Journeys with outlaws
By Ace Atkins
Reading time 33 Minutes
Universal Studios Hollywood was a hell of place
Universal Studios Hollywood was a hell of place back in the summer of ’77. When I visited with my family, I took the tram tour past the Psycho house, the big rubber shark from Jaws, and even into the depths of the ice cave where the Six Million Dollar Man had recently kicked the ass of Bigfoot. Kids in baseball T-shirts and high tube socks could toss around huge boulders made of Styrofoam or pretend to pick up a big van that would intermittently lift on hydraulics. But nothing stood out to me like the Wild West show. Real stunt performers fist fighting, falling from galloping horses, and firing revolvers at one another in shootouts that ended with bad guys plummeting from atop a saloon. The message was clear to me – making a movie was pretty much all tricks and bullshit, except for these people, who did the real work, risking their lives and injuring their bodies in the process to make it happen.
My appreciation went even further a few years later when I went to my local mall theater and first saw Hooper, starring Burt Reynolds as the “greatest stuntman alive.” More than any other film or tribute, Hooper really solidified what I wanted to do when I grew up. Sure, Sonny Hooper may have battled the pills and booze to keep the pain away, and perhaps he was forced to face the very chasm of mortality by jumping a river in a cherry red Firebird. But what a life. He lived in a kick-ass ranch house, taught his prized show horse to drink Coors straight from the can, and had Sally Field to jump up into his lap and comfort him. Someday, I thought, someday.
That’s why I was so damn excited to interview Gary Kent. Gary is the real deal, a veteran stunt performer on The Man from U.N.C.L.E., The Green Hornet and such badass films as Hells Angels on Wheels, Psych Out, and The Savage Seven. He got his start in 1964 working on two low-budget Westerns for director Monte Hellman, The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind. Both films starred a young Jack Nicholson whom Gary doubled. Gary had been a struggling actor who’d bluffed his way onto the set, promising Hellman and Nicholson he knew how to rig stunts and could handle horses. Only the latter was true. Gary had grown up in Walla Walla, Washington and competed in rodeos as a kid.
“I went to work on those Nicholson westerns up in Kanab, Utah,” Gary tells me on the phone from his home in Austin. His voice gravelly, deep and pleasant. “Monte Hellman directing, and Daniel Boone company came up. And they wanted another stunt guy. And Jack said, ‘Gee, I got a great stunt guy for you. He doesn’t use pads or anything. He just falls.’ They said, ‘Well, send him over,’ knowing that I didn’t know beans or I wouldn’t be doing that. So I went over, and after they made fun of me and everything, they sort of taught me the ropes. And I started learning how to really do stunts. What it was all about. And then I just fell in love with the work. I decided that’s it. That’s what I want to do.”
The old pros taught Gary to carry only a rubber gun in case he had to fall on it. And when you did fall off a horse, you better make sure to dig out the ground beforehand. It makes for a much softer landing. Gary said he’d had no problem jumping right into a physical line of work, since he’d been a varsity football player at the University of Washington. Football had really prepped him for taking hard hits and getting up fast. “Most stunt people had done something athletic,” he said. “I don’t think I could have done what I did without it.”
When I played football at Auburn University, I used to host movie nights in my dorm room. Usually I favored films highlighting the dangerous work of stunt performers who took a licking and kept on ticking. Most of our favorites starred Burt Reynolds and featured phenomenal stunt work by Hal Needham. I’d sit there, ice on my shoulders and knees, maybe a broken bone or two, and think life isn’t so bad. The opening scene of Hooper, with Burt wrapping his scarred knee with an Ace bandage and then a brace, was all too familiar to me and my teammates. Compared to Hooper, I figured myself damn lucky. I’d watch Needham, doubling Burt Reynolds in White Lightning, jump a car off a river bank and onto a moving barge. The sheer impact of the landing would’ve killed the average man.
“One of the dangerous things in stunt work was car work,” Gary said. “Car chases. But I never had a problem. Somehow or another I managed to come out unscathed. But in Psych Out, I was doubling for Bruce Dern. Doesn’t sound like much now. But we were shooting at the Los Angeles Art Museum, and Bruce’s character had to break in this skylight that was two-and-a-half stories up and had to hang by his hands and swing over to a balcony. They couldn’t put stunt pads down below in case I fell, because the camera was down there shooting straight up.”
Gary said during rehearsal he knew he’d gone past the point of return. He was trying out a hand grip on top of the skylight, but once he hung his body out below, he knew he couldn’t get back out. He had to make the jump right there and then.
“So I had to go,” Gary said. “I yelled to the camera, ‘Roll camera.’ Instead of Dick [director Richard Rush] doing it, I just yelled it. And they rolled it. And I just barely made it over that balcony. If I hadn’t, I’d have fallen a couple stories onto the camera and concrete, on my head.”
So much of the stunt work, Gary told me, was improvised right on the set. Much of his life – documented in his terrific memoir Shadows and Light – was about facing a tough situation or a gag and then just figuring it all out. The book takes him from his early days as an actor working on the nudie cutie One Shocking Moment to writing and directing a mind-expanding exploration of self-discovery in The Pyramid. When you talk to him, Gary has a cool and laid-back attitude about some of the dangerous work, like a guy who wouldn’t get flustered on the set.
“Back in the old days it was grab it by the balls and go for it,” Gary said, recalling his first big job coordinating stunts on A Man Called Dagger, a James Bond spoof starring Paul Mantee. “Oddly enough, I had to do a stair fall on metal stairs. And if you’ve never done that, just walk up to the top of two stories and look down and then realize you need to go tumbling down those things. How are you going to protect your head? How are you going to take care of yourself so you don’t break your arm or something? I thought, ‘How am I going to do this without killing myself?’”
Gary ended up buying a rubber wetsuit to hide under his clothes and lessen the impact. About that same time, he worked on an outlaw biker flick called Hells Angels on Wheels starring actual members of the Hells Angels. The leader of the gang, the infamous Sonny Barger, had been hired as a consultant on a film and agreed to make a cameo. Again, Gary had to roll with it and make it work.
“He was sort of a difficult guy,” Gary said. “He knew he was the head of the Hells Angels. And, man, he was the head. They all bowed to Sonny. So whatever Sonny said, went. But he was cool on the film. He didn’t do much. He just was in the opening shot where he French-kissed Adam Rourke. The rest of the time he just supplied his guys and he sat back and watched. And drove his new Cadillac, which they bought him for doing the film. They partied every night. They partied every day, too. Day and night. It was a crazy shoot. All the bikers, the Hells Angels, wanted to do stunts. But they were always too stoned. Or too drunk to do it. Only a few of them could actually do it.”
And then there was the time Gary came face-to-face with Charles Manson out at the Spahn Ranch. A dune buggy they were using on the Old West set where the Manson family famously lived had broken down in the surrounding hills. One of the ranch workers suggested good ole Charlie Manson could fix it. Gary said Manson checked out the engine and asked to get paid in advance to buy parts. When Manson didn’t keep his word and didn’t fix the dune buggy, it was up to Gary and tough-guy actor and stuntman Bud Cardos – who may or may not had a mohawk at the time – to intimidate the scrawny Manson to finish the job. And he did immediately, Gary says with a laugh.
After my senior year at Auburn
After my senior year at Auburn, I got as close to my dream job as I ever would when I worked as a production assistant out in Hollywood. I wasn’t a stuntman, and it wasn’t exactly an outlaw biker flick. More like an embarrassingly bad B-level comedy I’d rather not name lest it damage any cred I have with movie aficionados. The whole experience pretty much soured me on the film business except for crossing paths with a crew of stuntmen led by Gary Combs and his son Gil. Gary Combs was a legend in the business, with credits on The Wild Bunch, True Grit, The Getaway, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, and Smokey and the Bandit! I got to watch Gary and Gil work and respected their ethic more than anyone on the crew.
One of the stuntmen working for Combs – his name has faded after more than two decades – knew my background playing football and tried to recruit me into the stunt business. I was so close to saying yes, but didn’t take them up on the offer. I think I was too damn tired of abusing my body in sports for so long.
I was only months away from playing SEC football and had barely healed up from a busted knee and a cracked rib from a practice brawl with a three-hundred-and-fifty-pound lineman. The cartilage in my shoulder joints cracked and popped like movie popcorn (it still does). At the time, as hard as it is for me to imagine now, I only wanted to get behind a keyboard and write stories and work in the newsroom of a big city paper. Yeah, I know. I’m still not sure I made the right decision. When you get right down to it, I never was much of a daredevil. Knocking heads with an offensive tackle isn’t exactly like jumping out of a helicopter or rolling a car. Stunt performers are sometimes called to do things they’ve never done before, to take risks that most people would never take, and to never, ever, turn down a challenge.
I learned those who were selective in their stunts didn’t make it long in the business. I remember being on location at the Ambassador Hotel one night and helping one of the grips six or seven stories up on some scaffolding. It was a hell of a look at the sprawling, historic Los Angeles hotel that had been abandoned for years. You could even see the empty pool where they’d shot The Graduate. But when I stared down at the parking lot below, I tried to imagine what it would be like to be a stuntman aiming in a free fall for the tiny air mattress below.
I hadn’t been thrilled with the view.
Gary Kent turned down few challenges in his life. Whether it was falling off a horse, falling down stairs, or taking a hit of acid to make sure the trip in the film went off authentically. While working on a film, again with Richard Rush, he decided to experiment with the drug before the crew headed up to San Francisco to shoot the psychedelic trip Psych Out starring Nicholson, Bruce Dern, and Susan Strasberg. Music by Strawberry Alarm Clock!
“I prepared for it,” Gary said. “I was told to bring books and bring records that you want to listen to. None of that happened. I just sat in this chair and thought, Well, gee, I don’t feel anything. And so I stood up to leave. This was after about an hour. And all of a sudden it came on and the red from the chair came off onto my arm and my arm was just tripping this red. And I thought, Oh, man what is this. And then the room began to throb and sway. I don’t know if you’ve ever taken acid, but it’s a very strange visual trip.”
Gary said that creativity, innovation, and freedom is pretty much gone in today’s Hollywood, too often replaced by CGI or green screens or taken away by directors who don’t welcome collaboration with their stunt people. He talked with me a lot about his work with Rush, who’d go on to direct the other seminal stunt film The Stunt Man starring Peter O’Toole and Steve Railsback in 1980. That film is a real celebration of the business, pitting a convict on the run – hiding in semi plain sight on the stunt crew – against a sadistic director.
“Richard Rush was a great director,” Kent said. “And he would let the stunt guys stage their own fights and things. Where you were going to do it. How you were going to do it. What you were going to do. Richard would hold meetings at his place out in Beverly Hills. A couple times before the movie would ever begin where we would all come with our scripts and we would go over individually what we had in mind and what we were going to do. So I would have the script ahead of time and figure what guys I was going to hire. It was my idea to shoot in a junkyard [in Psych Out]. I just thought that would be very unusual with all that metal and stuff. That would be cool.”
Even though stunt work is long behind him, Gary still acts in some indie films being made in Austin. He said the best part of getting older is that he’s been offered a lot of strange and interesting character parts. He says he misses Los Angeles and that time like crazy. I tell him that sometimes I wish I’d stuck around and seen what would’ve happened. Whether I could’ve taken a freefall or jumped from a moving truck. From reading Shadows and Light and spending some time talking with Gary, it seems to have been worth every minute and every injury.
We make plans to grab a beer in Austin in a few weeks, and in the meantime, I’d send him a copy of my latest book. In the novel, the hero’s father is an aging stuntman who used to double Burt Reynolds and worked on some of the biggest action films of the 1970s. In the words of my character Jason Colson and Gary Kent, they have few regrets and a lot of great memories. “Every broken bone and jagged scar a damn fine story.”
Must be nice. Sometimes you just have to close your eyes, don’t look down, and make that leap.
New York Times bestselling author Ace Atkins has been nominated for every major award in crime fiction, including the Edgar three times, twice for novels about former U.S. Army Ranger Quinn Colson. He has written nine books in the Colson series and continued Robert B. Parker’s iconic Spenser character after Parker’s death in 2010, adding eight best-selling novels in that series. A former newspaper reporter and SEC football player, Ace also writes essays and investigative pieces for several national magazines including Time, Outside, and Garden & Gun. He lives in Oxford, Mississippi with his family, where he’s friend to many dogs and several bartenders.
Special thanks to Joe O’Connell for allowing us to use pictures from his documentary about Gary Kent, Danger God. Find out more about it at
And biggest thanks of all to Gary Kent for his time and for allowing us to use photos from his archive.