Even as a kid, I always kind of knew that Harrison Ford didn’t do his own stunts in any of the Indiana Jones movies. Whether he was being chased by a boulder in Raiders of the Lost Ark or leaping from a horse to a Nazi tank in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, it was obviously some other guy risking life and limb to make Harrison Ford look so effortlessly badass. For all my admiration, however, I never bothered to learn the name of Indiana Jones’ doppelgänger, because c’mon, I was 8. But this summer — which just so happens to be the 30th anniversary of Raiders of the Lost Ark — I’ve finally learned the true identity of the man responsible for all my most awesome movie memories. His name is Vic Armstrong, and since 1965 he’s been beaten, battered and abused in movies like A Bridge Too Far, Return of the Jedi, Blade Runner, Terminator 2, three James Bond movies, one Mission Impossible and (most recently) the still-in-production Amazing Spider-Man. If you’ve seen a movie stunt in the last 40 years and thought, “That fucking ruled,” it was probably Vic Armstrong. Remember the Swiss Alps skiing chase scene in Her Majesty’s Secret Service? Remember how much it fucking ruled? You have Vic Armstrong to thank.
I called Armstrong at his U.K. home to talk about his new autobiography, The True Adventures of the World’s Greatest Stuntman. It may not be the most humble title for a memoir, but when you’ve made Harrison Ford quip that he’d be “in deep trouble” if you ever learned how to talk, you’re probably justified in having an inflated ego.
Eric Spitznagel: What’s it like to always be the coolest person in the room?
Vic Armstrong: Oh my! [Laughs.] I don’t think I’ve ever thought about myself in that way. You mean does it change my behavior, or do I announce to people what I do for a living?
Here’s a hypothetical. You’re at a dinner party, and you’re talking to some asshole hedge fund trader who’s bragging about all the money he made last year and how he just bought a tricked-out Lexus. Do you wait for him to ask “So what do you do?” Or do you interrupt him and tell him about the time you jumped from a horse onto a moving tank and then punched a bunch of Nazis?
Oh no, no, I’d never do that. I try not to mention to anybody that I’m a stunt man if I can help it. If they recognize me or they’ve heard about what I do and have questions, then it’s fine. But I don’t want to be the one to bring it up. Unless I’m selling my book.
When you rent a car, do they make you take out the insurance?
No, I’m very good, very trustworthy. I’ve brought back plenty of rental cars without a scratch.
If I were you, I’d ask for the insurance just for the excuse to gloat. You could tell the guy behind the Budget counter, “I destroyed more cars in a weekend than you’ve rented during your entire career.”
[Laughs.] Yeah, that would be fun. But the reality is that I’m not any more reckless because of what I do for a living. If anything, the opposite is true. As I try to say in the book, accidents have nothing to do with what a stunt person does. In fact, we try to go the other way and be ultra-safe. Our job is about creating an illusion. It may look spectacular, but we’re not actually taking too many risks.
That’s not what I was led to believe by the theme song from TV’s The Fall Guy.
Really? I thought it was pretty much near the mark.
[Sings.] “It’s a death-defying life I lead/ I take my chances/ I die for a livin’ in the movies and TV.” Who’s right, you or Lee Majors?
Well, we do try to eliminate all the danger…
So it’s not a death-defying life? You’re calling Lee Majors a liar!
No, no, not at all. Because when you’re standing on top of a 100 foot viaduct, and you know you’re going to step off the edge, and you’ll fall sixty miles an hour into an air bag, and your cranium will come within just three feet of making impact with the earth at a pretty frightening speed, these are the moments when you realize just how risky your line of work actually is. Our job is to eliminate as much danger as we can but you can’t eliminate all the danger. It’s a fine line we walk.
You have metal plates in your shoulder and your shin. Did you get both injuries from the same stunt?
No, it was two different films. The plate in my shoulder I got while shooting Mary Queen of Scots. The shin plate I got on Messenger of God, and that one was definitely the most memorable. I was trying to teach a horse named Mars how to fall, and he ended up doing a somersault on top of me. We were in Morocco, and after the operation they took me to a mortuary because the hospital didn’t have any available beds. I woke up next to a dead woman on a stretcher.
With all the metal in your body, is it a headache to get through airport security?
It’s an absolute drag. It happens all the time with the one in my shoulder. The shin one is okay, sometimes it sets the alarms off, but the shoulder plate has much more metal in it. It sets them off every time. I’ve got a card that says I have metal in my body, and I try to explain all my metal bits and pieces to the security people but they never believe me.
Maybe they just don’t recognize the movie titles. Instead of Mary Queen of Scots, tell them you got the metal from working on You Only Live Twice or Raiders of the Lost Ark.
[Laughs.] That’s not a bad idea. I usually find it easier just to request that they put me in one of those x-ray boxes. It shows you naked, but at least they can see the bolts and screws and they know I’m not a terrorist.
Comics are always being approached by strangers and asked to “Say something funny.” Is it the same with stuntmen? Are people constantly asking you, “Do something dangerous?”
Yeah, absolutely. That’s why I try not to mention what I do. Most people just have innocuous questions, but occasionally you’ll run into somebody who asks you to do something silly.
Like what? “Would you mind if I break this chair over your head?”
Yeah, that. Or “Can you fall down the stairs?” I can, sure. But only if I’m drunk. Or being paid.
You’re never tempted to shock them and just jump through a window?
No, no, no. What would be the point?
But you could do it, right? If you really wanted to, you could just calmly put your drink down and then lunge out of the nearest glass window. Or does it have to be a certain kind of glass?
You should never jump through plate glass if you can help it. You’ll just cut yourself up. Sugar glass is the only way to go. And you want to make sure you have a safe landing waiting for you on the other side. We have bags and catchers and everything else. It takes a huge amount of preparation to jump through a window safely. And remember, half of our business is editing. It just looks like a stunt person has jumped off the Eiffel Tower but in fact he hasn’t.
It’s not all editing though, right? Some of it’s real. What’s the tallest height you’ve ever fallen from?
I did a 100 foot free-fall on Omen III. I fell from a horse over the side of a viaduct, and that was really scary. When you’re falling 100 feet, you’re looking straight down and thinking, “This could be it. This could be the end.” And my wife Wendy (Leech) did 80 feet backwards when we were doing Superman. That was back when they had you land in cardboard boxes, which is really tough to do.
In your book, you make some great arguments about how CGI is inferior to old fashioned stunt work. What’s your best MacGyver moment?
Did you ever create a stunt with just some duct tape, a safety pin and a ballpoint pen?
I invented this thing called the Fan Descender that I got an Academy Award for. It’s a very, very simple piece of equipment that helps a stunt person control a fall. I came up with it while I was working on the movie Green Ice. And then I used it again on Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom when we jumped out of the Obi Wan Nightclub. It’s basically just a spindle in bearings that you wrap your wire around. On the end of the spindle are two fanblades that are attached to it. As you descend, the wire is pulled out and it spins the spindle and creates an air pressure. It’s pretty simple to put together, and it has very few moving parts. It was one of the best and most simple things that I’ve ever invented, really.
Are you friendly with other stunt guys?
We do tend to congregate. It’s like with horse people. I come from a horse family, and I was surrounded by horse people or stunt people all my life. That was my entire social circle. And it’s at least somewhat because of circumstance. We travel the world together, we live in hotels together, so obviously you develop a camaraderie. We have the same silly stories and the same silly inside jokes.
My sister-in-law lived in the Hollywood Hills just down the street from a house full of stunt drivers. She said that they were hard drinking and partying wild boys, and she was always hearing screeching tires and loud crashes coming from their place. From your experience, is that a pretty accurate cross-section of the stunt community?
I think so, yeah. They’re conservative in a lot of ways, but there is that side to them. When we party, we really like to party. We work hard and then we play very, very hard. When you’re always away from home, living around the world in hotels, life can get monotonous. You either go home after work and fall asleep watching TV in your hotel room, or you go out and burn off some steam.
Are there rivalries? The Guinness Book of Records named you the world’s most prolific stuntman. Have any of your peers ever confronted you and said, “Bullshit, I’m more prolific than you?”
Oh, a hundred percent, absolutely. That happens all the time. Because it’s such a personal business. Although you have so many people on a film crew backing you up and keeping you safe and making you look good, you are ultimately relying on your own skills. Whether you succeed or fail is dependent entirely on you. And that creates a certain prideful feeling about yourself.
You were in your stunt prime when Evel Knievel was becoming a superstar. Were you impressed by him, or did he seem like a showboating ass?
I was very impressed by him, just the pure guts of what he did. I was actually planning to collaborate with him. Me and a group of other guys were going to do some stunts, crash some cars and a few things, at one of his shows. We’d be the warm-up for one of his jumps, to get the crowd excited. This was back in 1975, I think. It was a pretty big deal for me. Evel was huge at the time, and doing stunts with him put you in a different stratosphere. Everything was planned, it was going to happen. And then I went to see him at Wembley Stadium in London, when he tried to jump 13 buses.
Isn’t that when he crashed?
And crashed hard. He made the jump, but then he fell over his handlebars and rolled for something like 20 yards. And then his motorcycle landed on top of him. I remember sitting in the crowd and thinking, “Uh oh, there goes the stunt show.”
What about iconic stuntman Hal Needham? Is he a friend?
Oh yeah, absolutely. Hal is one of the greatest stuntmen that ever lived.
Without him, Smokey & the Bandit would’ve been a much slower movie.
Right, right. Nobody can do what he does. And he’s come up with some really amazing stunt innovations. He invented the cannon turnover for flipping cars over, which is basically a cannon that you put under your car. He also came up with the idea of digging a hole, putting styrofoam cups maybe two inches deep with a board on top, and then putting some earth back on top of the boards. When you land on it, the styrofoam cups compress and take the impact out of your landing. [Laughs.] I know that may not sound like an amazing innovation to most people, but if you made your living jumping out of buildings, you’d think Hal deserved sainthood.
Hal published his own memoir earlier this year, called Stuntman! That’s two stuntman memoirs in one year.
I know, it’s a lot, isn’t it?
It’s like dueling Hollywood asteroid movies. How do we know which one to buy?
His came out just before mine, and I was working on Amazing Spider-Man at the time. I got a copy of his book and thought it was amazing, and I asked Hal if he could come down to the set and sign copies of the book for all the stunt guys on Spider-Man. I told them, “You owe it to yourself to read this book, because Hal is one of the best stunt guys that ever lived.”
That’s very sweet, Vic, but it’s not the way to win a book war.
Well, my book came out about a month later, and we’ve been dueling in the charts for quite a while now. I think mine probably beat him, but I don’t like to brag about it.
What if I only need to read one stunt man tell-all this year, and I probably do, should I read yours or Hal’s? Why is your book better?
[Laughs.] That’s a hard one. I have so much respect for Hal, I’m reluctant to say anything against him or his book.
How about this: Your stunt man memoir is the only one with a story about Telly Savalas’ penis.
That’s right! [Laughs.] To this day I can see the shock on Dougy’s face.
I feel like we should explain this, but maybe it’s better if we don’t.
How much do you want to give away?
I’ll just read this one quote from the book. “Telly doesn’t wear underwear. I was kneeling down in front of him and said, ‘Drop your trousers please,’ and he did and out it plopped, right in my face.”
We should at least mention that it was (fellow stuntman) Dougie Robinson who experienced the plopping, but yes, that’s enough to share.
Your memoir also has a fantastic love story, when you and your future wife meet on the set of Superman. You’re doing Christopher Reeve’s stunts and she’s doing stunts for Lois Lane. That’s just ridiculously romantic.
It’s quite funny, because at the time we didn’t even pick up on it. It’s only when people pointed it out later that we were like, “Wow, yeah, I guess so.”
Did you ask her out while wearing the Superman outfit?
No! Are you kidding me? I wouldn’t have dreamed of it.
Because it was too tight and she could see your junk?
Actually the outfit wasn’t very revealing at all because I was wearing the harness. They’d put the harness around my groin and crank it really tight so it didn’t show under the costume. At the end of the day, I’d be like, “God, I have a splitting headache.” And the guys on the crew would be like, “That shows where your brains are, mate.”
Three of your four kids are in the stunt business.
Actually, all four of them are now. And my brother and my nephew as well. You can look at the credits of Green Hornet, Thor, Amazing Spider-Man, and you’ll see at least eight Armstrongs on there. And Wendy’s father is one of the founders of the stunt business. He used to double for James Mason in the 40s and 50s, and he did the early Bond movies.
It must be simultaneously gratifying and horrible to have all your kids in the family business. My son’s only five months old and I’m already terrified that he’ll have a driver’s license someday. Your kids are regularly jumping out of moving cars and plummeting down cliffs.
I’m sure I’ve got a lot more gray hairs because of them, just thinking about the stunts they’ve done. I just spoke to my son, who’s up in Glasgow working on World War Z with Brad Pitt. He said, “Oh, I had a great day today, Dad. I drove over 16 cars with a garbage truck.” On the one hand, I can’t help but be proud. I think that must be some sort of world record. He’s beaten his dad. But on the other hand, it was absolutely nerve-wracking. Another one of my sons crashed a pickup truck into a bus, and the pickup truck was on fire. A part of you wants to say “Good job” and another part wants to say “Please stop!”
What’s the Armstrong family equivalent of a father-to-son, birds-and-the-bees discussion? Do you sit them down and explain the logistics of jumping out of a moving car?
[Laughs.] I have, yeah.
And what’s the trick? I’ve never done it, but I expect it’d involve landing on your shoulder.
The most important thing is to protect the head. Unfortunately the head is the heaviest part of the body, and it tends to gravitate towards the ground. When you fall, I would say that the key is to keep moving, keep your body rolling, keep your extremities from getting bent backwards and snapping. Whatever you do, look after the head. As we like to say in my line of work, it’s not the fall that hurts, it’s the stopping.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in VanityFair.com.)