Time and perspective have given me an added appreciation for the singular oeuvre of Hal Needham (1931-2013) — within reason.
There are many roads to being a film director. Some who’ve gotten to sit in the director’s chair have previously been actors, producers, cinematographers, screenwriters, choreographers, songwriters, and even costume designers (Vincent Minnelli springs to mind). Needham had been a stunt man — as valid a path as many I have named, and more logical, actually, then some of them. He went from stunt double, to stunt coordinator, to staging highly elaborate pieces of action, to second unit director, to director. From moving people around it’s but a short (and literal) hop to placing and moving cameras.
Needham had been an army paratrooper during the Korean War, which led naturally to being a technical adviser on the 1959 film Paratroop Command. Trained by John Wayne’s stunt double, he went into the field himself doubling for Richard Boone on Have Gun, Will Travel (1957-63). He also worked as a bit player on shows like Zorro (1957-58). Usually the line between these two jobs was blurry; the acting roles were usually henchmen parts and such, which meant performing fights and falls on his own behalf as a character as opposed to doubling for stars. Needham has hundreds of film and television screen credits doing this kind of work, mostly in westerns and action films, becoming the most highly paid stunt professional in the world by the 1960s.
Somewhere around 1963 Needham forged his relationship with Burt Reynolds, when he doubled for the actor (and others) on Gunsmoke. The relationship between these two guys were Quentin Tarrantino’s inspiration for the main characters in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Needham later worked with Reynolds on things like 100 Rifles (1969) and Dan August (1970), but in 1973 the relationship started to intensify. Needham worked as double, stunt coordinator and/or second unit director on the Reynolds’ films The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing (1973), White Lightning (1973), The Longest Yard (1974), W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings (1965), Lucky Lady (1975), Gator (1976), and Nickelodeon (1976). By this point he wasn’t just staging fight scenes, he was orchestrating big spectacles involving speeding and crashing automobiles. Such set pieces require precision planning and hundreds of moving parts.
At this point, Needham was emboldened to take the helm himself. He directed his own script Smokey and the Bandit (1977), basically a more intense remake of W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings which turned out to be a monster hit, leading to his directing Reynolds in Hooper (1978), Smokey and the Bandit II (1980), and Stroker Ace (1983). Without Reynolds, he also directed The Villain (1979), a fairly atrocious western comedy starring Kirk Douglas; a Duel ripoff called Death Car on the Freeway (1979), the hits The Cannonball Run (1981) and The Cannonball Run II (1984), and the action film Megaforce (1982), which stars Barry Bostwick of all people.
Now, a proper perspective is everything. When I was a kid, I happened to love some of these movies. Then I grew up and became a writer and tended to look down upon them for a number of years. Then my perspective changed yet again. Why? After all, I value words now more than ever in some ways. That said, in the intervening time I developed an appreciation for other parts of the equation. I studied silent comedy pretty intensely with an eye to the breakdown of action, especially in the hands of the master of that, Buster Keaton. And I also had gotten a lot more experience as an actor, including working with fight choreographers, which gave me a new degree of respect for the art form. One thing that dawned on me was that Needham’s pictures were much closer in spirit (and intended effect) to the unpretentious comedies of Mack Sennett, than the much more self-conscious silent comedy tributes of the self-proclaimed revivalist Blake Edwards.
That said, Needham and Reynolds were ultimately pretty bad influences on each other from a cinematic point of view. Reynolds stopped being taken seriously as an actor and even as a star after he plunged headlong into these self-indulgent excursions. And Needham, who had been associated with some highly prestigious films (e.g. The French Connection, among dozens of others) as a stunt professional, never was again after breathing the heady air of being top banana. The last Needham-Reynolds screen project was a TV movie called Hard Time: Hostage Hotel (1999). The pair also co-owned a NASCAR auto racing team in the ’80s.
For more on classic comedy history please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.