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Mr. Beaks Pays Tribute To Hal Needham And HOOPER!

(This is a tag-team appreciation of the great Hal Needham. My pal Mike Ryan has a terrific piece on SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT up at the Huffington Post. Read it now, then come back here for HOOPER!) 

When we discuss the major American films of the 1970s, we do not discuss the films of Hal Needham. When the major critics of that era discussed the films of Hal Needham, they did so obligingly at best, noting that his odes to hell raising, bootlegging and vehicular demolition were "brainless in an entertaining way". Others felt his movies represented "an abdication of artistic responsibility at the lowest possible level of ambition". The latter assessment isn't entirely unfair: Needham was hardly a master of mise-en-scene; onscreen, his chaotic car chases felt more captured than choreographed. But "lowest possible level of ambition"? Knocking down a huge wooden roller coaster for a laugh might not be the pinnacle of cinematic achievement, but it certainly requires more than a little chutzpah.

For Needham, ambition was everything. The son of an Arkansas sharecropper, Needham served his country as a paratrooper in the Korean War; upon returning, he made his way to Hollywood, where he became one of the most sought-after stuntmen in the industry. As he details with no shortage of brio in his immensely entertaining memoir STUNTMAN!, Needham repeatedly risked life and limb doubling for some of the biggest movie stars of the '60s and '70s. He broke fifty-six bones over the course of his career (his back twice), and set a insanely perilous, dare-you-to-top-this standard for his colleagues. Cars, airplanes, speedboats, horses... if you could fall from it or jump it over something that ought not be jumped over, Needham wanted on it.

After two decades of nearly getting himself killed for the enjoyment of moviegoers, Needham took a crack at directing with SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT. Initially developed as a low-budget vehicle for country music star Jerry Reed, the project found a home at Universal when Burt Reynolds signed on to play the titular, Trans-Am-driving bootlegger. With country music crossing over into the mainstream, Reynolds at the absolute zenith of his popularity, and comedic genius Jackie Gleason improvising a significant chunk of his dialogue, the film became the second-highest-grossing release of 1977 - even though, according to NEW YORK TIMES critic Janet Maslin, it was a box-office "washout" in New York City. This was a movie for what people now regrettably refer to as the "flyovers". It was a gleefully rambunctious redneck picture backed by a major studio, starring a proud son of the South (though he was born in Michigan) and a guy from Bushwick who could do a mean Southern accent. And while it celebrated car culture at a time when Americans were getting killed at the pump, it was utterly apolitical. If SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT is about anything other than giving audiences their money's worth, it's about the right to drive really fucking fast and sticking it to every dipshit deputy who ever gave you a speeding ticket. 

Riding high on the success of his debut movie, Needham wasted no time delving into his passion project, and what, to my mind, stands as one of the most underrated entertainments of the '70s. Though HOOPER, Needham's second big-screen team-up with Reynolds, was a massive hit in 1978, it is rarely referenced nowadays due largely to reasons of availability. An affectionate tribute to the rough-and-tumble lives of stuntmen, HOOPER has generally been treated by Warner Bros. as a celluloid leper. It was difficult to find on VHS in the '90s, and is available now only in a full-screen transfer on a "Triple Feature" DVD with SHARKEY'S MACHINE and STROKER ACE. I could be wrong, but I'm pretty sure that, over the last decade, it's never received a 35mm repertory screening in Los Angeles. It's practically an obscurity in 2012. When I discuss the film with fellow movie lovers, I often find myself having to remind them of its major set pieces. "Oh, that's right! The rocket car! The Terry Bradshaw fight! Wow, I *loved* that when I was a kid!"

  

I still love HOOPER. It's the first film about filmmaking I ever saw, and, unlike its cynical subgenre brethren (everything from THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL to THE PLAYER and beyond), it dares to depict the movie production as a full-throttle blast. The movie pits Reynolds's Sonny Hooper against a pretentious auteur named Roger Deal (a wicked Peter Bogdanovich parody pompously embodied by Robert Klein), who's directing a big-budget spy thriller like it's LA STRADA. The aging daredevil is also in competition with a younger stuntman, Ski (Jan-Michael Vincent), whose lack of bodily mileage allows him to execute feats that should be off limits to Hooper. This doesn't stop Hooper from pulling off a 224-foot freefall (close to the height from which Reynolds would ask stunt legend Dar Robinson to plummet in SHARKEY'S MACHINE), but his doctor has warned him that he's one errant jolt away from paralysis or death. "If you were a horse," advises the physician, "I'd shoot you." 

HOOPER pulsates with the good-ol'-boy charm of Needham's most notable films, but the brawling energy is deftly undercut by an end-of-an-era wistfulness. At the time of the film's release, directors and producers were clamoring for more from their stuntpeople - to the point where they misguidedly began selling films on the stunts. A few years after the shooting of HOOPER, Robinson would drop an insane 700 feet from Toronto's CN Tower for a largely forgotten thriller called HIGHPOINT. It's a breathtakingly dangerous undertaking, but visually unimpressive; you know what you're watching is real, but you never sense the danger. 

This was never the case in a Needham film. Though the director has been criticized for filming his cataclysmic car chases without panache, he covers the action from every conceivable angle, placing the viewer right in harm's way with Sonny and Ski. And the stunts aren't boring old free falls; the grand finale in HOOPER is an exhilaratingly-staged obstacle course of a sequence that would never, ever be attempted in a studio film today (though I'm sure Michael Bay and Peter Berg would love to give it a go). Crumbling buildings, tumbling smokestacks, explosions at every turn... it's madness. And that's partially the point of HOOPER: these fearless professionals are being asked to do way too much, but they'll do it because backing down would kick open the door for the next-hungriest guy. It's that one-upsmanship thing. You think you can clear this twenty-foot gulch? How about over there where it's a thirty-foot gap? Ask, and it shall be attempted. It's up to the director to not be so precious or determined that he puts his stuntpeople at undue risk.

HOOPER is Needham's love letter to the profession that gave him his career. Today, it also works as a fond look back at a time when peril couldn't be fabricated with CG. Perhaps it's progress that filmmakers no longer have to rely on some crazy bastard's lack of concern for his own well being to get a shot of a bad guy falling from a skyscraper. I just know that there's no substitute for the real thing - and throughout his career as a stuntman and a director, Needham was as real as it got. But it was all good-natured rowdiness with Needham. This is exemplified by the barroom brawl in HOOPER, which ends with the combatants laughing off their bruises and congratulating each other on throwing a good punch. Sometimes you just need to raise a little hell.

There's really no analyzing a Hal Needham movie - no subtext to tease out or elegantly-staged set piece to break down. They are precisely what they are. We don't deconstruct Hal Needham films. We enjoy them.

Faithfully submitted,

Mr. Beaks

 

Readers Talkback
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  • Aug. 29, 2012, 1:06 p.m. CST

    BURT IS KING

    by JMoe

  • Boy was MY face red!

  • Aug. 29, 2012, 1:18 p.m. CST

    Met Needham at film festival. Cool dude.

    by scanlon

    My short played a festival where he was guest of honor. I was, of course, the only one at fest who knew Megaforce. And i talked his ear off about it. My fractured narrative, sci fi short couldn't have been more outside his wheelhouse. But he was very encouraging. Dude had lived a crazy life doing some death defying shit. His stunt in Little Big Man jumping from horse to horse on an out of control stage coach is insane.

  • Aug. 29, 2012, 1:21 p.m. CST

    I loved Hooper. Saw it as a Double Feature way back when

    by jim

    (don't remember what the other movie was). Both movies played continuously all day. We stayed after the second movie to watch Hooper again.

  • Where would "The Stunt Man" land? It is at times both cynical and depicting movie making as a blast.

  • Aug. 29, 2012, 1:29 p.m. CST

    Hooper is truely underrated!

    by AMchannelEpicwish@Youtube

    Use to love watching it on VHS as a kid. the set pieces were great and the casual light character interplay and fun of it all stayed with me.

  • Aug. 29, 2012, 1:34 p.m. CST

    I saw Hooper in the theaters. TWICE. In 1978.

    by Adam D. Kline

    I was 7, but goooooooooooooodAMN did I love it.

  • Aug. 29, 2012, 1:38 p.m. CST

    Would Hooper be a good double feature with The Fall?

    by kindofabigdeal

  • Aug. 29, 2012, 1:42 p.m. CST

    "...when peril couldn't be fabricated with CG." It still can't.

    by AlienFanatic

    I know when an actor is in front of a blue screen and when it's a stuntman. And I am far more impressed when it's a stuntman, because I know that there is risk involved and that someone is doing something that requires more moxy than figuring out which hand to hold a stylus in. Ah, the 70's. When men were men, blood came in packets not pixels, and "special effects guy" didn't conjure an image of a pasty, stick-armed dude sitting in front of a giant monitor covered with Anime stickers.

  • Aug. 29, 2012, 1:45 p.m. CST

    Best stuntman movie was Richard Rush's THE STUNTMAN

    by melonman

    Although for a Reynolds shittilla this is way better than STROKER ACE, and I personally prefer it to SMOKEY. BTW if you're going to pay tribute to part-forgotten movies then why not regurge some decent ones like Reynolds' WHITE LIGHTNING say?

  • Aug. 29, 2012, 1:56 p.m. CST

    God do I love this film...got a concussion from it!

    by solitaire

    I used to watch this over and over as a kid when my dad taped it off of HBO. Never got sick of it, and the best part is you can see how much fun EVERYBODY is having making it. The palomino club fight is hysterical fun, as you know 99% of them were stuntmen (including the great, bald Robert Tessier from The Deep) who laughed their way through it and felt appreciated. My favorite part was Jan -Michael Vincent doing the repelling scene in that cool ninja/spider-man suit. One summer afternoon, I felt inspired and ran upstairs, pulled on some black pants, a turtleneck and a skimask and tried to repel off the roof of the house with a garden hose. Fell twenty feet into the shrubs where I exclaimed "Fuck, my head!!!" right in front of our bay window where my parents were entertaining my Dad's christian tight ass boss. Ahhhh, Hooper. You don't get a memory like that from watching Love Story.

  • Aug. 29, 2012, 1:57 p.m. CST

    Hooper

    by Brian Buchanan

    How about the girl coming out of the birthday cake for Rogers b-day? WOW! They asked what should we get Roger for his birthday? James Best says, "How about VD?" Hilarious.

  • Aug. 29, 2012, 1:59 p.m. CST

    Hooper is a classic. Hilarious and cool.

    by Quake II

    Robert Klein- "So it's right here that you'll be jumping over a giant crevice" Burt Reynolds (whispering to Ski and raising his eyebrows)- "Giant crevice" And on a related note, Sharkey's Machine is just as badass now as it was in '82. Cool fucking movie that has more style than 90% of the cop films out today.

  • Aug. 29, 2012, 2 p.m. CST

    MEGAFORCE!!!

    by Sequitur

    had to say it

  • have to drive under a collapsing factory smokestack, just like Hooper!

  • Aug. 29, 2012, 2:23 p.m. CST

    Saw it a hundred times on ONtv back in the day..

    by girugamesh

  • Aug. 29, 2012, 2:38 p.m. CST

    Tearing down that roller coaster was kind of unintentionally, sadly symbolic

    by Jim_Kirks_Crunchy_Delicious_Chair_Apple

    Since Smokey and the Bandit 2 kind of tore down the Smokey franchise. So no one could have fun on that ride again.

  • Aug. 29, 2012, 3:22 p.m. CST

    Hooper is a classic!

    by Cagliostro

    Saw it several times in the theater as a kid. I do believe its on Netflix instant.

  • Aug. 29, 2012, 3:24 p.m. CST

    Hooper

    by Giantfriend

    Hooper was a fun movie. Burt Reynolds was cool, Jan-Michael Vincent was rebel-cool and Sally Field was gorgeous (and still is). Movies were cheap and I must have seen it at least three times. Thanks for the memories!

  • Aug. 29, 2012, 3:24 p.m. CST

    Big Jim

    by alan_poon

    I saw it as a double feature and the other film was either The Driver Or Gator.

  • Aug. 29, 2012, 3:42 p.m. CST

    The Fall Guy was a TV version of Hooper...

    by Bill Clay

    Lee Majors came out with The Fall Guy a couple of years after Hooper's release.<p> I worked in a theater back in '78, so I saw Hooper at least 50 times. Bonus trivia points to anyone who can name the title of the spy movie they were filming in Hooper.

  • Aug. 29, 2012, 4:24 p.m. CST

    Oh shit! HOOPER post. One of the best old school cable flicks.

    by krull rules

    deeds not words

  • Aug. 29, 2012, 4:25 p.m. CST

    The stunt climax from HOOPER

    by palimpsest

    Here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kLokDBOb7-U oh, and Dar Robinson's HIGHPOINT freefall: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-_neYidAwNs&feature=related

  • Aug. 29, 2012, 4:27 p.m. CST

    My kind of trash

    by jimmyJUON

    If Hal Needham was a trash director then I guess that's the kind of trash I like. There is nothing flashy about the camera work or the setups, but never do you wish I could have seen that from another angle. I haven't seen MegaForce in ages but Smokey and the Bandit is so good. Hooper too is one of those seminal flicks for me. And Cannonball Run makes you feel like you are at a cheesy 80's party.

  • Aug. 29, 2012, 4:31 p.m. CST

    Don't forget....

    by Cagliostro

    Hooper was stunting for Adam West.

  • Aug. 29, 2012, 5:03 p.m. CST

    Hooper is Reynold's best film after Boogie Nights!

    by J

  • Aug. 29, 2012, 5:35 p.m. CST

    How about some Burt Reynolds love?...

    by Terry Powell

    ...seriously, back in the 70's, him and Clint were box office kings. Now Clint has made more good films but Reynolds have some as well. Yet, while most of Eastwood's filmography has been released multiple times, Burt's are mostly relagated to to the bargain bin in pan and scans. How about some Burt blurays? Shit, Hooper, White Lightning, Gator, and Sharkey's Machine don't even have widescreen dvds. I've always had a soft spot for Gator(which Reynolds directed). Sure, it's tone is all over the map, but it is at times very funny("Yyeellloowww!) and other times very exciting. Jerry Reed's two henchmen are a hoot(Smiley and Bones) and the final fight between Reynolds and Reed is brutal. And that's Needham who does that amazing jump off the truck right before the fight(he's in the back of the truck, the truck goes over a dune and flips at the same time as he jumps. Maybe it's not so impressive in the days of cgi, but I've always been stunned by that stunt).

  • Aug. 29, 2012, 6:23 p.m. CST

    THis is the last good Needham film....

    by Dan

    Burt was so damn cool in this flick, just a smiling, laughing smart ass. He does get some great dramatic moments out too. A damn fun flick.... Don't bring of Smokey and the Bandit 2- THE WORST SEQUEL----EVER.

  • there was always this vibe of fun going through it. Whether in Smokey, Hooper- hell, Jaws even. Where did that go?

  • Aug. 29, 2012, 6:27 p.m. CST

    The Spy Who Laughed at Danger-----

    by Dan

  • The whole Reynolds persona; the over-masculine good ole' boy is alien in today's soft culture. Am I wrong here?

  • Aug. 29, 2012, 7:23 p.m. CST

    You guys are Rednecks

    by Glenn

    Hate this type of "cinema" -- no respect for camerawork or design. I don't go to the movies to 'have a party', I go to parties for that. "Sharkey's Machine" has one of the dumbest shots I've ever seen in a serious cop drama; they run into a giant room, they run down the length of a planter, with the camera following, then back UP the planter, with the camera following... looked like a kindergartner was directing. "Cannonball Run" -- even Adrienne Barbeau admitted no one knew what the fuck they were doing. Now, Burt in "Deliverance"? Unbeatable. Go on now, get it out of your system: "You don't know how to enjoy life, Rumourd."

  • Aug. 29, 2012, 7:34 p.m. CST

    No one likes "Cannonball Run," asshole@

    by Dan

    If liking Hooper is a redneck, then so be it...cro-mag.

  • Aug. 29, 2012, 7:37 p.m. CST

    http://www.reelholes.com/2012/06/20/622/

    by Dan

  • Aug. 29, 2012, 7:46 p.m. CST

    Smokey One and Hooper had no right being as good as they were.

    by DougMcKenzie

    It might have been RedNeckXploitation, but it was damn entertaining. On the other hand Needham needs to be severely beaten for Megaforce and Stroker Ace. Two of the worst studio made movies ever forced upon a child's eyes. Never to be unseen.

  • Aug. 29, 2012, 7:49 p.m. CST

    Hooper is great!!

    by Wes Kanost

    I love this movie and hope to hell it is out on blu ray soon

  • Aug. 29, 2012, 7:55 p.m. CST

    yep. love these movies...

    by sonnyhooper

    ...in case you didn't know from the screen name. :)

  • Aug. 29, 2012, 7:55 p.m. CST

    Don't forget!...

    by Wes Kanost

    Adam West played a stuck up, pampered, over paid actor in Hooper...basically, he played himself. Hilarious!!

  • No ...what? <p> I would kiss his ass right on Hollywood and Vine.

  • Aug. 29, 2012, 8:01 p.m. CST

    Hooper does hold up really well. "How's my cocus erectus?"

    by Stuntcock Mike

    Magic.

  • Aug. 29, 2012, 8:03 p.m. CST

    KaKa Dancer.......KaKa

    by Stuntcock Mike

  • Aug. 29, 2012, 8:06 p.m. CST

    you oughta drink more. nothing hurts when you're numb

    by sonnyhooper

  • How many car movies with Dom DeLuise can one guy make? Needham isn't solely to blame though, there came a time when Burt just let his mustache and toupee do the acting for him

  • Aug. 29, 2012, 9:39 p.m. CST

    People don't forget his cult favorite "Rad"

    by trumovielover

    Had the priviledge of being an extra in it.

  • Aug. 29, 2012, 9:49 p.m. CST

    If only Burt Reynolds was in Hal Needham's other classic....

    by mister death

    MEGA FORCE !! Dare to dream. I've seen Hooper as a stand alone DVD in the Wal-Mart $5.00 bin. It's where it belongs. The last stunt in the movie is retarded because Needham builds up with all these real looking car stunts ONLY to have Reynold's red Trans Am stunt car radically change with out explanation into rocket powered funny car-looking thing to jump a fallen down bridge. In slow motion no less! That's the kind of crappola car "Shemping" (changing the car's make and model mid action scene because the vehicle can't do what you want or they can't afford to replace it) you see in made-for-TV movies from the 70's. Great idea for a movie with a few funny scenes but over all Hooper... it was shit then and it's shit now. See "The Stunt Man" (1980) it has an evil Peter O'Toole and is far an away a better movie.

  • Aug. 29, 2012, 10:06 p.m. CST

    zodlovesmaude -- how dare you defile the glory that is Megaforce

    by Inexplicable_Nuclear_Balls

    There is so much joy to be found that film. I weep for you. I even send thumb kisses your way.

  • Aug. 29, 2012, 10:28 p.m. CST

    Let it go inexplicable_nuclear_balls ....anyone who hates on Mega Force.

    by mister death

    They like their lousy movies to have a plot that makes sense. Fuck them. I say if you are making it real life, then take a picture. Keep it real. BUT if you're making a post modern piece of modern art that is Mega Force, then coke yourself up as it was worth every penny of it's lost 20 million dollar budget in gold spandex alone! I still have my Mattel Mega Force vehicles. Deeds not words.

  • Aug. 29, 2012, 10:38 p.m. CST

    Hooper was PG with boobs!

    by adam

    I saw it 3 times in the theater when I was 8. Fun dip is good.

  • Aug. 29, 2012, 10:40 p.m. CST

    DANCER CAN COME TO MY NEW MEXICO RANCH ANYTIME!

    by LT Weezie

    Love this movie and still have my Betamax copy (yes there are some of us who embrace the new but maintain the classic). Laffed my head off but every time he has a scene with Dancer...well you kow what they say about animals (forgot the "kids" part---not into them at all). Hope this will make BLU-RAY eventually with lots of extra scenes, bloopers, and commentary! I am ready to order it NOW!

  • shittier and shittier until BLAM! Real chair in the face. Whoops. At least it wasn't a loaded gun. Uh sorry Burt but somebody replaced the balsa wood chair with an oak barstool. Yeah sorry about that Burt. Burt? Ok guys it looks like Burt has his face hanging off by a thread so I'm gonna say it's a wrap for today.

  • Aug. 30, 2012, 12:44 a.m. CST

    Someone, maybe Burt himself, once said...

    by Bill Clay

    These movies (Cannonball Run, etc.) are a vacation to make, and a job to watch.

  • Aug. 30, 2012, 3:07 a.m. CST

    I've never seen Hooper......:(

    by Martin Hogg

    Or White Lightening. Or Gator. I feel Ashamed!!!!!!!

  • Aug. 30, 2012, 6 a.m. CST

    I met Adam West

    by Glenn

    ...when I was a kid, interning on an indie he made called "Mad About You". Bad bad movie. But he was very funny and friendly and the crew seemed to like him especially compared to the Leading Lady. He was looping his lines that day and would 'improv' new vulgar lines in response to hers onscreen.

  • She told me she wanted a special edition but couldn't find one. Told her it was a sin that thus hasn't given any special treatment. Just watched it last night....never gets old. My favorite Burt flick. Even made my fb profile pic the poster for the movie....

  • Aug. 30, 2012, 11:38 a.m. CST

    If you need anyone to salute "Megaforce"...

    by Phimseto

    ...drop me a note. I'm game! Still waiting on a DVD of it!

  • Aug. 30, 2012, 11:42 a.m. CST

    Also, Hooper was one of those movies...

    by Phimseto

    ...that when I was very young, if it showed up on HBO, I was very happy. It's why I hate Stroker Ace so much. Besides not being a good film, it ended up being the new Hooper once it hit the cable rotation. I'd have that momentary "Hooper!" smile before turning into a "Stroker Ace." frown.

  • Got to see Catherine Deneuve on the big screen over and over again. And as gritty cop drama, it wasn't bad.

  • Aug. 30, 2012, 1:28 p.m. CST

    My user name says it all...

    by Megaforce

    I met Barry Bostwick once and talked Megaforce with him; he said they made up most of the script on the way to the set

  • I remember seeing this at the Drive-in...my pops loved it.

  • Aug. 30, 2012, 3:17 p.m. CST

    35MM Hooper just screened in LA with Hal Needham in attendance

    by Dan Simpson

    Just to set the record straight - we held the official 30th anniversary Megaforce event in Los Angeles at the New Beverly in June. We screened rare 35MM prints of both Megaforce and Hooper with Hal Needham in attendance. The show sold out and was a blast. The studios do not have prints of either film available and we had to source collectors prints (which the studios *DID* graciously let us use). Hal Needham had the audience captivated with his charming stories and is a real force of nature. Seeing Hooper in its correct 1:85 aspect ration really makes a difference (as does seeing Megaforce with a full house of like minded people).

  • That line and Persis frigging Khambatta are why I can never hate _Megaforce_. As for _Hooper_...after watching the final scene from it and then turning right around and watching the limo scene in _2012_...yay practical effects!

  • Aug. 30, 2012, 8:55 p.m. CST

    35MM Hooper

    by Gap Toothed TV Boy

    I was in attendance at the sold out show for "Megaforce" and "Hooper", neither film I had seen since I was a kid. Pure magic and I could listen to Mr. Needham speak for hours. I have probably seen "Smokey and the Bandit" more times than any other movie in my life.

  • Aug. 30, 2012, 11:26 p.m. CST

    The End

    by MST3KPIMP

    recently saw this movie Burt directed. surprisingly funny and well done.