Q: What do you call a person who performs a stunt in front of a live audience (and not in a film or TV show)?
A: A daredevil.
Daredevil is defined as a person who does dangerous things and takes risks, usually in front of a paying audience. Stuntman is defined as a person who substitutes for a movie or TV actor in scenes requiring hazardous or acrobatic feats. During the silent picture era, movie stars such as Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton performed their own stunts. Today, Tom Cruise and Jackie Chan perform many of their own stunts instead of using stunt doubles. By definition, this classifies these movie stars as daredevils.
Today’s stunts often combine pyrotechnics and weapons along with physical stunts to make for explosive action movie sequences. This trilogy of Stunts/Pyrotechnics/Weapons create movie’s most dangerous, and often most spectacular special effects. Not to be confused with visual effect (digitally created computer generated effects), stunts/pyrotechnics/weapons special effects are practical—they are performed in the real world. Today’s action movie franchises, like Fast and Furious and the James Bond movies have a built-in need to constantly escalate the level of complexity involved in stunts, pyrotechniques and weapons.
This evolution of stunts can be demonstrated by comparing the original stunt to its modern day adaptation.
Hanging from a Clock
Harrold Lloyd. Safety First! (1923)
Jackie Chan. Project A (1983)
Yakima Canutt. Stage Coach (1939)
Terry Leonard. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
In many cases everything has to go right the first time as the very nature of the stunt often calls for massive destruction of sets, vehicles and props. This can mean that there are no rehearsals and safety depends on experience, teamwork, advanced mathematical calculations and luck.
So what possesses modern actors to do their own stunts? It can’t just be the pursuit of their craft—there are numerous stunt performers who would jump at a chance to be a movie star’s stunt double. It probably has to do with whatever gene makes someone a daredevil in real life. Why else would Tom Cruise get a helicopter pilot’s license so he could perform his own helicopter stunts and flying in Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018)?
Tom Cruise. Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018)
When it comes to stunts, traditional film insurers typically exclude coverage for any and all stunts. Movies turn to companies that offer Stunt Insurance Packages. To obtain coverage, each stunt has to be signed off by the insurance company. This often means they monitor the scripts and storyboards very closely and often require loss-control experts on the set. Ironically, when it comes to insurance, a policy for a stunt can be a lot less expensive when performed by a stuntman than a movie star.
Regardless of the complexity of the stunt or the pyrotechnics and weapons involved, at the heart of the stunt is a person—sometimes the actor, often the stunt double. The action is real, and although the environment is rigged for safety, accidents can and do happen.
While all this preparation and oversight from insurance companies would make it appear that stunts have all been rigorously thought through and have built-in safety mechanisms, things can still go wrong. Regardless of the complexity of the stunt or the pyrotechnics and weapons involved, at the heart of the stunt is a person—sometimes the actor, often the stunt double. The action is real, and although the environment is rigged for safety, accidents can and do happen.
Two major examples of things going wrong are the helicopter crash in Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983) when pyrotechnics destroyed the tail rotor of a helicopter causing it to lose control, killing Vic Morrow and two child actors. Brandon Lee, star of the movie The Crow, was killed when he was shot with a prop gun that hadn’t been properly inspected.
Stunt disasters are not limited to stuntman or daredevil actors either. Cast and crew are also in harm’s way and unfortunately they’ve experienced their share of disaster. A Wikipedia list of film and television accidents lists over 200 major injuries to cast and crew in less than a century of filmmaking. In the decade of 1980-1990 alone, there were 37 deaths from stunts gone wrong. 24 of these involved helicopters. In fact, the 2010 decade was to-date most tragic decade of stunts gone wrong.
In spite of all the dangers, movie and film stunts are certain to get more elaborate and death defying as they strive to retain their audiences. With the action franchise being the current “guaranteed” Hollywood money maker, this trend will only increase.