It would not be out of line to reason that when it comes to thinking about stuntmen (and women) in motion pictures, most people would conjure up images of able-bodied, muscular individuals who are immune to cuts, bruises and broken bones. And perhaps that image is correct in many cases. But it certainly is not always correct, and Las Vegas resident Willie Harris can testify to that fact.
Harris is an Air Force veteran, having served stateside during the Vietnam era. He was one of a special minority -- he was officially assigned to the Air Force basketball team at Kirkland AFB in New Mexico.
"We played other Air Force bases," Harris said of his service. Competition was tough. Each base commander wanted bragging rights for having the best team. "In between games I gave physical fitness exams in the gym. And if I didn't like you, I flunked you." Harris said he flunked many airmen, but they each had three chances to pass their tests. The stakes were high. "If you're on flying status and you flunk it three times, they pull you off flying status," he explained.
He said he once "got into it" with a sergeant who was so upset with something Harris did that he tried to court-martial him, but the base commander squashed the charges. "I was the main character on the basketball team," he said. "If I didn't play, we didn't win." He said he received several pro offers when he was discharged, including the American Basketball Association's teams in Denver, Dallas (now the San Antonio Spurs) and Kentucky. He accepted an offer from Denver, but he said when he played for the Air Force he injured his legs and received cortisone shots for the pain. "I didn't know it was steroids," he said. "It destroyed my knees. So when I went to play for Denver, I couldn't pass the physical."
Harris was 6 feet, 8 inches tall and had moved to California. In a "it could only happen in Hollywood" twist on the old "Lana Turner was discovered in Schwab's drugstore" tale, Harris was out of work and unable to find employment because of his injured knees.
"A friend of mine came by the house and asked me to give him a ride from Compton to Hollywood, which I did. I didn't know Hollywood, and I got lost trying to get back. So I stopped to ask somebody for directions, and they were shooting a movie with (movie stars) Elliott Gould, Natalie Wood and Dyan Cannon. I was watching them, and this guy walks up to me and asks me my name and how tall was I."
One thing led to another, and "the guy" told Harris that there are many things to do in the movies besides acting, such as being an extra, or a stuntman or some other category. "The guy" turned out to be Gould, and in the following weeks Gould helped Harris get into the union and even fronted him some seed money to pay his dues and buy a decent meal. Harris learned about stuntmen, and in another stroke of luck, a friend (unrelated to the Gould meeting) introduced Harris to the man who doubled for actor/comedian Bill Cosby. "He asked me if I could fall, and can you do fights and stuff, and I told him I was an athlete and I think I can train to do that."
It turned out that Cosby's double was involved with a group of actors who were just starting to form what became the Black Stuntmen's Association. Harris was invited to become a charter member, and a career was born. "At the time they were painting down white stuntmen to double black actors," Harris said. "Cosby was the first one to say, 'Hell, no.' You're not going to paint down a white stuntman to double me."
Harris said the association ended up filing lawsuits with major film studios when they would not accept the black stuntmen. Eventually, equal opportunity became the norm. "What you see today, the Black Stuntmen's Association changed Hollywood," Harris said.
Harris was in many films as a stuntman, including "Dirty Harry," "They Call Me Mister Tibbs" and "Trader Horn," and he also worked as an actor on many television shows. After 15 years, Harris said his body was getting too beat up to continue, and he retired. There were several actors and stuntmen he knew who lived in Las Vegas, and after visiting the city often he decided to move here. He now invests time helping veterans file claims for VA benefits and is working on a book of his life story, which he hopes can become a motion picture about black stuntmen.
Today being disabled, black or white, and becoming a stunt person is, in one way, easier than ever. But in another way, it is becoming increasingly difficult. On the down side, Harris said he would not encourage anyone to get into the stunt business. "The stunt business is just like a dinosaur. It's dying because of automation and computers." But on the plus side, a group called People With Disabilities (PWD) was founded in 2008 as a national civil rights organization by the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), the American Federation of Television and Variety Artists and the Actors' Equity Association.
Its purpose is to educate, motivate and activate for a more representative depiction of the American scene in news and entertainment media. PWD seeks to aid not only stunt persons but also actors who are considered disabled or physically challenged.
In a report issued in 2005 by the Screen Actors Guild, it was stated that there were approximately 54 million Americans with disabilities, but they were virtually invisible in the media. Although there are no new figures available, anyone who watches television news or who keeps up with news about U.S. veterans is aware that thousands of young men and women are returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with missing limbs, blindness, PTSD and other physical challenges due to wounds received in those wars. While certainly most of them will not pursue acting as civilians, the fact is that PWD is there to help those who seek that help.
The 2005 report said the majority of acting jobs for performers with disabilities were in television, film and then commercials. But with the rise of reality television, it's possible that television may lose its front-runner employment status.
In addition to the PWD, SAG reports it has long had in place a Diversity, Special Skills and Talent Bank for producers who seek such casting and says it seeks to increase employment opportunities through a variety of programs.
The PWD can be contacted at iampwd.org. SAG's diversity department can be reached at 323-549-6644. Harris and the Black Stuntmen's Association can be contacted locally at 646-3626.
When Harris was in the Air Force, the closest he ever came to the movies was watching them on weekends. It all changed one day when he gave a ride to a friend. "It was the best ride I ever took," Harris said.
Journalist and author Chuck N. Baker is an Army veteran of the Vietnam War and a recipient of the Purple Heart. He is the managing editor of Nevada's Veterans Reporter newspaper and the host of the "Veterans Reporter Radio Show" on KLAV (1230 AM) from 8-9 p.m. Thursdays and of the "Veterans Reporter TV Show" at 2:30 a.m. Fridays on VegasTV KTUD Cable 14.