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The True Heroes of Hollywood

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STUNT DOUBLE
David Madison via Getty Images

Everyone loves movies. We sit squashed in those chairs in theaters across the world with a seat pitch smaller than your average economy class flight, enduring the leg cramps and numb buttocks while we feed our fantasy, gorging ourselves on the latest summer blockbuster.

The press worship those stars in a feeding frenzy from the BAFTAS to the Golden Globes right up to the Oscars. No matter what your role in the movie, there's an award just for you, unless of course you're a stunt professional.

Daniel Craig made Bond cool again, shrugging off the mismanagement of the franchise, stripping the roll back to basics, making it more about the physicality than the gadgets; but it won't come as a shock to anyone in a world hell-bent on health and safety with actors insured for millions that these actors almost never do their own stunts unless you're Jackie Chan and even he's broken his body in the sake of action.

Stunt professionals, stunt coordinators and fight choreographers have always been part of the movie industry. They do the seemingly impossible to make your celluloid heroes great, while making sure that the lead actors never actually get put in harm's way. These unrecognized, anonymous actors keep your leading actors safe so you can enjoy your favorite franchise or TV series.

As consumers we demand more, we thrive on the spectacular and the fanciful which explains the global success of Game of Thrones where everyone seems to be able to swing a sword with deftness and in the case of Rory McCann the full brutality of The Hound.

Obviously in this world of fantasy, people rarely die although there have been some high-profile accidents which illustrate no matter how prepared you are things can always go astray. Stunts are about limiting risk and these skills have to be taught and they must be learned because when you're throwing around a four-foot broadsword someone could get hurt if you're not paying attention to the professionals, but it's not all about the aggression.

In a world where actual physical contact is kept to a minimum it's the stunt professional's job to sell the sequence. It's not enough to just "get hit," and the person being hit has to "sell" it to the audience. WWE superstars do this over 300 nights a year and while everyone knows sports entertainment is just that, people have died in the ring.

I first became aware of stunt doubles in 1981, that years headline cinema hit was Raiders Of The Lost Ark. For the first time that I can recall there was a behind the scenes special on TV, and I was gripped in awe that there were people who get paid to do these things. Watching Terry Leonard doubled for Harrison Ford in the sequence that pays homage to a sequence in Stagecoach (1939) in which stunt pioneer Yakima Canutt doubled for John Wayne. Leonard would later try and replicate the original stunt from Stagecoach in which Canutt was almost crushed by a speeding wagon and six horses after a terrible fall. Working on The Legend of the Lone Ranger (1981) Leonard believed that the Stagecoach version was over too quickly and the viewer didn't get the chance to appreciate what they were seeing. Leonard later went on to say

The longer you stay under 'em, it's like putting more bullets in the gun when you're playing Russian roulette. I got underneath there, and I said, 'What am I doing here?' I got stepped on and the two-inch thick wheel on the right-side of the coach ran over my leg. I was laying there in the middle of Monument Valley, and I thought I'd cut my legs off. I was scared to look down to see where my legs might have been. Had I come out head first, it would've killed me.

Leonard was air-lifted to hospital after the accident, forcing director to include the star's first and only take in the final cut of the film, and he adds, "Going under that coach with six horses is probably one of the wildest things I've ever done -- and I've made a living doing some pretty interesting things."

The difference in the stunts being that you can't predict the behavior of animals, during the filming of Raiders Leonard stipulated the driver of the custom built van, they controlled the ground clearance and a truck in the hands of an experienced professional is far more predictable than a team of six horses moving at what could have been lethal speeds.

Even the seemingly simple can have dangerous or deadly implications for actors, Roy Kinnear died after a fall from a horse while on the set of The Return of the Three Musketeers (1989) and while Johnny Depp made light of his fall on the set of the Disney Reboot of The Lone Ranger, falling off a horse, at speed without protection could have easily been deadly or debilitating as experienced by Christopher Reeve who was an accomplished equestrian.

Today's movie fans expect more, we want our heroes to fizz, tingle and pop. We want high-def superhuman flawless action; and since those days of stunt acting, genesis technology allows so much work to be done in camera and enhanced with CGI removing wires, rigs and descenders, but you can't replicate those fight techniques first explored by Canutt and Wayne during their long working career. The fight sequences might be more complex, and they've evolved from bar room brawls and breakaway bar stools to mixed martial arts at close quarters but the basics still set a solid foundation.

Canutt and Leonard never started out as stunt professionals. Canutt began on the rodeo circuit and Leonard as an extra, but that's how things were. People, as with every job traded on their reputation shrouded in secrecy. If you weren't in the know, you'd never get to know. Today things are slightly different, although when people can get hurt you want to work with people you can trust.

In a quest to find out about these unknown faceless professionals who need true athletic ability I've been invited to take part in the courses offered by the British Action Academy, the premier stunt school based in the UK and established by Andreas Petrides "one of the UK's leading JISC Registered stunt performers, co-ordinators, fight arrangers and action directors. His extensive career spans over 23 years, having worked with some of the world's leading directors and actors on over 500 productions worldwide." His professional credits include Star Wars, Gladiator, 4 James Bond's, Braveheart, Bourne Identity, Mission Impossible, Harry Potter, Terminator and Batman.