Story by Guy Anderson
Photos copyright Guy Anderson
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Hal Needham, the director of The Cannonball Run, was a stunt man by trade turned actor/director. Needham had many years under his belt perfecting these types of dangerous stunts and was famous for his ability to place the film-goer on the edge of their seat. He went to great lengths to get his audience involved with some amazing stunts that his productions devised and executed.
This was a time when stunts were actually made by real people; there were no computers to generate these stunts. Just imagine riding in the Smokey and The Bandit Trans Am when it jumped the Mulberry Bridge in 1977 at the Jonesboro, Georgia location. This was an insane stunt that is now made famous in the Smokey and the Bandit franchise. The Trans Am was a real car with real stunt men with a very real and extremely dangerous 150-foot jump over a real rotted-out bridge. Needham made that insanely dangerous and scary sequence happen with precision in its execution.
Another stunt that was performed perfectly in Cannonball Run was the launching of the Hawaiian Tropic Stock car into the pool. The stunt starts in front of the Inn entrance and as the car turns towards the pool, explosive charges were set off to blow the hood. The hood smashes against the Lexan windshield so it lays back to obstruct the drivers view. (Mel Tillis along with Terry Bradshaw made the shot look easy because they were not the drivers.)
The front hood was completely covering the view of the stunt driver and stunt double with only a small crack to see out from under the hood. This stunt was extremely complex allowing the car to be launched into the pool at an exact speed in order not to smash into the sides or end of the pool, and a crash like that may have pinned the occupants in the car with only moments to extract them.
Divers were in position and waiting for any mishap that could have occurred being employed to assure a successful result. The pool was surrounded with many beautiful Hawaiian Tropic models in their matching brown two-piece swim suits adding to that element of danger. Again, there were several cameras filming simultaneously around the pool to guarantee a successful shot in only one try.
During breaks from filming the Cannonball Run production had its own chefs who prepared gourmet food for the members of the cast and actors. During one of the chow breaks we were talking with the stunt men and they began to describe a stunt they were preparing to do out west. As they described the scene it was apparent they were going to enjoy this one – these guys loved living on edge.
In a scene the steering wheel of the police chase vehicle was to be turned hard to start a spin while a small rocket mounted underneath the vehicle was to be activated to make the car spin violently. For stunts like this, special safety equipment and belts were utilized to allow for a successful conclusion. If you watch that scene in the movie, just try to imagine being in the police car. That was one really violent and impressive spin out that would keep your head spinning for quite some time. The asphalt had to be coated with liquid prior to that scene so the car would spin insanely fast and not flip.
The last major stunt was the smoke machine in the cockpit of the Aston Martin that went awry. This happened in Nevada. The stunt setup was an Aston Martin DB5 Bond Car that was to dart in and out of oncoming traffic at speed. This was to occur while the car was filled almost entirely with smoke making it impossible to see. There was a miscalculation with the oncoming traffic and a head-on collision occurred. The woman double for Farrah Fawcett hit the windshield and broke her neck. She was severely hurt almost decapitated and her injuries caused her to remain a Quadriplegic for the remainder of her life. It was revealed later in court testimony that the Aston Martin used in the movie was not equipped with seat belts.
Ferrari was represented very well at the movie location with some really beautiful still-shot cars. There was a wonderful fly-yellow 275 GTB long nose 4 cam with a most stylish Ferrari 250 SWB and the Queen Mother Ferrari 365GT 2+2 as well. As luck would have it, these beautiful pieces did not participate in the action like the Pantera, Mangusta and the 246 GTS Dino. As with many feature films some of the action ends up on the cutting room floor. The Lamborghini was the star of the film and anything that detracted from that visual experience was extracted from the film sequence.
Throughout the filming, the weather was very cooperative with much sunshine and blue skies. The location for the film was surprisingly suited for high speed runs down Glenwood Road. Some of the stunt work was performed on the Interstate access road located in front of the Old English Inn.
When filming was concluded for the day, all of the cars and motorcycles were brought across the Interstate to the Dekalb County Police station where they were stored in a secure Police warehouse. The Police were a great help during filming; when a road needed to be blocked or traffic diverted they would make that happen. When crowd control was needed they did a very good job corralling the onlookers and curious passersby, and there were many.
This movie was an absolute blast to do. We raced the cars down the highways at insane speeds protected by the boys in blue. The stunt drivers desperately wanted to try out the built-up DeTomaso Pantera GTS and I agreed that would be great fun. These guys gave that DeTomaso hell and they just loved it as much as we did.
These California boys can really drive; with their eyes bugging out of their head and their hair on fire as if they were ‘Running Moonshine.’ Hell if I didn’t know better, I would have pegged them as local Hillbillies on a ‘shine run,’ the way they handled cars. The only complaint from the California boys was they wanted to stick around and do some more driving or come back sometime to hang out with the local ‘redneck’s’.
The very next year the California boys got their wish. The famous duo of Burt Reynolds/ Hal Needham returned with the stunt men to film “Sharky’s Machine” in 1981. One of the crazy stunt men did a free fall from the Hyatt Regency in that movie.
The Ferrari 246 GTS we used in Cannonball Run was used in Sharky’s Machine as well.