Hal Needham, probably the greatest stuntman who ever lived, died today at the age of 82. Needham changed everything about Hollywood stuntwork, and when he was done doing that, he made some of the most entertaining movies of all time. SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT was his first time out as a director, but he learned every lesson that Hollywood filmmakers could give him, having worked with so many of the great directors during his long, illustrious career as a stuntman. The resulting film is one of the best films of the 1970s - tight as a drum, enjoyable as hell, and featuring Burt Reynolds in his most iconic role as Bo "Bandit" Darville. There are very few films, pound for pound, that are as flat-out fun as SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT. It's a masterwork of directing and stuntwork, and it's all due to Hal Needham, who made movies for everyone, young and old, who ever wanted to stick it to the man and drink some ice cold Coors beer (preferably brought from over the state lines) while doing it.
It's difficult to believe today that SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT almost didn't happen, that it would be any kind of risk for a studio, but Universal balked at the budget and trimmed it by $1 million days before shooting started. Undeterred, Needham revised his schedule and made it happen. From his long years working as one of the highest paid stuntmen in Hollywood, Needham knew how to change things up on the fly. He invented hardware to help him, including a revolutionary new way to film car chases that was safe but visually stunning. It's interesting looking at IMDB at his career, there's so many (stunts - uncredited) listed among the many, many movies he's worked on, and it's a shame that even today, stuntpeople are treated as inferior filmmakers, when so many of the greatest scenes in movie history would not have been possible without them. Especially for Hal Needham, who paid for all the work he did with broken bones (including his back, twice), and critical disdain for the films he directed. He was even a paratrooper during the Korean War. The man had absolutely no fear.
Well, here's a bit of critical thinking for you - Hal Needham, with SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT, created one of the rarest of movies at the time - perhaps the first post-racial action movie. All races, colors, creeds, backgrounds, faiths - all of them came together to help Bandit win, and stuck it to a couple of moronic ignorant redneck cops in the bargain. The Bandit made no judgments. He just lived to have a good time, and to bring everyone together, and while critics at the time turned their noses up at Needham's films, it's undeniable that they stand the test of time. Although Needham orchestrated some of the most impressive stunt sequences at the time, he also got wonderful performances from his actors. Jackie Gleason is pure joy to watch in SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT. So's Burt Reynolds, Sally Field, and Jerry Reed - STAR WARS may have captured the audience's imagination, but just imagine a world where STAR WARS didn't exist. I imagine instead of wondering if Harrison Ford or Mark Hamill or Carrie Fisher will be returning to their iconic roles, we would be pestering Needham for Reynolds to get behind the wheel of that old black Firebird again.
So many filmmakers owe a huge debt to Needham - from the JACKASS crew to THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS filmmakers, to every big-budget extravaganza made since SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT in 1977. Lucas and Spielberg are the wunderkind duo that keep getting mentioned as coming out of the 1970s, but Hal Needham deserves a place along with them. And Needham wasn't a one-trick pony either - HOOPER is one of the finest Burt Reynolds movies ever made, and it's sad that it seems to have slipped through the cracks a bit. THE VILLAIN is pure live-action Looney Tunes, with a deliciously fun performance by Kirk Douglas, and Arnold Schwarzenegger wouldn't be as common a household name had Needham not put him in his film. How about MEGAFORCE, one of the most fun science fiction films of 1982 (a hell of a year already)? The comedic CANNONBALL RUN movies? STROKER ACE? Needham made movies for the masses.
We here at Ain't It Cool News are deeply saddened at the death of Hal Needham, and offer our condolences to his family and friends. When Jerry Reed sang, "We gonna do what they say can't be done," he might as well been singing about Hal Needham's life. When they told Needham he couldn't direct, couldn't make the movies he wanted to make, couldn't change the industry, well, he simply gritted his teeth and went to work. And along the way, he created sheer movie magic. And when Hal arrived in Heaven today, he told God, "Give me a Diablo Sandwich, a Dr. Pepper, and make it quick. I'm in a goddamn hurry."