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Reel Cowboys

Cowboys were the original stuntmen.
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Credit: Martha Crawford Cantarini Martha Crawford Cantarini was a stuntwoman in the 1940s and '50s.

Credit: Martha Crawford Cantarini Martha Crawford Cantarini was a stuntwoman in the 1940s and '50s.

Thanks to the success of early silent Westerns, the American movie industry grew into the global entertainment juggernaut we know today. But the muscle and skill for creating the magic of Hollywood would never have been possible without cowboys—the original stuntmen. 


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In a strange confluence of fact and fiction, Western actors William S. Hart and Tom Mix were pallbearers at the funeral of Wyatt Earp 86 years ago in January 1929. After a stint in Alaska, Earp moved to Southern California in 1910 to try his hand at mining, law enforcement, and running a saloon. He also consulted for the burgeoning silent film industry, giving pointers to directors and actors to help make Westerns more authentic. 

Hart was a Shakespearian actor who needed to absorb all the true grit he could; he even befriended lawman Bat Masterson. Mix, on the other hand, had worked on the Miller Brothers 101 Ranch in Oklahoma Territory and had won rodeos in his younger days. He could ride and rope and built his career on adding glamour to the Western genre. 

This overlap of real cowboys and reel cowboys continues to this day, with Hollywood employing ranch-raised cowboys to provide livestock and stunt work for movie productions.

“As a cowboy, I’ve been a stuntman all my life,” laughs Ed Pinkard, a “set/deck” driver for film productions in New Mexico. “I just had to wait until I was 50 to get paid for it!”

A former rodeo cowboy and rancher, Pinkard settled into horse training and found a place as top wrangler with Colorado’s Sombrero Ranches, which provides trail-broke horses to dude ranches across the country. Sombrero also supplies horses for print and television commercials and film productions, which is how Pinkard ended up in New Mexico. But Pinkard prefers to give credit where it’s due.

“These guys dedicate their lives to it,” says Pinkard about the serious business of being a full-time professional stuntmen. “I just love the challenges of prepping horses for performing certain tasks. Working in movies also appeals to my artistic side. Anyone who works in this industry is very artistic, very creative.”

While that’s true today, in the 1920s, cowboy stuntmen weren’t necessarily looking to unleash their inner artist. They were just out of a job. After the fall cow works, ranches would only keep a fraction of their staff through the winter. The odd men out began drifting to warmer climates and caught on with movie studios, which needed tough men for dangerous work. 

Acclaimed Western writer and artist Will James (1892–1942) was born Joseph Ernest Nephtali Dufault in Quebec, Canada. Enthralled by the West, he ran away from home as a young boy to pursue his dream of becoming a cowboy. Finding his true calling in art and storytelling, he craved some roughhewn authenticity. His most famous book, Smokey the Cowhorse (1926), remains a popular children’s book, but in his “fictional autobiography,” The Lone Cowboy: My Life Story (1930), he borrowed from the actual stories of many working cowboys and wrote himself into association with the cowboy stuntmen.

The most renowned—and actual—cowboy stuntman was rodeo champion Yakima Canutt (1895–1986). He pioneered the profession in the 1920s and ’30s, and was eventually presented with an Academy Award in 1967 for his achievements in making stuntwork safer. He is, in fact, the only dedicated stuntman to ever win an Academy Award for his work. 

Credit: mptvimages.com Scene from "Stagecoach" (1939).

Credit: mptvimages.com Scene from "Stagecoach" (1939).

Men like Canutt helped standardize the horse falls, wagon wrecks, stagecoach jumps, and horse mounts we take for granted today. And he helped the industry adopt the use of harnesses, cables, and pulleys to further the illusions. John Wayne befriended Canutt on the set of John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939) and got the stuntman to teach him how to realistically (and safely) fall off a horse. Wayne later claimed to have adopted his famous on-screen persona, including the drawling, rhythmic speech and the hip-rolling walk, from Canutt. And Canutt’s sons, Joe and Tap, carried on the family tradition, going on to become important stuntmen in their own rights.

Besides his work to standardize stunts and make stuntmen safer, Canutt was also instrumental in one of the most famous scenes in movie history: the chariot race in Ben Hur (1959). He and his crew spent five months preparing for the violent and fast-paced sequence, which included nine teams of four horses. His son, Joe, doubled for Charlton Heston, and Canutt was proud to point out that no horses were hurt filming the race (unlike during the original shoot of the silent Ben Hur, filmed in 1925), despite the chariot crashes, jumps, and horse falls.

Whether it’s James inserting himself into a glamorous footnote of cowboy history or Canutt influencing The Duke’s persona, the blurring of fact and fiction (intentional and unintentional) is common in the retelling of the West—and often, of history itself. The very existence of the movie business thrives on this dynamic narrative, but cowboys, the original stuntmen, remain Hollywood’s fixed point. Handy horsemen are still cowboying, and all modern stuntwork evolved from their daily lives.

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Perhaps the greatest example of this convergence of art and reality, Ben Johnson (1918–1996) drove horses out from his home state of Oklahoma to Hollywood for Howard Hughes in the late 1930s and stayed on to do stunt work. He earned himself speaking roles and developed lasting relationships with directors John Ford and Sam Peckinpah. Johnson eventually won an Academy Award for his work in The Last Picture Show (1971). Part Cherokee, Johnson oozed cowboy calm and had a firm presence that people gravitated to. He wasn’t the first cowboy to make it in Hollywood, and he won’t be the last, but Johnson lived the dream like none other. He was a world champion team roper and has been inducted into both the PRCA Hall of Fame and the Western Performers Hall of Fame at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City. 

Johnson earned fame, but Hollywood is 95 percent workaday cameramen, gaffers, production assistants, etc. And men like Jack Verbois. A French Cajun from Baton Rouge, La., Verbois was a stuntman for 32 years, appearing in “more than 200 movies and countless TV shows.” 

“Louisiana had a cattle registry 100 years before Texas had cattle,” he brags playfully. Retired since 1997, he now lives 100 miles north of New Orleans, in Tylertown, Miss., on “a little tree farm,” and owns bucking bulls. It’s a far cry from doubling for Robert DeNiro in Deer Hunter (1978), but he’s happy to have contributed to screens, big and small.

“It was fun days, I tell you that,” Verbois says about doubling for films and television. 

His chance fell into his lap in 1965, when a film crew looking for bullfighters to help shoot a scene for Alvarez Kelly (1966)—a William Holding-starring Civil War movie—came to the arena where Verbois was working as a rodeo clown and, coincidentally, a bullfighter. 

“They wanted a shot where a bull hits a man on horseback,” he explains. “They were all worried about the rider and the film crew and thought it was going to take a week to shoot. Those Mexican bulls were 700–800 pounds. They were pretty hot, but we got it done in one day.” 

Verbois traveled to Los Angeles to finish the shoot and then went on to film many car chases and crashes and other physical stunts, like high falls, racing motorcycles, and “moccasin blowups.” 

“I died as an Indian more times than I can tell you,” he chuckles. “You had to be diverse. I’m 5-foot-10, you know: average. So I was able to adapt to a lot of different actors. This kept me working. I’d go from TV show to TV show, doubling guest actors. I did a lot of police shows.” 

Through the 1970s, stunt work was much more physical than it is today. With the development of CGI (computer-generated imagery), the stunt business became a lot less dangerous.

“High falls were the real deal. We’d land on cardboard boxes or pads and, later on, air bags,” he recalls. “Now falls like that are made with thick cables that can be erased in post production. These days, stuntmen basically make a living doing rigging.”

Verbois worked with Joe and Tap Canutt and got to thank Yakima personally. “Those guys were smart,” he says. “Macho gets you hurt real quick. You gotta use your head. It’s all physics—seat of the pants physics, but physics nonetheless. Stuntwork is more than just skill and athletic ability.”

He also worked with a stuntman named Walt LaRue, who went on to become a Western artist. “Walt was a rodeo guy and a member of the Cowboy’s Turtle Association (the forerunner of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association). He told me that his paintings and choice of composition benefited from working in film. He learned to see and think things through.”

 Verbois keeps his bucking bulls with a trainer in Texas, and they’ve competed in the ABBI (American Bucking Bull, Inc.) futurity. And he and his wife are hands-on owners: “The young cowboys get a kick out of a grey-haired lady flanking bulls in the chutes. I just enjoy watching ’em buck and compete. It’s a great way to be a part of rodeo without putting my body in danger! ... They honor the soldiers, honor the flag at every event. Good Americans put on those rodeos. I really enjoy seeing the young kids. You can tell they’re going to be good citizens.”

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Martha Crawford Cantarini, stuntwoman and author of Fall Girl: My Life as a Western Stunt Double (2010), points out that “horses were the true heroes of the Western films, and the stuntmen would be nowhere without them.” She’s absolutely right, but someone’s got to ride those horses. And for that, being ranch raised used to be all a guy (or gal) needed to get a foot in the door. 

These days, organizations have been formed to train stuntmen, like the Screen Actors Stunt Association and United Stuntman’s Association. In Hollywood itself, the Stuntman’s Association of Motion Pictures, Stunts Unlimited, the International Stunt Association, and the United Stuntwomen Association compete to certify and feed the film industry stunt talent. There are even history- and reenactment-minded groups, like Ghost Riders Stunt Company, that hire Western talent to perform at events. 

These days, you can grow up on a ranch or go to school to become a stuntman, or if you’re Dean Smith, you can win a goldmedal at the Olympics, play professional football, and then get introduced to Hollywood stars. His recent autobiography,Cowboy Stuntman: From Olympic Gold to the Silver Screen (2013), tells a story that could be a movie itself. 

Born in Texas in 1932, Smith ran track for the University of Texas and was fast enough to lead off the gold-winning 4x100-meter relay team at the Summer Olympics in Helsinki, Finland, in 1952. A fellow Olympic runner, J.W. Mashburn, grew up with James Garner (né James Bumgarner) in Norman, Okla., and introduced Smith to the actor. And another Olympian, Bob Mathias, the decathlon gold-medal winner in 1948 and 1952 (and eventual U.S. Congressman from California), introduced him to John Wayne.

“Be careful of what you want, because you might get it. God just laid it out there,” reflects Smith. “When I got in the business in 1957, I could ride, run, and jump with just about anybody, but it was being able to ride that got me work.”

After earning his Screen Actor’s Guild card, Smith stunt doubled in The Alamo (1960) and in Garner’s breakthrough TV show, Maverick (1957–1962). He’s perhaps best known for recreating Yakima Canutt’s famous stagecoach stunt in the remake of Stagecoach (1966), jumping from the coach to the horses, then sliding on the ground between the trampling hooves.

Credit: Corbis Dean Smith recreates Yakima Canutt's famous stunt for the 1966 version of "Stagecoach."

Credit: Corbis Dean Smith recreates Yakima Canutt's famous stunt for the 1966 version of "Stagecoach."

“Duke was probably one of the nicest friends I ever had,” says Smith. “Wayne is the one who’s lasted the longest. He practiced what he preached. He made the Western myth come true.”

Smith grows wistful talking about the old days: “Ninety-five percent of people I worked with are gone. [In fact, renowned cowboy stuntman Bill Hart passed just this January.] I never thought I’d live long enough to say that. And we’re not making as many Westerns any more. Maybe it’s a generational thing, but things are not the same. Everything is more commercialized. The Western genre projects a political philosophy that’s not welcome any more. All the heroes have died.”

For his part, Smith lives on the farm he was raised on. It doesn’t get any better than that. He points out that not as many children are being raised with animals these days, but today’s rural generation could yet make their mark on popular culture.

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As these old timers tell it, the Western film crews were a lot more fun to work with than regular crews. They knew how to relax more and enjoy the process. And the locations were always beautiful, natural settings. Speaking with Smith and Verbois makes working on a Western set sound like your big brother’s club. You just want in, no matter what. But safety concerns and animal cruelty issues are much more regulated today than in the past, which makes shooting Westerns more difficult than ever. There are too many potential lawsuits, and the deep pockets footing the bill don’t want any surprises. 

“Fifty years ago, horses were more well-rounded from being used as vehicles,” says Ed Pinkard about the difficulty of rounding up horses for big shoots. “Plus, it’s hard to find handy actors.”

Clay Lilley, 55, is a boss wrangler on film sets and has had his Screen Actor’s Guild card since 1982. Believe it or not, his grandfather was a stuntman and his father, too. “There’s a total of six legitimate boss wranglers in Hollywood these days. In the 1940s and ’50s, there were 15 or 20, all with big barns and herds. Learning to ride is one thing, but learning to drive a team is something else, and not that many people in and around Hollywood possess that skill anymore.”

Lilley gets his horses from Sombrero Ranches in Colorado and some Blackfeet friends in Montana: “Today, the horse-end of the business is no longer produced in California.”

The fictional Bud Frazer in Molly Gloss’s well-received new novel Falling From Horses (2014) makes his way from ranch life to becoming a cowboy stuntman in the 1930s. Waltzing into Hollywood and achieving the same today feels like fantasy.

“I wish we could find some more John Waynes and ride ’em into Hollywood and start making Westerns again to inspire the next generation,” says Dean Smith. “There’s a lot of stories to be told yet. I just want the young fellas to get a chance.”

As Diana Serra Cary tells it in her non-fiction book, The Hollywood Posse: The Story of a Gallant Band of Horsemen Who Made Movie History (1996), the 1920s sound like a long, long time ago. Hollywood was in its infancy, and the Civil War and the great Texas cattle drives were still within memory of those who were there. It’s indisputable that those cowboys helped create the stuntman profession as we know it. Their lives had been more exciting than fiction, and they inspired audiences by reframing our national struggles in a medium everyone could understand. That artistic narrative may have shifted somewhat, but cowboys still ride, and Hollywood keeps calling.

Credit: mptvimages.com Ben Johnson with Warren Oates in action on "The Wild Bunch" set.

Credit: mptvimages.com Ben Johnson with Warren Oates in action on "The Wild Bunch" set.

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