R.I.P. Ernie Orsatti: The Man Who Fell To Fame

Saddened to hear the news about the passing of Ernie Orsatti (1940-2020) back on September 12. He was the son of two remarkable parents. His father Ernie Orsatti, Sr, had been a stand-in for Buster Keaton and played first base and outfield for St. Louis Cardinals (participating in four world series, winning two of them), and in later years worked for the Orsatti Talent Agency with his brothers Victor, Frank and Al. Victor, the honcho, is credited with negotiating Judy Garland’s contract for The Wizard of Oz and for convincing Olympic skater Sonja Henie to give Hollywood (and him) a fling. Ernie Jr’s mother Inez Gorman was an operatic stage singer who’d had a small role in Singin’ in the Rain (1953) in addition to a half dozen other films.

Ernie Jr was a good looking guy, and hoped to be an actor, although he also worked as a stunt man, and in the early years he did both kinds of work. He starred in an 1968 counterculture indie called The Acid Eaters, and that same year had a small role in The Green Berets, for which he performed his own stunts. He also did stunts in the Neil Simon comedy The Star Spangled Girl in 1971, standing in for either Tony Roberts or Todd Sussman during their fistfight over Sandy Duncan.

THEN: the moment that changed everything: a film that contained both his most famous role and his most famous stunt, and the whole reason I am moved to write about him today. He played “Terry” the young guy Pamela Sue Martin is hanging out with in The Poseidon Adventure (1972) while constantly daydreaming (for some reason) about balding, middle-aged clergyman Gene Hackman. I had never put two and two together until reading about it recently, but it was also Orsetti (in that character) who performed the most famous shot in the movie, and one of the most famous stunts in all of cinema: an angle from above, where he is clinging to a cafe table on the capsized ship; his strength gives and he falls what looks like 100 feet down onto a stained glass window. Then lights flicker around his motionless corpse. This was a screen moment that hearkened back to the earliest days of movie magic, just simply spectacular. It’s what people pay money to see, or what they used to anyway, before CGI turned all movies into animated cartoons. This was an incredible death-defying feat recorded for all time on film, embedded in a gripping story.

So, you mayn’t have known his name, yet he made history. Orsetti’s difficulty going forward was that he now had an incredible reputation as a stunt man, as opposed to as an actor, despite being great at both jobs on The Poseidon Adventure. On rare occasions, as in the movies Viva Knievel (1977) and The Car (1977) and a handful of tv shows, he got to play a part without stunting. The normal situation was that on the few times he got an acting job, he had to perform stunts as well, as in two more Irwin Allen pictures, The Towering Inferno (1974) and The Swarm (1978).

By the ’80s he had risen to the exalted position of stunt coordinator, only occasionally performing stunts himself any more. You have most assuredly seen his work. He has close to 150 credits in both film and tv. Movies included Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982), D.C. Cab (1983), I’m Gonna Get You Sucka (1988), Ghost Dad (1990), Hot Shots (1991), Grumpy Old Men (1993), Sgt. Bilko (1996), Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998), Doctor Doolittle (1998), American History X (1998), Pleasantville (1998), Big Momma’s House (2000), Joe Dirt (2001), Cheaper by the Dozen (2003), Welcome to Mooseport (2004), Yours Mine and Ours (2005), The Pink Panther (2006), Made of Honor (2008) and The Pink Panther 2 (2009). Realize that that short-list is heavily skewed toward comedy, my bailiwick. He naturally choreographed plenty of action films like the Death Wish pictures, but I know nothing about them! He also did tons of TV work: NYPD Blue (nearly 50 episodes), Charmed (37 episodes), The Practice (over 40 episodes), Carnivale, Nip/Tuck, Entourage, Big Love, and much else. As often happens, stunt coordination sometimes lef to second unit director credits. He had a couple of dozen of these, notably on such things as Hot Shots and The Pink Panther.

Thanks to the member of the Facebook Poseidon Adventure Fan Club who shared the news with me, as well as this short film about his iconic moment. The clip seems to have been produced around ten years ago, around the time of his retirelement. Watch it here.