The expression "Living Legend" gets thrown around a lot now a days, but Hal Needham truly fits the bill. Hal started his career as a stuntman, becoming one of the top gag artists of the day, and quickly moved up the ladder, to stunt coordinating and directing second unit work. In 1976, he approached his friend Burt Reynolds with the screenplay for Smokey and the Bandit which he had scrawled on a series of notepads. Of course Smokey took off like a rocket, and soon the renowned stuntman was one of the most powerful directors in Hollywood. This didn't change his allegiance to the profession however. Hooper was his love letter to it (Needham says it's his favorite of his films), and he founded the Stuntman's organization Stunts Unlimited. In 2001, he received a lifetime achievement award from the Taurus World Stunt Awards.Y'know how there's thousands of guys out there in their late thirties who worship Steven Spielberg or George Lucas and look at their films as indelible touchstones of their childhood? Well for me, those movies were directed by Hal Needham. I called Hal's business manager, hoping to get an interview. Not expecting much, I went back to my daily life. Then, one afternoon, the phone rang. The voice on the other end, possessed of a classic southern accent said "Is this Dave? This is Hal Needham, and I'm only calling 'cause someone passed on your number." Yeah. You coulda knocked me over with a feather. The real surprise though? Not only did Hal grant me an interview, he spent the next forty-five minutes with me on the phone, talking about his movies, stars, stunts, and everything under the sun. When I called him "Mr.Needham" he insisted I call him "Hal". No surprise however, for anyone who has followed Hal's career, is that he proved to be hilarious, open, and just a damn good interview and a damn nice guy.
Smokey was your first film, what was it like just stepping into the director's chair like that?
Well it was my first film as THE director, but understand that I had done a whole bunch of second unit directing, like "Little Big Man"...what a battle that was. I had 1,000 mounted Indians and 250 mounted cavalry to stage the battle of Little Big Horn. That was a job. So I had a pretty good feel for what directing was about, except with the actors. I didn't quite know how to associate myself with them and all that kind of stuff. But I must tell ya, When I was doubling Richard Boone on "Have Gun Will Travel" he had an acting class 'cause he wanted me to be an actor, not a stuntman. I went to that school for three or four years and I learned a bunch off of it, and part of that was what an actor is trying to achieve. Give 'em time to prepare themselves for a scene, and what the scene's all about, so I had a little bit of experience. But I tell ya, I kept my stunt bag. I didn't throw it away just in case I had to go back and stick my head in the ground.
After you started directing, did you go back and do any more stunt work, any coordinating?
No, I didn't do any more coordinating. Let me put it this way: I did for two or three months until Smokey came out and everyone saw where it was going, and what it was gonna do, and I backed off of doing stunts. The only time I'd do one is one of my buddies would call and say "Hey Hal, you wanna come down and play tomorrow? We're gonna slide some cars around the corner." And I'd say "Listen, I'll come down and play, but if you think I'm gonna turn a car over, or hit a pipe ramp, or something like that you're crazy, but if you just want me to come down and play, I'll come down and play." So I did a few of those and eventually I just quit entirely.
When actors say they do all their own stunts, I'm guessing that's, well...
Let me tell you, Burt can drive a car pretty good. The stunt guys taught him how to spin the wheels and do things like that, sure. You know who else was really good was McQueen. McQueen could really drive, so could Paul Newman and James Garner...but they're not gonna put an actor in a car and have him go out there and turn the thing over at 70, 80 miles per hour. I mean if they get hurt, the movie's over! So they can hire someone like me, give me a few hundred dollars, and I'll go out and do it. So don't believe that stuff that actors do all their own stunts. First of all, the studio insurance wouldn't let 'em. Even if they wanted to, they couldn't do it.
Wasn't Jerry Reed was originally supposed to play The Bandit?
See I intended to do this movie for $750K, or maybe $1 million, put Reed in it, a lot of car stuff and things, Roger Corman style. But when Burt agreed to do it, I just called Reed and said "You're now Snowman."
And he was cool with that?
Oh sure, sure, 'cause he and Burt had done some films before that. They did "Gator" and "W.W. and the Dixie Dance Kings".
And then you got Gleason. How did you get him to do the film?
I sent Gleason a script, just out of the blue. He read it, he called me, and he said, "Mr.Director, what makes you think that I would do this?" And I said "Mr.Gleason, I'm a big fan, I wrote that script, I'm gonna direct it, and nothing is etched in stone. But if you play the sheriff, I think it could be a wonderful part." He said, "I'll do it."
And he came up with a lot of great bits and dialogue...
Oh yeah! 75 per cent of what he said, he came up with on the set. He had some great sayings, and they're all his.
Did you have any idea what the impact of that movie would be when you were making it?
None what so ever. As a matter of fact, when I edited it, Universal sent me on a fifteen city tour to promote it, and while I was gone, they changed the music. I had five string banjos and good old get down the road truckin' music, and they put all this brass in there. When I got back, they said "We want you to see it", and I said "I've seen it 1,000 times", but I said, "Okay." And when that music came on, I just told 'em to cut it. I told 'em to take that brass out. And they said, "We think this movie is gonna do, 30, 40 million dollars", so I said, "I'll tell you what, ‘cause I knew I had Burt on my side, just take the brass out, and I believe this movie's gonna do 75, 100 million dollars." They told me if it did, they'd put out a red carpet any time I wanted to come over. Later on, I called the head of production, whom I knew quite well, and said, "I'm coming over." He said, "Then come over." And I said, "No, I want the red carpet." He said "Get on over here!" He wasn't gonna do that! Anyway, I had no idea it was gonna do what it did, and neither did anybody else. We just hit the right things. CB Radio was the big craze. Truckers, and every car in the country had an antenna on it. The gas shortage was at its peak. So it just lent itself to the "good old boy" humor, and get down the road trucking audience.
After Smokey, you did "Hooper" and you had a record breaking stunt in that one, the 250 foot high fall. The Damnation Alley sequence that ends the film, is incredible as well.
We went into this place and it used to be 1. a campus, and 2. a prisoner of war camp during World War II, and they were gonna tear it down, and salvage all the buildings, so I made a deal with them and they said "For ten grand, you can blow up as many as you want", so we bought twenty or thirty of 'em.
That's the kind of thing an action director wants to hear!
You bet. Of course the studio said, "Ten grand a piece!" So we bought 'em, then we built everything else. The service station, and the hospital, then we just blew 'em all up. I shot it in a week. I had fourteen cameras, a whole flock of stunt people, and I really defy any other director to go shoot that sequence, with the kind of coverage I had, in that length of time. Second Unit couldn't do it any faster, and I had my whole first unit down there on that.
And next was "The Villian", your first film without Burt. By now you had two hits under your belt.
I felt pretty confident by now, the studios thought I knew what I was doing! I liked the premise of it, and we got the right people for it with Kirk Douglas, Ann-Margret, and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
This was the first film to use Schwarzenegger in a comedy, which he later became known for to an extent.
Later he became a whole bunch of things! I loved him. He was great, he was easy to get along with, I though he had a good sense of humor. He was just perfect. When that was over, by the time I'd gotten to know him pretty good, on the set and everything, he called me and said "I'm gonna send you a script, Hal. I want you to direct it." So I read the script. I didn't understand who the people were, what was supposed to be happening, or anything else. It was a little film called "Conan The Barbarian". I turned it down. But I told him, "I don't understand it, and for me to do it, I think would be a fatal mistake. For you and me both."
So Smokey II was next. Did the studio just back up the money truck and say "Do whatever you want"?
Kind of, though we didn't go that big with it. I think the budget on the first film was 4.3, the second was 17 or something. They knew I could get things done, and action was my forte, and we had the same cast, and just go out and have some fun with it. It was an automatic. When Smokey made so much money, they'd have been fools not to do a second one.
You had that incredible scene in the desert with all those trucks.
I'll tell ya how all those trucks came about. There's a guy who had a trucker magazine. I called him and he said he'd help me get some trucks out there. So he put an ad in his magazine, and man, did we get a response to it. We had every kind of truck you can think of in that desert. The real drivers, the guys that owned them, were driving them, unless I had a stunt or something to do. Then we'd put our own trucks in. But most of it was the guys driving, and they had a ball. When they had the premiere in Arizona, one night the truckers all got together and bought the drive-in theatre out and you couldn't get in unless you had a cab. They bought their tractors in there and watched the show. In fact, when we had the premiere of Smokey I in Atlanta...you know how you come up in your limos in front of the theatre and all that? Everybody came up in the cab of a tractor. It was fun.
After Smokey and Smokey II, you decided to sit out Smokey III
Yeah. It was bad, in my opinion. Burt wasn't in it, except for a little cameo. I read the script, and I just thought it was bad. I said, "No thanks guys, I'll sit this one out."
It didn't make sense to me to make a "Smokey and the Bandit" movie without The Bandit.
And next was "The Cannonball Run". You and Brock Yates actually ran a Cannonball together. I understand though, that you broke down part way through the race.
We broke down out here in Palm Springs and there was a kid coming through there with a flat bed semi, and we just put that thing on the back, and he hauled us across the finish line. So, we didn't finish too good, although we were smoking while we were out there. We were averaging 96 miles an hour. And that's stopping to get gas and all that kind of stuff.
How much that was in the Cannonball movies was based on reality? I know for instance that you actually did run an ambulance.
We did run an ambulance. And there was a couple of guys in the real race that raced a motorcycle. There were some priests in there. A lot of the stuff we took from characters in the real race, and then we added some, of course.
You had fantastic casts in those two movies. In fact, you even introduced Jackie Chan to American audiences.
Yeah, that was the first thing he ever did in this country. With the producers, part of the deal was that we'd have to find a good part for Jackie, because he was number one box office in the far east at the time. The other guy with him, Michael Hui, was also a big star, a comedian, so you put the two of them together, and they were hilarious. And I'll tell ya, that movie took in big, big, dollars in the far east because of those two.
Whose idea was Captain Chaos, because that's the character people always remember.
That was Brock Yates. But only Dom DeLuise could have pulled that off. He made it seem like it was natural. It was a little ridiculous, but it was funny.
Was a lot of that movie improvised?.
You mean the dialogue? No. I mean you always change some things, but basically it was what it was.
That was another series where you sat out part three which was called "Speed Zone".
Naw, I had nothing to do with that. Al Ruddy, the producer, and his partner, teamed up and did that, and were trying to steal Cannonball and it fell on its face. And you know why? The humor was not there. You have to know your audience. You have to know what they wanna hear, and what they wanna see, and they didn't have the script, and I don't think they had the actors.
Another thing people always remember from your movies are the out takes at the end. Is that something you decided to do as a trade mark of sorts?
I'll tell you how it came about. When I did "Hooper", I had so many stunts left that I didn't put in the film. So I said, "I gotta do something with these!" So I hired a guy to write me a song called "Hollywood Stuntman" and we tried to show on the screen what he was saying in the song. And it just became a trade mark. The screen goes black, and the credits start rolling, and when that happens, people start to get up. But the people who know it's my film, they know what's coming. I get a lot of comments on that. People say, "You must have had a great time. Just by looking at the out takes you can tell that."
All your movies look like you had a great time.
And we did, I never did a movie I didn't have a good time.
Not a lot of guys that can say that.
"Megaforce" was next, and that movie still has a cult following. There are websites for it, the "South Park" guys mentioned it a little while ago. A lot of people remember that movie.
Well it was kind of a version of James Bond done with a helluva lot of less budget and no Roger Moore, but it was a high tech, good "right wing" film and I thought it was kinda interesting. Those buggies that we built, they were dune buggies and we revamped 'em a little bit, and put the weapons on 'em and all that, and the military sent people out there to look at my weapons and my vehicles and how they run, and how they handle...they were out there in the desert with me for a week watching. And, if you go back and take a look at Desert Storm, there's a pretty good resemblance to my vehicles. They were pretty slick, pretty tricked out, and they had a helluva job putting those together.
"Stroker Ace" was next and that was you combining your two loves, movies and NASCAR. (NOTE: During the early eighties, Needham and Reynolds owned a racing team named The Skoal Bandit.)
I had a race team, and being a director, I knew how popular racing was. I thought we did a pretty good job with it. I thought it was funny, had good action, good characters, and I had a lot of fun doing it. I went out and got some product placement on that movie and got lots of money from Goodyear, from Ford, Hawaiian Tropic. A whole bunch of folks.
I was thinking about "Stroker" when I saw "Taladega Nights". I was thinking, this is "Stroker Ace". I saw this movie 20 years ago, and I liked it better then. Anyway, "Cannonball Run II" was next, and this was the last of car movies that you made, and you had everybody in that movie.
Well, Sinatra, and Shirley MacLaine...
Did Dean and Sammy get those two to come aboard?
Yeah, and Sinatra was wonderful. I'd worked with him two or three times as a stuntman, and he could raise a little hell. I only had him for one day. The night before Shirley, me, Sammy, Dean, Burt, and him all went out for dinner. About eleven o'clock, he said "Well, we gotta work tomorrow, and I'm off". I had heard all these stories and I thought, "Man, I'm really gonna have to walk on egg shells." Now, I am normally the first person on the set, or close to it...the drivers might beat me. When I got there the next morning, he had already had his make up on, he had a cup of coffee and a donut, walking down the street when I drove in. I said, "What are you doing?" He said, "I don't wanna be late." He was wonderful, all day long. I found out that he's a train buff, model trains, so I found a really expensive model train and I laid a track above his head, around the room, with this little train running on it, and he said, "That's really neat," and I said, "Well ya know something, I got that specifically to give to you." He also gave his whole paycheque to charity. Great guy.
How did a song by Menudo ("Like A Cannonball"), of all bands, get into the movie?
I went down there when they were recording it, and I thought, "I'm not sure if I like this or not," but then I got to listening to it, and if you listen to the words, it's pretty good, so I said, "Okay."
I'm a big fan of the song in the first one ("Cannonball" by Ray Stevens).
Yeah, I thought that one was wonderful too.
Your movies tend to have a knack for these really "high energy" openings.
Well you know what? You gotta get their attention. You know what's wrong with a lot of movies? They'll spend 20, 30, 40 minutes setting everybody's character and all that stuff, and I go to sleep. I don't wanna do that, I wanna get their attention now.
So "Cannonball Run II" comes out, and it didn't really do as well as the previous movies you'd done with Burt.
True, but it didn't lose any money.
I'm sure it did a lot better foreign then it did in North America.
It did, you're right.
That was pretty much the end of the road for those kind of movies. Do you think interest in them was just sorta petering out?
Yeah, it was...you can only go to the well so many times, and then you need to change.
And you did, moving from cars to bikes with "Rad".
"Rad" was a cute little movie, didn't cost anything, we shot it up in Canada. No stars or anything. But I thought it was different. Where they really made money on that movie...I mean, I meet guys today who were 14, 15 then who say it's the greatest movie ever made. So what the studio did was they put tapes in bicycle shops all across the nation and sold 'em by the millions. As for "Body Slam", Mike Curb's company did that. I knew Mike pretty well. He had a race team, along with me so we got to be pretty good friends. He said, "I got a script I think you'll like, maybe you'll wanna direct it." So I read it, and thought it'd be fun to work with Mike, and said, "Why not." And again, it didn't set the world on fire, but it was a pretty funny film and I had fun doing it.
What was the last film you made?
The last thing I did was I did a couple of Reynolds TV shows. "B.L. Stryker" was one, and I did another called "Hard Time: Hostage Hotel". Now, I'm doing speaking engagements, and I'm not doing it for the money, I'm doing it just for the fun of it, I get a kick out of it. Also in the last couple of years I have written a book. Kind of a bio. I gotta get it published, that's the only thing! I gotta tell ya something, writing a book's a pain in the neck! Anyway, I try to scribble it down, then my wife goes in and tries to interpret it, and make some sense out of it. We're shopping it around.
Here's a question out of the blue for ya...why isn't there an Academy Award category for stuntwork? They have it for sound, they have it for everything else, but not for stuntwork.
Yeah, I know they have it for make-up, you name it. But they do have the Taurus Stuntman Awards...
You received the Lifetime Achievement Award from them.
The first one they ever gave out. They have that every year. Burt flew all the way out from Florida to present it to me, so, it was nice.
Do you and Burt still get together every so often?
Oh sure, I mean it's not a weekly or a monthly thing, but my wife and I went out and had lunch with he and his lady friend about two or three weeks ago. He looks great. Thin and healthy.
Yeah, I saw him a few weeks ago on "My Name Is Earl" and he looked terrific, looked like he was having a great time
Oh really? I didn't know he did one of those 'cause I like that show. He would have a good time on that.
Last question: Are you planning to direct any more movies?
Naw, partner. I'm too old!
Too bad. I'm sorry to hear that. Anyway, Hal, thank you so much for taking the time to talk today, I really appreciate it.
No problem at all. It was my pleasure.