Titan Books is having one heck of a summer. They’ve sent me a stack of books in the past month and I’m doing my eyeball-drying best to finish them all so I can review them for CHUD.
But if you twisted my arm and asked me which one you guys would really, really dig, I’m going to have to say it would be The True Adventures of the World’s Greatest Stuntman.
Vic Armstrong is the stuntman, stunt coordinator, and second unit director behind many of our most beloved movies. His big screen career kicked off in 1966 with Arabesque, and he would go on to do stunts in the most iconic films of the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s: Superman, Flash Gordon, An American Werewolf in London, Never Say Never Again, Blade Runner, Return of the Jedi, the Indiana Jones trilogy, Total Recall.
Most recently, he was the second unit director / stunt coordinator on Thor, and he’s currently working on The Amazing Spider-Man as we speak.
Mr. Armstrong has had an exciting and enviable career, and his book is a funny, thrilling, insightful and maddening look into the dirty and dangerous work that makes a movie so damn exciting. I can’t wait to finish it and tell you all about it. But in the meantime, Titan Books has been gracious enough to give CHUD an exclusive excerpt. Read, enjoy, and watch this space for more on Mr. Armstrong and World’s Greatest Stuntman.
I was still on Total Recall in Mexico when I got the call about Air America and was asked if I could get to LA to meet the director Roger Spottiswoode. I flew up for a weekend and we talked about the movie and he said, ‘I thought looking at your credits you were a much older guy. At least you could have sprayed your hair grey!’ Then, as I was about to leave he said, ‘Excuse me Vic, I want to ask you about one of your crewmembers.’ ‘Oh fuck,’ I thought. He said, ‘We’ve got an actor that’s been recommended for this film, but I’ve heard some strange things about him, what do you know?’ And he mentioned this guy’s name; he was playing one of the smaller roles on Total Recall and he was an absolute pain in the arse, useless, a complete jerk-off. I went, ‘Uh-uh.’ And he went, ‘Hmmm.’ And that was it, I left. Suffice to say, that guy did not get cast.
There were more problems to follow on Air America. The movie starred Mel Gibson and Robert Downey Jr, and was about pilots recruited into a covert and corrupt CIA airlift organisation operating in Laos during the Vietnam war. I’d never worked with Mel before but I’d met him, and got on really well. In all my dealings with him he’s never been anything other than a really nice bloke. When Mel was in England filming Hamlet, he came to the house and we taught him to ride; well, Wendy did most of the teaching. It was quite funny because he was hurting his balls when he was riding, so Wendy had to go out and buy him a jockstrap. She told the woman in the sports shop, ‘You’re never going to believe it, but I’m buying this for Mel Gibson.’ The woman immediately said, ‘Oooh, can we have it when he’s finished with it?’ Even a few years later in LA when he asked me to do Braveheart, Mel was still joking abut it, the cheeky bastard: ‘Your jockstraps weren’t big enough for me Vic, I had to send your wife out to buy me new ones.’
At the time of Air America his wife was expecting, and Mel had her flown over to have the baby in Thailand. She stayed in Chiang Mai while the rest of us were filming up country in Mae Hong Son, so Mel had a Huey helicopter to fly him back to see her. And it was always an open invitation: ‘Vic,’ he’d say, ‘if you or any of the boys want to come back, you’re welcome to jump in.’
Before I got out to Thailand I had calls about Mel’s regular stunt double, Mic Rodgers, who wanted to work alongside me as co-ordinator. I told them no way. During my career whenever I was on a show I’d always give somebody a unit to co-ordinate, so later in life they can go onto a job and say, I was one of the co-ordinators on Total Recall or Henry V or whatever. But this guy, I just didn’t like the way he was saying that he wanted to be co-ordinator. That was my job, and I was directing the second unit. ‘He’s more than welcome to work on the movie,’ I said, ‘but no co-ordinating credit, end of story.’
I got out to Thailand with my crew and started organising everything. Then I got a call that Mic Rodgers was coming out. Great, OK. He arrived on a Saturday and we met in the hotel that night. ‘Hi Mic, how are you doing?’ ‘Yeah, fine,’ he said bluntly. He’s not the most personable person. ‘Welcome aboard,’ I continued. ‘Come and meet the gang, we’re all going out to eat.’ He said, ‘I’m going to meet Mel tonight. I’ve got a few things to discuss.’ I said, ‘OK. Big deal. As if I give a damn. I’ll be out of here tomorrow if that’s what they want.’ So Mic went off to meet Mel and come Monday I said, ‘Where’s Mic? Is he coming out today?’ They said, ‘No, he’s on the plane. He left last night.’ Mel had obviously told him, no, Vic doesn’t want it and that’s the way it is. I’d said he was welcome to stay on and double Mel, but he’d left. Anyway, Mic went on to good things; he stayed with Mel and started directing second units.
Robert Downey Jr was terrific. He had a minder with him and a trainer, and trained every day. He was off the drugs and straight, and was such a sweet lad. He and I actually nearly died together on that picture. We were in Chiang Mai and I’d shot a sequence in which Downey’s character is drunk and they tie him to a rope under a helicopter and Mel swings him over the rooftops, past monasteries and stuff. Dickey Beer was doubling for Downey. To get the close-up shots we needed of Downey hanging on this rope, we got a Huey helicopter and built a scaffolding cage out the side, with a little seat in it for Downey. The camera was in the Huey looking out, not seeing the scaffolding that’s all around Downey; just looking at him holding this rope.
I was sitting in the front watching a monitor, and Dave Paris was our pilot. He was trying to do a flat spin but this helicopter kept juddering, it just wouldn’t come round. ‘That’s really strange,’ he said. ‘Let’s try it the other way.’ It did it again. ‘OK, let’s try it back the other way.’ Occasionally I’d take my eyes off the monitor and look out of the windshield to see how things were. I looked up this time and all I could see were rooftops coming straight at us. We were in a vertical dive and pulled away with inches to spare… Everybody at the airfield was watching as we disappeared below the rooftops of the houses, just waiting for the plume of smoke to come up. Inside I held my breath as the helicopter tipped downwards, skimmed over the tops of the houses, and came back up.
I’ve been in situations like this before with a pilot when there’s almost been a fatal accident, you just let them calm down in their own time. Dave parked the helicopter, shut the engine down and walked off down the tarmac, getting his head into gear. My camera team piled out as white as ghosts. Robert Downey just said, ‘What’s going on Vic?’ He was completely oblivious to it all, bless him. ‘It’s fine Bob,’ I said. ‘Just a little malfunction.’ Dave Paris returned, having cooled down. ‘What the hell was that?’ I asked. ‘We had what is called a rotor stall, Vic.’ ‘What do you mean a rotor stall?’ I said. You imagine that if the rotor stalls then it stops stone dead. In this case it was still spinning but not getting any air lifting over the blade; the only way to get more air flow over it was to dive the chopper and get more speed, but we weren’t very high up, only 80 feet. Luckily Dave knew instantly what the problem was, slung the nose down, dropped and got just enough speed to pull us out in time. ‘Jesus,’ I said. ‘I thought we were going to hit those telegraph wires across the houses.’ But Dave was actually aiming for the wires, because being a military helicopter the Huey had a cheese cutter on the front that could cut through them. ‘I was just worried about hitting the roofs,’ he said. So was I! But this is why we have professionals flying for us: Dave knew instantly what to do to get us out of trouble.