You have to be sharp, mentally and physically."
Every woman in the group places a great deal of importance on training to perfect their skills or learn new ones. "Whenever you have a stunt you're not sure about, you can always ask someone else, which is what is so nice about belonging to the group," Leslie Hoffman comments. "There are thousands of people who say they can do stunts who aren't really qualified. In order to be considered for the Society of Professional Stuntwomen, you had to be at least three years in the business. You couldn't be earning your living on your `E' card, which is being an extra; you have to be supporting yourself as a stuntwoman. You had to be recommended by six stunt coordinators you had worked for, and then two members come down to watch you perform a stunt. I was the first voted-in member. At the time I joined, the group was less than six months old, but they were the top stuntwomen in the business."
The fabric that holds this group together is strong: Belief in their abilities, desire for excellence and the never-ending battle to convince the camera that the action is real. Danger is always present, but these stuntwomen combat it with knowledge, training and foresight. Together they have convinced thousands of people that Wonder Woman is indeed real, that the Bionic Woman has superhuman strength and that 1941 was a perilous year for America. The Society of Professional Stuntwomen truly holds the real superheroes of Hollywood.
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