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The legendary stuntman who inspired Brad Pitt’s character in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

After Quentin Tarantino’s ninth film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, opened in theaters across the world Friday, the incredible life of the man that inspired Brad Pitt’s character in the film has fallen back into focus.

So rarely when movies are based on real people is the true story as compelling as the chain of events depicted on the big screen, but when it comes to the life of Hal Needham, there certainly seems to be an exception to the rule.

In Tarantino’s latest venture, audience members are introduced to Cliff Booth, a military veteran-turned-stuntman who’s also best-friends with Wild Western TV and movie star Rick Dalton, played by Leonardo DiCaprio.

The two characters were heavily inspired by Needham’s relationship with Burt Reynolds, and the wild, decades-long friendship they shared throughout their tenures in tinsel town.

Brad Pitt in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

After Quentin Tarantino’s ninth film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, opened in theaters across the world this week, the incredible life of the man that inspired Brad Pitt’s character in the film, Hal Needham (left), has fallen back into focus

In Tarantino's latest venture, audience members are introduced to Cliff Booth, a military veteran-turned-stuntman who¿s also best-friends with Wild Western TV and movie star Rick Dalton, played by Leonardo DiCaprio

In Tarantino’s latest venture, audience members are introduced to Cliff Booth, a military veteran-turned-stuntman who’s also best-friends with Wild Western TV and movie star Rick Dalton, played by Leonardo DiCaprio

The two characters were heavily inspired by Needham¿s (left) relationship with Burt Reynolds (center), and the wild, decades-long friendship they shared throughout their tenures in tinsel town

The two characters were heavily inspired by Needham’s (left) relationship with Burt Reynolds (center), and the wild, decades-long friendship they shared throughout their tenures in tinsel town

Needham stumbled into the world of stunt work completely by accident in the late 1950s, shortly after leaving returning from military duty where he’d operated as a paratrooper.

He had been working as a gardener when one of his former colleagues told him he dreamed to work in Hollywood and had secured the pair two jobs.

Though he had no experience with stunt work, Needham quickly discovered a natural flair and an obsession for the discipline – a fixation that would see him break 56 bones throughout his career, including his back twice.

Reynolds and Needham first me on the set on the set of Riverboat in 1959, a short-lived television series that would later prove to be Reynolds’ break-out role.

The pair quickly bonded over their love for adrenaline, shared sense of dry humor and their distinctive and bold style.

In true Dalton style, Reynolds also performed his own stunts.

‘I was so cocky. I didn’t want a stunt double,’ Reynolds recalled of the introduction. ‘I told him, “Look, I don’t want to take away from your talent. I’m sure you’re very good, but I do my own stunts.” He smiled and said, “If you knew how many actors I’ve taken to the hospital that said that to me. But I want to watch you do this.”

‘I said, “OK,” and I did the stunt,’ Reynolds continued. ‘He said I was pretty good and asked me what else I could do. I said, “Anything you can teach me.” He said, “OK, come out to my house.”’

Needham (pictured right on the set of In Harms Way, with Kirk Douglas, left, in 1965) stumbled into the world of stunt work completely by accident in the late 1950s, shortly after leaving returning from military duty where he'd operated as a paratrooper

Needham (pictured right on the set of In Harms Way, with Kirk Douglas, left, in 1965) stumbled into the world of stunt work completely by accident in the late 1950s, shortly after leaving returning from military duty where he’d operated as a paratrooper

From there, the pair remained friends for decades afterwards, with Reynolds telling the Hollywood Reporter in 2016 that they were just ‘two guys that thought that the other one was great and at the same time were happy to just have a mirror there.’

Needham even moved in with Reynolds when he wife ousted him from their home. Both men thought the arrangement would last about a week, but they stayed together in Reynolds’ Holmby Hills bachelor pad for the next twelve years.

Living rent free, Needham was able to tackle his stuntman aspirations unhindered, which he succeeded in doing in abundance – becoming revered as one of the most and fearless men in the industry.

His career is littered staggering stunts that otherwise seemed simply impossible to pull off, long before the days of CGI.

In the 1970 movie Little Big Man, Needham filled in for Dustin Hoffman and jump between the backs of two horse galloping at full speed.

He also pulled off an unfathomable feat on the set of TV series ‘Have Gun, Will Travel!’, whereby he jumped from a 30 foot rock down onto a moving stagecoach – without any padding.

‘[The coach] really looked small. It looked like a postage stamp,’ he said in an interview with NPR, reflecting on the stunt. ‘They brought the coach, and I hit it right in the center. But I broke through the top right up to my armpits, and that kind of shocked the folks inside the coach.’

Needham (right) even moved in with Reynolds (left) when he wife ousted him from their home. Both men thought the arrangement would last about a week, but they stayed together in Reynolds' Holmby Hills bachelor pad for the next twelve years (pictured together with Jim Harbos during the filming of Stroker Ace)

Needham (right) even moved in with Reynolds (left) when he wife ousted him from their home. Both men thought the arrangement would last about a week, but they stayed together in Reynolds’ Holmby Hills bachelor pad for the next twelve years (pictured together with Jim Harbos during the filming of Stroker Ace)

His career is littered staggering stunts that otherwise seemed simply impossible to pull off, long before the days of CGI. One such stunt saw him a 63-foot 'leap' in a car from the shore to a movng barge on the set of White Lightning

His career is littered staggering stunts that otherwise seemed simply impossible to pull off, long before the days of CGI. One such stunt saw him a 63-foot ‘leap’ in a car from the shore to a movng barge on the set of White Lightning

A car driven by Needham flies hundreds of feet in the air on the set of Hopper, in 1978

A car driven by Needham flies hundreds of feet in the air on the set of Hopper, in 1978

As if throwing himself through the air wasn’t quite enough of a rush, Needham raised the stakes, adding cars, boats and motorbikes to his elaborate exploits too.

In White Lightning – released in 1973 – he jumped his car 63 feet from a riverbank onto a moving ferry. Three-years later, the movie Gator sees the stuntman rocketing across a swamp on boat, flying 138 feet through the air – a record-breaking feat.

On the set of Hopper, in 1978, Needham drove a car off of a burning bridge, which saw the vehicle launch more than a hundred feet in the air before crashing down safely on the other side of the river.  

Aware that his body wouldn’t allow him to continue doing stunt work forever more, alongside his on-set work Needham came up with a contingency plan and drafted up his first ever screenplay, Smokey and the Bandit.

The movie was inspired by an incident that had happened on the set of 1976’s Gator, in which someone stole Coors beer six-packs from a fridge to resell east of Oklahoma – where the brand was not then available – at a premium price.

With no writing experience, Needham turned to his roommate Reynolds who, following the success of Deliverance and The Longest Yard, was now the biggest name in Hollywood.

‘That’s the worst dialogue I’ve ever read in my life,’ Reynolds reportedly said of the script at the time.

But with an unwavering admiration of and belief in Needham, Reynolds agreed to star in the film, passing up several potentially critically acclaimed roles and subsequently several large paychecks.

Universal greenlighted the film on the basis of Reynolds’ name being on the billing. The cast ended up improvising most of their lines; the film’s theme song was written overnight.

Aware that his body wouldn¿t allow him to continue doing stunt work forever more, alongside his on-set work Needham came up with a contingency plan and drafted up his first ever screenplay, Smokey and the Bandit

Aware that his body wouldn’t allow him to continue doing stunt work forever more, alongside his on-set work Needham came up with a contingency plan and drafted up his first ever screenplay, Smokey and the Bandit

Universal greenlighted the film on the basis of Reynolds' name being on the billing. The cast ended up improvising most of their lines; the film¿s theme song was written overnight

Universal greenlighted the film on the basis of Reynolds’ name being on the billing. The cast ended up improvising most of their lines; the film’s theme song was written overnight

In motion: Needham flies over the handlebars of a motorcycle that's just driven into a car on the set of Hopper

In motion: Needham flies over the handlebars of a motorcycle that’s just driven into a car on the set of Hopper

Reynolds and Needham first me on the set on the set of Riverboat in 1959, a short-lived television series that would later prove to be Reynolds¿ break-out role. The pair quickly bonded over their love for adrenaline, shared sense of dry humor and their distinctive and bold style (pictured on the set of Cannonball Run, 1981)

Reynolds and Needham first me on the set on the set of Riverboat in 1959, a short-lived television series that would later prove to be Reynolds’ break-out role. The pair quickly bonded over their love for adrenaline, shared sense of dry humor and their distinctive and bold style (pictured on the set of Cannonball Run, 1981)

The pressure of taking his vision from page to big screen never appeared to phase the cool-headed character that was Needham, it seemed.

With Hollywood known for its 18-hour shoot days, but Needham refused to conform.

‘Hal broke every day at five o’clock,’ Reynolds recalled in his memoir, Enough About Me. ‘And the cast and crew would be in the local bar by five-fifteen.’

Against all the odds, Smokey and the Bandit was released in 1977, and became the second highest-grossing film of the year, bested only by Star Wars.

A similar gamble made six years later would prove to be a bridge too far for Needham and Reynolds.

Out of loyalty to his best-friend, Reynolds turned down a role in the later Oscar-winning classic Terms of Endearment that was specifically written with him in mind, but later given to Jack Nicholson.

Stroker Ace, on the other hand, was widely panned, with Reynolds later joking that it was ‘the kind [of movie] they show in prisons and airplanes, because nobody can leave.’

Despite missing out on what could’ve been an Oscar winning role, the pair’s relationship remained intact, with Reynolds expressing he would’ve made the decision to snub Terms of Endearment all over again out of loyalty of his best-friend.

Against all the odds, Smokey and the Bandit was released in 1977, and became the second highest-grossing film of the year, bested only by Star Wars

Against all the odds, Smokey and the Bandit was released in 1977, and became the second highest-grossing film of the year, bested only by Star Wars

Burt Reynolds, as Bo Darville, and Sally Field, as Carrie, in 'Smokey And The Bandit'

Burt Reynolds, as Bo Darville, and Sally Field, as Carrie, in ‘Smokey And The Bandit’

In 1981, Reynolds and Needham’s co-habitation came to an end. The stuntman delicately broke the news that he was getting married.

‘Does that mean I’m losing a roommate or gaining a wife,’ Reynolds deadpanned in response.

Needham went on to marry Dani Janssen in a Western-themed ceremony, with the groom and best-man Reynolds’ arriving at the service together on horseback.

Reynolds said he spent several weeks talking Needham out of skydiving into the wedding.

Speaking to People magazine afterwards, Reynolds revealed ‘Hal’s done a lot of dangerous things in his life, but I’ve never seen him that scared.’

Needham died in October 2013, little more than a year after he received a Governor’s Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Reflecting on the death of his sidekick, Reynolds said: ‘When he passed, I thought, what in God’s name could kill him?’

‘I was really happy that it was Burt and Hal, not just Burt or not just Hal,’ Reynolds said of their off-screen relationship. ‘I was happy that it was the two of us together. I thought he was—and he was—the best stuntman that ever lived.’

Needham died in October 2013, little more than a year after he received a Governor¿s Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

Needham died in October 2013, little more than a year after he received a Governor’s Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

¿I was really happy that it was Burt and Hal, not just Burt or not just Hal,¿ Reynolds said of their off-screen relationship. ¿I was happy that it was the two of us together. I thought he was¿and he was¿the best stuntman that ever lived.¿

‘I was really happy that it was Burt and Hal, not just Burt or not just Hal,’ Reynolds said of their off-screen relationship. ‘I was happy that it was the two of us together. I thought he was—and he was—the best stuntman that ever lived.’

In Reynolds’ 2015 memoir, written two years after Needham’s death, even more of the stuntman’s crazed antics were laid bare.

Reynolds revealed that, not only was Hal the first person to ever crash-test airbags, he also ‘decided he wanted to be the first to cross the sound barrier in a land vehicle’ and made a deal with Budweiser and CBS to build a rocket car.

‘When he got in that thing, I knew he’d either get the record or blow it up. He got the record: 733.666 miles per hour.’

Despite being renowned both personifying machismo, the two men were never afraid to publicly declare their admiration for one another.

‘I always told him, if he had been a woman, we would have had a great marriage,’ Reynolds said. ‘He was an amazing man. They only come around like that once in a lifetime.’

Read more at DailyMail.co.uk


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