Yakima Canutt: A Stunt Man and Then Some

A tip of the Stetson today to legendary stuntman, action director, and actor Enos Edward “Yakima” Canutt (1895-1986). Canutt is best known today for: several stunts in John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939), especially the bit where he lowers himself and crawls upside down underneath a team of galloping horses; as well as for doubling for Clark Gable for the burning of Atlanta scene in Gone with the Wind (1939), and for staging the chariot race in William Wyler’s 1959 version of Ben Hur.

Canutt was raised on a ranch in Washington State and was a world champion rodeo competitor from 1914 through 1923 (with a year off to serve in World War One). He broke into the film business in the late ‘teens. Canutt may have more screen credits than anyone I’ve encountered, outside of certain bit players and extras. He has nearly 300 credits as a stunt man, and nearly 200 as an actor, though in a great many cases those roles may overlap, especially in the silent days. A guy who plays a henchman or a robber, who does his own stunts. He’s pretty much both, right? And in the silent days, a great many actors did their own stunts. There wasn’t as much specialization. So he was usually credited as an actor. Most of his “stunting” credits date from the talkie period, where it was expected that actors would be doubled by professionals. Working at Mascot Studios in the early ’30s, Canutt developed a close working relationship with John Wayne, which was led to his spectacular work in Stagecoach. During this time, Canutt invented many safety techniques and devices that made him an even more valuable man in the industry.

The smartest stunt men inevitably become stunt coordinators and even directors, and this is what happened to Cannut. He has five dozen second unit directing credits, mostly between 1938 and 1970. The major pictures he worked on in that capacity include Angel and the Badman (1947), The Doolins of Okahoma (1949), Ivanhoe (1952), King Richard and the Crusaders (1954), Westward Ho The Wagons! (1956), Old Yeller (1957), Ben Hur (1959), Spartacus (1960), Swiss Family Robinson (1960), El Cid (1961), The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964), Cat Ballou (1965), Khartoum (1966), A Man Called Horse (1970) and Rio Lobo (1970). A lesser known fact is that Canutt directed 17 films himself, most of them B movie westerns and serials made between 1945 and 1948. His last screen credit was as a technical adviser on Equus in 1977.