Mark Hall Interviews Dave Sharpe in 1973
Dave's comments and responses are in THIS COLOR.
If Dave Sharpe were just another veteran stuntman, his story might not rate more than a paragraph or two in the history of Hollywood. But Dave was unique. In a time when we honored John Wayne for appearing in 200 films and applaud when we're told a director has made 50 movies, the 67 year old stuntman said he lost count of his film appearances after around 4,500. That's right! Not 450, but 4,500.
"When Shana Alexander interviewed me for Life magazine in 1952, she gave up after 4,000. At one time or another, I've worked for every studio in Hollywood, for almost every director with most of the actors and actresses" remembered Sharpe.
His record, which surely must qualify for the Guinness Book of Records under "Most Movie Appearances," spanned more than a half-century of movie making from crude Keystone Kops one reelers, to, the special effects blockbuster TOWERING INFERNO. A Dave Sharpe Film Festival would take 24 hours-a-day for six months to show all of the films he has made.
Stuntman. The word conjures images of bully-big men, muscles bulging from every pore, daring death and injury for the thrill of challenging the unknown. If this were your fantasy, meeting Dave would be a disappointment.
Slight of build, he was only about 5' 7"; slim rather than stocky; more of an acrobat than a weight lifter. He looked ordinary enough, not someone who leaped from burning buildings, tumbled from horses and crashed through windows for a living. Once you recovered from the shock of truth, it is easy to see that Dave's success depended on something other than pure strength and muscle size.
His hair is streaked grey with 57 years of movie experience, but it's easy to imagine away the decades and see a man whose handsome features rivaled the movie stars he helped create during his long career which began in 1920, three years after Birth of a Nation. While America prepared for World War I, Dave was getting bit kid parts because of his extraordinary gymnastic ability.
"I was eight or nine and a natural at tumbling (he won the 1925 and 1926 U.S. Tumbling Championships). I was seeing acrobats and vaudeville and going wild. A member of the Los Angeles Athletic Club sponsored me to train under the Club's coach. The place was a favorite Hollywood hangout for Jack Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin, and others. So if one of them was doing a picture with a little kid, or little girl, or an old lady who had to fall, they'd say 'hey get the kid down in the gym'. Mother would take me to the studio, I'd do my bit and leave. I wasn't terribly impressed."
Dave might not have been impressed, but Fairbanks was. He hired the youngster for ROBIN HOOD (1922) and THIEF OF BAGHDAD (1924) and, more importantly, taught him gymnastic routines that helped Dave become the specialist in acrobatic leaps, falls from horses, high dives, and other stunts demanding tumbling skill.
"Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. had seen me at the club and wanted me for a shot while he's jousting the Black Knight in the 1922 version. He wanted three kids in their jerkins and feather hats getting a free peak at this battle."
His eyes lit up in the soft glow of the pleasant memory of so long ago. "There's three of us in the limb of this tree and I'm in the middle. When Fairbanks wins I'm supposed to over-react and I go WEEE and it looks like I fell out of the tree, but instead I hooked my knees and came around to a seat again. He taught me that stunt."
Dave was involved with action routines from the beginning. He was soon a regular performer in many large and small productions whenever the script called for someone small with acrobatic ability. One week would be SCARAMOUCHE with Ramon Navarro; the next, a bit in an Our Gang comedy.
"I doubled the grandmother, Mrs. Gray, and in-between shots taught Mickey Daniels, the red-haired, freckle-faced kid, how to play hockey and ice skate."
As Dave grew older, his teenage career began to include small acting parts and even a starring role in a Hal Roach comedy series, The Boy Friends, directed by George Stevens, Sr.; also on the first rung of a long Hollywood tenure.
The Depression struck the Hal Roach studios in 1931 and the fledgling star found himself digging a W.P.A. ditch for $3.20 a day in front of the studio gates. Then, in a twist that sounds like a B-movie plot, he got a call from Harold Lloyd.
"He wanted me to double him. That's why my hair grows so strangely here." He outlined the high curve of his hair over his eyebrows. "I shaved it for years to match Lloyd." Dave is reluctant to discuss the details of his work for Lloyd.
"He was one of my favorites. He was in a class by himself. In those days," he said, "I never would have done an interview on my work as a stunt man. We just didn't talk about such things. We worked hard to maintain the mystery and fantasy in the movies we made."
Part of Lloyd's reputation comes from the deft way he mixed comedy with daring stunts like his "human fly" gag in SAFETY LAST (1923) which climaxed in Lloyd hanging dangerously from the hands of a giant clock high above the street. None of the many books and articles about the silent comic mention a stunt double.
"Lloyd did some stunts, he was a great athlete, but even in those days people were smart enough to not throw a million dollars out the window in the middle of a picture if the star got hurt."
Uncomfortable about recounting the details of the stunt, Dave said Lloyd was in those shots where there was no clear relationship between the actual clock and the street far below. The long shots were doubled by famous stunt man Harvey Perry.
"There was no question, no argument when Perry was suggested. Lloyd was capable of it, believe me, but it was his money and he was aware of that like anyone else." It was this need to protect the star that led to the rise of stunt work as a vital part of film making.
Financial disaster would result if one of them were hurt before the film was finished. All of the great action performers such as John Wayne, Gary Cooper, James Stewart and Henry Fonda inflated their reputation with the artistry of stunt people falling from horses; being hit by cars, jumping from buildings, crashing airplanes and brawling in saloons.
In the silent days, stunt work was more a case of macho bravo than science. Dave was almost alone in his insistence upon planning and careful study before executing a stunt.
"When I was a little boy it was almost an honor among stuntmen to break something. There was a daredevil element for a long time. They'd duck behind the set, belt a couple, say three 'Hail Mary's' and jump. If there was enough money in it, they'd do it. A lot of them never made it through the second reel."
Dave is the only stuntman to make as many films as he has without suffering a major injury. "Sure, I've had my share of cuts and bruises. But I have never broken anything that has put me in the hospital."
He sees no sense in killing himself. "I plan everything. I don't want to die ... it's as simple as that. I have the ability to plan my stunts backwards. The director shows me what he wants and I figure what I have to do to get the results."
For years, the diminutive master of the fall and tumble was considered a "sissy" by fellow stuntmen. "If I was wearing a dress or a suit and I had to do a very rough fall, I thought nothing of putting on knee and shoulder pads to get the maximum effect with the minimum of hazard. The audience couldn't see the protection, so why take a chance?"
"Taking a chance" to Dave doesn't refer to the stunts he performed; only to his insistence on proper safety precautions.
Dave works best by himself. You get the impression he trusts no one; and who can blame him. Looking down from a 60-foot cliff onto a postage-stamp small pad that is supposed to protect him; there is no room for trusting others. He personally checks every aspect of the stunt before he agrees to begin.
"I've survived longer than anyone else" he insists. "I must be doing something right." There is no arguing with the evidence he offers.
In his more philosophical moods, Dave often wonders why he has lived as long as he has. "I have been in more dangerous situations than any person alive. Yet, I still live ..."
"I was working as Second Unit Director on MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (1949). We were shooting some action stuff on a nightclub set which featured lions, tigers, elephants, and apes in cages around the table area. We had trained lions to run from one side of the set to the other. One of them broke loose, jumped onto the top of his cage and grabbed the trainer by the throat. I was in the camera cage. I pushed the iron door open, raced across the set and punched the lion in the face. I guess I shocked him so badly he let go, turned tail and ran into his cage."
Dave was the principle stuntman for Tony Curtis during the action-phase of Curtis' career. In films such as BLACK SHIELD OF FALSWORTH, THE VIKINGS and others, Sharpe's appearance and movement closely matched the actor's which made it easier to maintain the illusion.
The relationship led to the team getting together for THE GREAT RACE (1965) in which Dave created one of his finest stunts. He was called upon by director Blake Edwards to double the "Mad Baron," Curtis' archrival, who mistakes a window in a high castle tower for the door.
Shouting, "A wise man once said 'He who runs away lives to fight another day," he dashes through what he thinks is the doorway. As the long shot from the outside reveals, however, he lunges out the window feet first and crashes through his waiting boat in the moat below, just missing his accomplice at the oars.
"We actually did the stunt twice. The first time was at a castle in Austria. The water in the moat was only three and a half feet deep. But it was muddy on the bottom, and I thought I could get through it with a few inventions I had."
With a nonchalant toss of his head as if to ask why anyone would be interested in such trivial matters, he added, "so we staged it one afternoon and got it right on the first take."
If the shot wasn't impressive enough, Dave returned to Hollywood a few weeks later and ran into Edwards who said the gag looked great, but it might be even better if it were a dive rather than a jump.
"So they took the biggest stage at Warner Brothers, the one that used to be an indoor skating rink and swimming pool, filled it with water and rebuilt the exterior of the castle alongside to exactly match the Austrian location. It may have looked the same, but I designed it so there was a greater depth right under the boat so I could dive. I told Blake we were ready after days of planning and construction. He came in, covered it with a lot of cameras from different angles. I did my dive and that's the shot they used in the picture."
Blake Edwards isn't the only director Dave has worked with as a stuntman or 2nd Unit director. John Ford, Howard Hawks, Raoul Walsh, Orson Welles, William Wellman, Frank Capra are just a few who benefited from his action artistry.
Dave's stunt work raises some interesting questions for those film critics who insist on giving a director total credit for the impact and quality of a movie.
"When I worked for Orson Welles on TOUCH OF EVIL (1958) he took a liking to me because of my work on his MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS and gave me carte blanche. He'd have an idea and ask me, 'How do you think we should do it?' because I was only repeating what I had done five hundred times before. Only the bar was painted different; the people weren't the same; the mirror was round instead of square. But it was the same gag. He was an artist and treated me like one."
During the height of the studio era in the 30's and 40's, the top Hollywood stuntmen who never numbered more than 25 or 30, worked as an autonomous unit. The experts in stuntwork moved from studio to studio whenever their talents were demanded. They normally worked directly for the 2nd Unit director who often was a fellow stuntman like Yakima Canutt or a favorite "B" action picture director like Breezy Eason or Spencer Gordon Bennet. Once the routine was outlined by Ford, Hawks, or Walsh, the stunt group shot the action which were intercut with the dialogue scenes controlled by the "name" director.
Because of their sophisticated understanding of stunt work and their ability to shoot quickly and economically, Second Unite directors often had more control of their footage than the 1st unit director.
"Guys like Yak, Breezy, or Richard Talmadge were so prominent and so much in demand that a picture would be held back until they were available. Their contracts gave them total control. Once they had their conferences with the director, the art director, production, it was totally theirs."
"They could get these astounding salaries and right to final cut because in their own field they were directors. Bennett might do a 2nd unit for MGM or Breeze for Warner's and get a fabulous salary; but as a 2nd unit director. Then they go right back to Poverty Row, Gower Gulch, but at least as a 1st Director. The majors would take them on as experts. There was actually two directors on the picture. One, like Breezy, shooting the action and the other the dialogue."
When Dave stunted in work on PRINCE VALIANT (1954) directed by Henry Hathaway, he worked for Richard Talmadge. "No matter what I did, Hathaway didn't have a choice whatsoever. I was working for Talmadge. Solely and absolutely. As long as I satisfied him, the studio was happy."
Even though stuntmen found steady work at M.G.M., 20th Century-Fox, Warners, and Paramount, action films were not a primary product for the major companies. They specialized in material which displayed the personalities and acting abilities of their stars. It was left to the independents to emphasize action over acting in hundreds of quickly made, cheaply financed westerns and serials which represented months of steady employment for the stunt colony.
Working at Republic, Monogram, Mascot, and PRC among others, horse falls, fist fights, and leg drags became as routine as bolting on fenders in an auto plant. Some days Dave did stunts in five different movies."I never did find out the names of most of them. All I knew was that they wanted a horse fall, or a stage coach transfer, or a fist fight."
Most of the time even the producer didn't know the name of the star Dave was doubling. They'd shoot him doing a gag for an actor that hadn't been cast yet. Then they'd pick one to match Dave's height and general physical appearance.
"One of the producers had our heights penciled on his office wall so he could see if an actor was acceptable" Dave said. "We worked very fast and did so many stunts in one day, I can't remember the details. On a western serial like RED RYDER, God, I might do a couple of Running W's, three bulldogs and four horse falls before lunch."
"Thats the big difference for a young fellow today" Dave said regrettably. "If he's asked to do a horse transfer (jumping from one horse to another at dead run) it's probably the first time he has done it. When we were working for every company in the business, and they're making westerns, we might do four of them in a week. Well, it gets pretty routine. Our biggest problem was that we'd be on the same set so often, only dressed differently, we'd run out of different ways to stage the gags. Routine number six or number two? A right hand punch to the chin is a right hand punch to the chin."
The steady stream of quickie westerns and serials provided stuntpeople with the practice an artist needs to become an accomplished master. Even though smaller studios didn't pay as much as the big operations across town, "sometimes I got $5 for a horse fall", they were an excellent training ground to perfect the timing and precision required for a perfect stunt.
Their work in Poverty Row films didn't bar stuntmen from the majors since unlike actors, their identity was never known; not even the credits include their name or mention of their contribution.
"It was tradition never to discuss our work with outsiders. It was fun to have little kids think that Ramon Navarro actually drove a chariot in BEN HUR (1926). The whole thing was based on mystery. If I was doubling a star and we were both in the same costume, I avoided being near him away from the set. We all did it."
This anonymity gave stuntpeople a freedom stars could never achieve. They moved freely from one end of Hollywood to the other and their work livened up thousands of movies from both the major and minor studios. Regardless of the studio trademark on the movie, the action sequences were created by the same small group of experts.
At times, the pace was exhausting. In 1939 Dave was working at Universal on a now forgotten serial when a call came from RKO. Production was beginning on THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME with Charles Laughton. The script called for extensive stuntwork during Laughton's maniacal defense of his bell tower and other gags throughout the lavish recreation of one of Hollywood's favorite stories.
"RKO wanted us so badly they agreed to let us fit the film around our commitment to Universal. No matter when we finished shooting we dashed to the RKO ranch where the tower scene was built."
Because the stuntpeople were paid in cash and often worked till well after bankers' hours, Dave and his companion often carried twenty or thirty thousand dollars from studio to studio.
"We'd take turns driving our cars out to the ranch. We'd stagger out there all hours of the day. We'd never get any proper food. We never slept. They had a huge tent they used for wardrobe. We'd send a couple of fellows in costumes on the set and let the production man know that someone was there. If they said they needed something done, one of the guys would run like the devil, roust the rest of us who were sleeping on piles of costumes and we'd get the job done. Then we'd switch and they'd rest while we stood around. We did gags when we didn't even know we were awake at three or four o'clock in the morning."
There have been millions of words written emphasizing the importance of the director. Yet, according to Dave, it was the stuntpeople to a large degree who controlled the daily production schedule posted by both major and minor studios.
"There was a time (the 30's and 40's) when the stuntmen ran this business. Ran it because the directors understood their value, trusted them, kept them busy all the time and literally turned over entire phases of movies to them. It gave us a monopoly. There were about 15 of us making all the big dough who had control of it. Because of our contacts, because of the faith of the companies and directors. It was a closed shop. A new kid couldn't break into the ranks. The casting office would just laugh them in the face. The stuntmen were close personal friends with most of the directors, producers, and second unit men. They knew what we could do --- they knew as much about our work as we did. We never had any trouble with directors like Capra, Ford, Wellman, Hawks, and so forth."
During the halcyon days in Hollywood, the stuntpeople moved easily between studios, while actors and actresses had great difficulty appearing in another company's production.
"If I was working at Monogram or Republic and MGM gave me a call, it was perfectly all right for me to substitute one of my fellows and everyone knew he would be a perfect alternative; the right size, the correct performance. Even when I had a contract, there was never an argument ... they knew I'd make it up to them."
Since Dave and his fellow stuntmen performed practically all the action when 20th Century-Fox, MGM, Warner, Paramount, and Columbia made movies which called for stunt action, the studios learned to rely on him and the others.
"BEN HUR (1959) for example. A marvelous picture, well done, terribly long. But if it hadn't been for the eighteen minute chariot race, they might as well have thrown the picture out the window. And that eighteen minutes wasn't done by the Director William Wyler and the actors that made the rest of the movie, it was done by Yakima Canutt and Glenn Randall and the stunt men."
Watch BEN HUR or other action films from the major studios and it's obvious that those scenes featuring stunt work have a vitality and enthusiasm often lacking in the rest of the footage. Those scenes in which Dave, Yakima and the others are performing are simply more expensive versions of their work for Republic, Mascot, Monogram and the other makers of quick westerns, serials, and adventure films.
In large action spectaculars such as THEY DIED WITH THEIR BOOTS ON, GUNGA DIN, BENGAL LANCERS, and countless others, nine out of ten workers on the second unit were veterans of Poverty Row.
When the majors first became interested in making action pictures, they relied on their casting offices to locate stuntmen. This proved to be a mistake. Horse falls, fist fights,and other standard bits in the stuntman's bag of tricks turned out to be funny, not serious, when the dailies were examined.
"They'd found too many aunts and uncles doing stunts who were incapable. I got called in and they'd me, 'Why the hell does that stunt look so funny when that thing I saw you do for Republic looked so great? Same stunt, same gag. But for MGM it fell flat, while for Republic it had the lightness of a well-made souffle."
Soon the majors realized the importance of hiring from the back lots at Monogram, Mascot, and Republic. "When the majors had a giant action picture, that was the heyday for all of the real cowboys and all of the stuntmen because it was a pot of gold. Going to work at MGM was a new world compared to Republic. The difference between a Rolls Royce and a Ford."
"When Yak and I and the others were in our heyday we never had a worry in the world because there were so many major and little B shows. We'd work one day on a picture like STAGECOACH and turn right around and work for Monogram or Mascot on a little five-day western. We'd do gags for Sam Katzman at Columbia or on the backlot at Republic that would cost MGM or Warner five times as much. But half a loaf is better than none, so we'd do things for the little fellows and give them a break. This meant anytime I had a few days off I'd call one of these guys and I was hired immediately for whatever western or serial they had going."
"And this is why you very often saw in the westerns shot at Republic, in the back lot at Universal, for Monogram, or Mascot, some of the best action in the world. It was done by the same guys who were winning Academy Awards over at Warners and MGM."
A look through the record-setting list of Sharpe's screen credits, shows that the bulk of his work, and that of the other stuntmen, was in the never-ending stream of westerns which poured forth with the regularity of a weekly television series. And, like present-day production companies who survive serving the needs of network programmers, the independent studios made a living by creating highly predictable, cheaply filmed westerns for eager small-town audiences.
The arrival of the latest adventure of Wild Bill Elliot, Hopalong Cassidy, the Range Busters, Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Johnny Mack Brown, Hoot Gibson, Tex Ritter, Tom Mix, and other sagebrush heroes, was a welcome event for fans wanting plenty of riding, roping, shooting, and wild brawls at regular intervals throughout the sixty to seventy minute films.
The producers that survived the rigors of Poverty Row did so because of business cunning, not film artistry. Often crowded three to a ten-by-ten walkup office, the president/owners of such studios as William Berke, Astor and Commodore would conduct their daily business affairs while strolling the streets of Gower Gulch.
"Many a business deal was made over the fireplug at the corner of Sunset and Gower. The producer would spend the whole day in town while we were shooting on location trying to get enough money together to pay off the extra people that night. They'd have just enough money to get the picture started."
This same overriding concern with cost control forced the production crews to the limits of their creativity in squeezing as much footage as possible out of every dollar budgeted. Their directors, actors, and technicians became masters at the quick set-up.
"We often averaged 100 different camera set-ups in one day's shooting. Today, directors are fortunate if they can complete a dozen set-ups in the same time." Because the unions had not yet rigidly defined the duties and responsibilities of the crew members, everyone involved with the shooting pitched in to position lights, build sets, move props, or rig special effects.
"Those crews were geniuses. They knew their business. And they weren't afraid to bend the rules to save a dollar. We were using the Beverly Hills City Hall as a palace for a Hal Roach comedy two-reeler. We didn't have a permit or anything. We just put a propman inside and I came zooming up the steps on a motorcycle. I was on my way to break up the marriage of my girl friend to the heavy. So I roared up the steps. The propman opened the door. Inside I spun the motorcycle around and came out and bounced down the stairs. The camera was in the truck recording the entire scene and we got away clean before anyone realized what we had done."
Dave remembers the 30's fondly as the "gypsy days" of his career. They were all a bunch of kids having a good time making movies and stealing shots under the nose of the authorities without bothering for the proper permits which added a dash of zest and excitement to the daily production grind.
Universal, Columbia, Republic, Monogram, Mascot. They all subscribed to the same survival techniques necessitated by the lack of money. Decades before hand-held camera work became artistically acceptable, a single 35mm Nemo and a couple of sunlight reflectors was all the equipment used to grab a quick fight or chase in an isolated rock pit, along a deserted country road or an unguarded gas company installation.
"We had some great stars and some great directors because it was constant improvising; fighting for your life to get something done" Sharpe said.
Most of the two-reel comedies were begun with little more than a rough story outline. The plot and action details were filled in during the actual shooting. "If we had a scene that called for a roadside restaurant, we didn't go out on the back lot. We didn't have one. We went out and for two bucks we talked some restaurant owner into the use of his place for a couple of hours and built the story around what was available in the diner."
Occasionally a disaster would mean a complete script rewrite. Robert Tansey, a director Dave considers an overlooked genius, was directing one of countless westerns for Mascot when the hero of the film was killed during a chase sequence because he forgot to duck as he rode under a lowhanging branch. "Tansey skipped lunch, went off by himself and came back with a new script that accommodated the disappearance of the lead and we went right on with the picture." (See Webmaster's note at the bottom of this page for some additional info on this.)
Echoing a cynicism often expressed by other veterans of the 30's and 40's, Dave is particularly annoyed with many modern directors who he feels have no awareness of the skill and artistry required of a competent, professional stuntperson.
"They don't realize that when we are going to fall off a six story building, we require a little more than a damp Kleenex. It's not because they're sadistic or maniacal; they just don't know any better. It never occurred to them when they saw a body fall in a film and drop behind a rock or a wagon, that there was something more than a pillow to land on."
Dave remembered the problems he saw watching a recent director at work. He was speaking of Mel Brooks shooting BLAZING SADDLES. "He's very funny, very successful, but he just doesn't know anything about the stunt business. The leading man runs out of a cabin and jumps on his horse. Instead of setting it up so the hero runs downhill, he shot it so the poor guy has to run a quarter mile uphill and can't even reach the horn much less the stirrup when he finally gets there."
Dave was hired for a horse drag which was part of a major action scene. The script called for him to be pulled by a rope around his ankle attached to the saddle horn of a runaway horse. With a director like John Ford, Howard Hawks, or Breezy Eason, Dave would have discussed the details of the gag. Dealing with "the new breed" was a different matter.
"It was obvious he didn't know how it was done or that it required any sort of preparation or special equipment. It came down to how can I get the job done without killing myself." While working on another modern western, the entire crew waited for six, seven, eight hours while the director and his star revised the script.
"That could never happen on a serial. The script was our bible. It allowed us to be totally prepared and shoot fast on location with a minimum of wasted time." "It's not only the directors that have changed says Dave. "It's the whole atmosphere on the set.
"When we worked in the 30's everyone paid attention. Nobody played cards behind the set or in a dressing room. Today people on the set disappear for hours. They're out at the coffee truck, shooting craps in one of the mobile dressing rooms or playing gin rummy. In the Hollywood that I loved, everyone had a mutual respect. I never heard the kind of complaining that's commonplace around the coffee stand. They know more about their union contracts; whether they're on golden time, over-time, luncheon penalty and so forth. But ask them about acting or how to trim an arc and they don't know what the hell you're talking about. We never thought that much about money ... it was too much fun."
"Dammit" he says, getting angry, bitterness edging into his voice. "Making movies used to be fun --- it isn't any more. I used to know everyone on the set. We were friends. We saw each other every day. We were family. Now when I work, it's with strangers. I never see the same crew twice. I don't know who anyone is and there isn't time to find out."
"It used to be exciting being on a movie set. Now it's just a job. It's the only thing I know so I hang around. But it isn't the same ... something is missing. I wish I knew what it was."
So do I, Dave. So do I.
The above interview and commentary with Dave Sharpe is copyright © 2002 by Mark Hall