We spent the afternoon running power cables and placing lights around the Bronson Caves, a dry, dusty canyon carved deep into the hills of Griffith Park, just north of Los Angeles. It was late summer of 1981, four years into my career as a lighting technician in Hollywood. My phone rang the day before with an offer to “day play” (work for a day) as a “juicer” (lighting technician) on a low-budget feature film called The Sword and the Sorcerer. They planned to shoot a big night-exterior scene, and night work always means lots of lights and cable. At the time, I was still making the transition from the grind of low-budget features to the world of television commercials, where the pay was better and the work considerably less time-consuming. But I wasn’t there yet, so doing occasional work on feature films allowed me to connect with old friends and earn a little money. This promised to be a long one – all night into the dawn -- but the beauty of day-playing is that it’s very much a temporary gig. In Hollywood, you can put up with almost anything if it’s only for a day.
Besides, making movies was still fun back then.
As the sun dropped below the canyon rim, we took a break from laying cable to watch the filming of a stunt designed to simulate a man being thrown off a cliff to his death -- a murder that would spark one of the central dramatic conflicts in the story. Long an integral part of the cinematic experience, stunts represent the distilled essence of movie-making: using skill and artifice to create a convincing illusion. Watching a well-executed stunt is an education in itself, an experience drawn into very clear focus by the element of danger accompanied by an undeniable frisson of excitement. Early on, one of the fun things about working on feature films was getting to see a wide variety of stunts performed right before my eyes. It was a bit like going to the circus as a boy, watching the high-wire and trapeze artists toy with gravity under the big top -- only now, I no longer had to buy a ticket.
Despite their rough-and-ready reputation, stunt men aren’t wide-eyed fools nursing a death wish: they’re professionals who want to get the job done and drive home in one piece at the end of the day, just like everyone else. The nature of their livelihood entails skating along the thin edge of disaster, but they work hard to minimize the risks. Every aspect of a stunt is meticulously planned and rehearsed until the actual performance becomes almost automatic. Very little is left to chance. But if the element of risk can be minimized with such thorough preparation, it can’t be eliminated altogether. Proper execution of the stunt is crucial. When the cameras finally roll, the stuntman and his team must do everything exactly right to avoid disaster.
I found a spot across the canyon floor with a clear view. High on the cliff above the caves stood a man dressed in a medieval costume, playing a character about to be thrown to his cinematic death by the henchmen of an evil tyrant. The stuntman stood there, staring down at his target 65 feet below, a fully inflated airbag surrounded by boulders. He stared for a very long time. The crew waited, cameras ready, watching that lonely figure up there on the cliff. As the tension mounted, a nervous quiet settled in over the set. At last, the stuntman signaled a thumbs-up and stepped back from the edge, out of sight. An Assistant Director ordered the cameras to roll. When all were all up to speed, the director yelled “action!” For a long moment, nothing happened, the tense silence broken only by the mechanical whir of film rolling through cameras.
Suddenly, there he was. I stared upward, forgetting to breathe, watching that man run off the cliff into thin air.
I’d seen high falls before, the stuntman diving, arms extended to either side, feet slightly apart, falling in a graceful arc designed to plant him flat on his back in the center of the airbag. When properly executed, such a stunt ends with a loud “whump!” as the airbag absorbs and dissipates the enormous amount of energy his body picked up during the fall. The stuntman then leaps off the bag with a huge, adrenaline-fueled grin, shaking hands with everyone in sight. It's quite a sight when everything goes right. But if something goes wrong -- if he should land head or feet first, or off to one side of the bag -- that's trouble.
This fall looked all wrong. Instead of a smooth dive, the stuntman came off the cliff at a forty-five degree angle, head down, his arms and legs dog-paddling furiously. The thought flashed through my mind how realistic this seemed, as though it really was a man falling to his death rather than a carefully planned illusion. A heartbeat later, he hit with a sound I’ll never forget -- a muted, crunching thump as his legs hit the airbag while his entire upper body smashed onto the boulders.
A paralytic silence gripped the set, none of us quite able to believe what we’d just seen. A man on the special-effects crew ran to the crumpled body to attempt mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, but it was a futile gesture. Later, he told me the stunt man’s head, cradled in his hands, felt like a bag full of broken glass.
A moment before he’d been alive, but now he was dead. I’d just watched a man throw himself off a cliff into eternity.
Someone laid a blanket over the body until the ambulance arrived. The rest of us milled around the set, unsure what to do. Some of the women sat down and cried, while the men stood stiff-legged in a stony, impenetrable silence, each of us trying to process what we’d witnessed. As twilight slipped into darkness, one of the producers emerged from the motor home and called a wrap. We were done filming at Bronson Caves, he said. We wouldn’t be coming back.
There was nothing left to do but begin the grim task of wrapping the heavy equipment and loading it all back on the trucks. One of the young grips, a kid barely into his twenties, tripped and dropped an armload of C-stands. Close to tears, he unleashed a gushing torrent of profanity. By the time both trucks were packed, only the grips and juicers were left, along with the two drivers. A case of beer appeared. Somebody passed a hat, taking up a collection for the wife and baby of the dead stuntman. His name, I learned, was Jack Tyree. We sat there in a darkness lit by the glow of cigarettes, drinking beer and talking deep into the night.
I wish I could report that some sort of epiphany came out of this -- a profound realization to make sense of it all and put Jack Tyree’s death in perspective. Like everybody else on the crew, he’d gotten up that morning and gone to work to earn a paycheck -- $1200, or so I heard. That was a healthy chunk of change back in 1981, but hardly worth dying for. While the rest of us drove home to bed and a restless night, Jack Tyree was already there, in the words of Raymond Chandler, sleeping “the big sleep.”
My phone rang much too early the next morning. It was the Best Boy, asking me to come back and work on “The Sword and the Sorcerer” for another day, filming on a soundstage that served as the production company’s home base for the duration of the shoot. This was the very last thing I wanted to do, but turning down work is a cardinal sin in the freelance world, where one dares not risk angering the fickle Gods of Hollywood. Besides, the crew needed help -- and in a way, I was still looking for some kind of closure on that awful night before. I got dressed and drove to the stage a couple of miles west of downtown Los Angeles, then worked with the set lighting crew until we all broke for lunch. As we headed back on stage afterwards, the Best Boy called me into his “office” – a tiny desk with a chair in the lighting truck.
“You’re going back to Bronson Canyon,” he said. “We need a couple of guys to hang lights inside the cave.”
“The same lights we wrapped last night?”
“Yep,” he said, with a weary shrug.
And so I found myself back at the scene of the crime, hanging and powering lights inside the cave at a location the producer had solemnly promised, not 24 hours before, we’d never see again. This wasn’t the epiphany I’d been seeking, much less closure, but rather a crude, that’s-the-way-it-is affirmation of the oldest cliché in show biz: the show must go on.
Hollywood movies are highly contrived dramas designed to hook and hold our interest for a couple of hours. People go to the movies expecting to see a seamlessly executed illusion: a good story well told, featuring interesting characters who face and overcome situations more starkly dramatic than anything most of us ever encounter in real life. A good movie casts a spell allowing us to forget our own problems for a little while. In those movies, characters often suffer horrible, graphic deaths, but no matter how convincing the illusion, the audience knows deep down that it’s all make-believe. Other than the occasional bent and bloodthirsty sociopath lurking in the dark, nobody goes to a movie hoping to see actual injury or death up there on the screen, but it happens more often than most civilians realize. Unless a well-known actor* is involved, the outside world rarely hears about these accidents, but film industry workers are injured or killed on the job every year. Dozens have died on sets over the forty years I’ve been in Hollywood. A camera operator and a stunt woman I’d worked with early in my career were later killed while filming other projects – he in a helicopter crash while filming a music video, she when what was supposed to be a simple fall from the roof of a two-story house went terribly wrong. The Industry throws a thick blanket over news of such accidents, keeping them under cover with the rest of Hollywood’s dirty little secrets.
“The Sword and the Sorcerer” was released in the Spring of 1982, and went on to gross nearly forty million dollars -- not bad for an independent film that cost in the neighborhood of two million dollars to make. The producers honored Jack Tyree in the credits, and I can only hope they steered some portion of those considerable profits to his widow and baby. Despite Hollywood’s long tradition of paying little more than lip service to worthy causes or those in need, there really are decent people sprinkled throughout this industry who quietly go about their business doing good things -- but I have no idea if the producers of “The Sword and the Sorcerer” are among them.
It’s been nearly thirty years since I watched Jack Tyree plunge to his death, but the image remains burned into my brain. We'll never know why that stunt went so wrong. Some of the veteran crew members told me they’d never seen a stunt man stare down at his airbag for such a long time before performing a high fall. Maybe he psyched himself out. Maybe he tripped or stumbled, his feet getting tangled in that final instant before he plunged into the void. Maybe all of the above. All I know is that in the thousands of days I’ve worked on set since that grim evening -- on feature films, television shows, commercials, and music videos -- I haven’t had to watch anybody else die, and for that I’m grateful.
But one thing changed in a big way for me that day: I don’t like to watch stunts anymore.
* Vic Morrow, R.I.P.
Michael Taylor is now wrapping up a forty-year career in the film and television industry, and will soon retire to the cool green woods of Northern California. You can find more stories of life below decks in Hollywood at Blood, Sweat, and Tedium.
Michael Taylor © 2016