It’s like someone put you in a cannon and shot you into a brick wall and you went slithering down and then someone said, Okay, get up and walk.
”This is a pretty easy day,” explains Heidi von Beltz, a former stuntwoman and actress, as she pedals another mile on her motorized leg bike in the workout room of her rented house in Malibu. Sweat pours down her face as she works her hand bike; she grimaces while doing vertical sit-ups in her standing frame.
Today, von Beltz, six feet tall, tanned, toned, and striking at 40, is working out for only 4 hours, instead of her usual 10. ”Like I’m supposed to sit around on my butt all day?” she says of her vigorous exercise routine. ”Forget it!” Her goal, which has not changed in the 16 years since a stunt-car crash on the set of The Cannonball Run, one of the worst accidents in the history of movies, made her a quadriplegic, is to get up and walk. But even the super-disciplined von Beltz can be forgiven for slacking off today — she’s got a million things to do.
For one, Melanie Griffith is in town with Antonio Banderas. The women — Griffith calls von Beltz ”my best buddess” — have been friends for more than 25 years and want to see each other before Griffith and Banderas fly off to Budapest, where he’s filming Evita. And this is the week von Beltz is finally going to start walking with braces at a rehab center in Beverly Hills.
But what’s really complicating matters are the publicity demands — radio interviews, TV shows, and signings — surrounding von Beltz’s new book, My Soul Purpose. It’s a gritty, gossipy account of her life — and the accident that helped tighten Hollywood’s stunt standards — that is by turns nightmarish and uplifting. (She wrote the book with journalist Peter Copeland at the personal request of Random House chairman Harry Evans.) Packed with anecdotes about Hollywood royalty, many of whom von Beltz counts as close friends, Purpose is also perhaps the most irreverent book ever written on what von Beltz calls ”the worst thing that can happen to you except death.”
And that’s about the only negative thing von Beltz says about her accident, which left her paralyzed below the neck. She now calls the crash a blessing in disguise — and not just because her lawsuit against the movie’s producers led to required seat-belt use in all stunt cars and caused the Directors Guild to prohibit directors from altering stunts on location, as did Cannonball’s Hal Needham. ”I’m the happiest I’ve ever been,” says von Beltz, who hopes to someday turn her Malibu property into a center to help people with spinal injuries walk again. ”I was always so active that I would never have sat down long enough to learn what I’ve learned. I can’t imagine going through this life and not knowing what I know now. I just had to break my neck to do it.”
Von Beltz combines that can-do attitude with a party-till-you-drop philosophy — she routinely hosted champagne bashes in her hospital room after her accident, attended a glitzy party aboard a sailboat while lashed to the mast in her wheelchair shortly after being discharged, and insisted on being strapped in her speedboat for races with friends off Malibu. Her zest and somewhat gurulike aura (she tried, so far successfully, to wean the pregnant Griffith off cigarettes last month by sending her to a hypnotist and then giving her pep talks) may be why her showbiz friends number in the hundreds. Among them: Bruce Willis (the flirtatious von Beltz saw him on Moonlighting and sent him a glossy photo of herself and a couple dozen roses), Jamie Lee Curtis, ICM president Jim Wiatt, producers like Michael Douglas’ partner Steve Reuther (who was a quadriplegic after a car accident himself and recovered fully after 10 years of therapy), Hollywood veterans like writer Buck Henry and playwright George Furth.