Hal Needham, who directed the films Smokey and the Bandit and a number of other films featuring actor Burt Reynolds has died. But long before he first sat in the director’s chair of a feature film, he was one of the best known stuntmen in the television and movie industry. Needham did stunts, stunt coordination or 2nd unit director duties for more than 4,500 episodes of TV shows and 310 feature films.
Before coming to Hollywood to get into the entertainment industry, Hal Needham was a paratrooper during the Korean War. He got his start doing stunts in television and one of his lesser known credits is for being the stunt double for Lieutenant Commander Gary Mitchell in the 2nd pilot shot for the original Star Trek series. He broke his back twice, fractured 56 bones and lost more than a couple of teeth doing some amazing stunts.
In 1963 he did a few episodes of “Gunsmoke” for CBS and that’s where he became friends with the actor he was “doubling” for, Burt Reynolds. In fact, Needham lived rent-free for more than a decade in the Los Angeles area home of Reynolds. He showed Reynolds a script that he’d written titled Smokey and the Bandit. Needham’s original vision had been to make the movie on a limited budget and have country/western singer Jerry Reed star as “The Bandit” but Reynolds liked the script and said he would star in it. Universal put up $5.3 million but cut $1 million from the budget just before production was to begin. The final product that brought in over $100 million in box office was a reworking of the script on the last day before they started shooting.
The success of the movie led to the immediate “green light” for Hooper, a tribute to stuntmen. Both Needham and Reynolds had done stunts and the film is loosely based on the actual exploits of Needham. While it didn’t do as well as Smokey and the Bandit at the box office, it was still one of the year’s top 10 box office hits. Hooper was also one of the earliest uses of the blooper reel credit crawl, where outtakes from filming that are amusing or otherwise interesting show on screen as the film’s closing credits move up the screen.
The duo of Reynolds as star and Needham as director continued to churn out hits during the early 1980s and their 1981 movie The Cannonball Run finished 6th in the 1981 box office totals. Needham directed an action adventure titled Megaforce that Reynolds did not appear in. It was released in 1982 and did not do well. His next two films were collaborations with Reynolds titled Stroker Ace and Cannonball Run II. Both were savaged by critics and did very poorly at the box office. The second Cannonball movie was the last big screen appearance for both Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra, and was also the last film in which those two appeared with their “Rat Pack” cronies Sammy Davis Jr and Shirley MacLaine. Needham went on to direct two more feature films and then went into making movies for television.
He received a scientific and engineering Oscar in 1987 and a Governor’s Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. He was also a three-time nominee for a Razzie Award.