“Stuntman-turned-movie director Hal Needham has died, at the age of 82,” reports Phil Dyess-Nugent at the AV Club. “Needham broke into TV and movies in the late 1950s, doing stunt work in such films as Pork Chop Hill, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, How the West Was Won, Donovan’s Reef, Major Dundee, In Harm’s Way, The War Lord, Hells Angels on Wheels, Little Big Man, and many others…. Needham fell off horses, propelled himself onto the roofs of moving stagecoaches, got into fistfights, and did car and motorcycle stunts. For 1973’s White Lightning, one of the first movies he made with his frequent collaborator Burt Reynolds, he launched a speeding car from land onto a floating barge. And he quickly became one of the most in-demand and, by his own proud reckoning, the ‘highest-paid stuntman in the world.'”
“In the mid-1970s, he graduated to directing, when his friend Burt Reynolds helped him secure the budget to make his debut film, Smokey and the Bandit,” writes Matt Singer at the Dissolve. “The movie was a box-office smash, and became a beloved cultural touchstone along the way to spawning two sequels. He and Reynolds also collaborated on Hooper, two Cannonball Runs, and one of my all time favorite guilty pleasures, the NASCAR comedy Stroker Ace…. Not all of his films were masterpieces, but few directors have ever had a better feel for making action fun onscreen—not just thrilling or suspenseful, but laugh-out-loud funny.”
From Joe Leydon’s Guide to Essential Movies You Must See: “Initially dismissed as a freakish regional hit at Deep South drive-ins, Smokey and the Bandit gradually proved equally popular in major metropolitan markets, and wound up in the record books as the second-highest grossing film (right behind Star Wars) of 1977. Some have credited its phenomenal popularity to its subversive allure as fantasy fulfillment: Bandit repeatedly outsmarts and humiliates Sheriff Justice and all other law-enforcement officials who dare to impinge on his God-given right to ignore any posted speed limit.”
“In interviews, he would ask to be forgiven for a little ‘braggadocio’ when telling some of his larger-than-life Hollywood tales—like the time he taught John Wayne how to throw a punch.” Steve Chawkins recounts the story in the Los Angeles Times:
It was on the set of a 1969 western—The Undefeated—and, because of the camera’s position just behind the character he was supposed to be decking, Wayne had a hard time delivering a fake punch that looked believable.
“Duke was throwing a straight-on jab by the side of the guy’s face. You could tell he was missing the guy by a mile,” Needham wrote in his 2011 memoir, Stuntman! My Car-Crashing, Plane-Jumping, Bone-Breaking, Death-Defying Hollywood Life.
Without being asked, Needham stepped in and demonstrated an ever-so-close roundhouse punch—a lesson for which the Duke did not thank him. Later on, in a bar, Wayne grabbed the stuntman in a headlock and loudly berated him for showing him up in front of the crew.
“A few seconds passed and I wasn’t sure whether he was going to release me or tear my head off,” Needham wrote. Wayne told him to keep the good ideas coming and keep the bad ones to himself. Then he gave his captive “a friendly Dutch rub” and let him go, saying: “Get it done, Needham.”
The two remained friends until Wayne’s death in 1979.
Updates, 10/28: “Upset by the critical response to his work,” notes Brian Baxter in the Guardian, Needham “took out advertisements in Variety and other trade papers. They featured quotes from negative reviews for his movies including Smokey and the Bandit (1977) and The Cannonball Run (1981), alongside a wheelbarrow overflowing with dollar bills…. He and Reynolds had their biggest commercial hit in 1981 with The Cannonball Run, a frantic crash-laden comedy about an illegal coast-to-coast race, with an all-star cast including Dom DeLuise, Roger Moore, Farrah Fawcett, Jackie Chan and Sammy Davis Jr. Its worldwide success led to an inferior sequel, Cannonball Run II (1984), notable only for the last screen appearances—among many celebrity cameos—of Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra.”
“Needham will never be remembered for directing good movies,” grants Brent Cox at the Awl. “The first Smokey is not all that bad and that’s about the extent of it. But he brought fun back into the motion pictures. His films were a party, and everyone was invited. He probably boozed it up a little much, and I doubt you’d want him dating your sister, but when he directed movies they reeked of cheer. Probably the best bad movie he ever directed was The Villain, which starred Kirk Douglas (as The Villain) and introduced Arnold Schwarzenegger to the world as a dopey, musclebound hero (named Handsome Stranger). It was basically a live action Warner Bros. cartoon, and it would not have been a shock to see a cameo from Wile E. Coyote. Needham’s idea of entertainment was cartoons IRL.”
Update, 11/1: Fresh Air‘s posted its 2011 interview.