A family of stuntmen | EW.com

Movies

A family of stuntmen

A family of stuntmen -- Members of the Epper family recall death-defying stunts for TV's ''Wonder Woman,'' and blockbusters like ''Die Hard'' and ''Romancing the Stone''

Being on the tightrope is living; everything else is waiting.” — Karl Wallenda

The great ones will tell you that when the moment comes there is no fear. But Matt Epper is afraid. He didn’t think he would be. Maybe a little, but not like this. Everyone said it would be easy: his sister, his uncle, even his grandmother. But as he stands on the edge of the roof looking down at the ground, he can’t hear any of them screaming for him to jump. All he can hear is his own heartbeat racing so fast that he feels like his chest might explode.

The boy is 10 years old. His hair is as blond as Southern California. And he has thought about this moment since he was 5 or 6. But now that it’s finally here, he isn’t so sure anymore. Then, out of the corner of his eye, he sees his mother. ”Just jump, Matt! Come on! There’s nothing to it! Just kick your legs out and fly!”

What the hell is going on? Why would a mother tell her own son to jump off a roof? What kind of sense does that make? But it’s his mother, so he puts aside his fear, closes his eyes, and jumps. The crash pad lets out a loud wheeze as he lands on his back. There’s a thousand-watt smile on his face. It’s over. He’s safe. And just like that, the 10-year-old boy has become an Epper.

Matt’s mother, Eurlyne, is a stuntwoman. His uncles and aunts are stuntpeople too. Even his grandmother is a stuntwoman. And if Matt winds up jumping off roofs for a living when he grows up, he’ll take his place in the fourth generation of Eppers in the family business.

It’s no exaggeration to say that for nearly as long as there have been movies where cowboys fall off horses, or cars get flipped, or bad guys get set on fire, there have been Eppers. By the family’s best reckoning there have been 15 Eppers who have risked their necks in the film industry since the 1930s. A couple dozen more if you count in-laws and cousins. In fact, Steven Spielberg calls them ”the Flying Wallendas of film,” after the famous German high-wire family. Like Daleys in Chicago politics, or Mannings in pro football, the stunt business is a dynastic one. They’re simply born into it.

The Eppers may not be the most famous stuntpeople in Hollywood, or the flashiest, but their roots undoubtedly go the deepest. If you watch an old Western with Gary Cooper doing a fancy dismount from a horse, you’re watching an Epper. When you see Janet Leigh being stabbed in the shower in Psycho, the killer’s hand is an Epper’s. Kathleen Turner being swept down a mudslide in Romancing the Stone? An Epper. That bus ripped apart in the Transformers movie? Take a wild guess who was behind the wheel. This paragraph could go on all day.

It takes a certain breed of lunatic to lay his or her life on the line for a few feet of film. Making a living by taking big risks, putting all of your chips on black, believing that each stunt will somehow work out, would seem to most people to be a form of insanity. But if you ask any of the Eppers about why they do it, they just shrug and laugh like it’s the first time they even considered the question. They just don’t scare. Never have. It’s that simple. The Eppers are the most fearless family in Hollywood.

Ever since the early days of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, when films were silent and stunts were mostly pratfalls and slapstick, stuntmen have referred to what they do as ”gags.” There are horse gags, car gags, fire gags. Let’s say, for example, that a director asked you to be shot out of a cannon in a film. That’s a cannon gag (although it’s probably not very funny to the person in the cannon). John Epper’s first gag was jumping a horse over a car.

Born in Gossau, Switzerland, in 1906, the patriarch of the Epper stunt clan was a member of the Swiss mounted cavalry who spoke five languages. His great-grandfather was a colonel in Napoleon’s army. Epper came to America in 1926 and eventually wound up in California, where he took a job at a horse-riding academy. As a side business, they rented horses to the movie studios.

One day, while making a delivery to the MGM lot, Epper ran into a frantic director who needed someone to jump a horse over a Packard. The stuntman who’d been hired had tried the stunt, but couldn’t pull it off. Epper volunteered, and before he knew it, he was being dressed up in a cowboy outfit. He nailed the jump on the first take, and the studio gave him 25 dollars. He was hooked. It was the golden age of the Western, and there was plenty of work for a daredevil who was comfortable in the saddle. Eventually, Epper began doubling for stars like Gary Cooper, Ronald Reagan, and Errol Flynn.

John Epper, his wife Frances, and their growing family lived on a ranch in North Hollywood back when the area was connected by dirt roads and every backyard had stables and an orange grove. Will Rogers’ horse, Trigger, was stabled at the end of their street. Epper had six children — three boys and three girls — and soon they were running roughshod over the neighborhood. ”We were the terrors of Long Ridge Avenue,” says Tony Epper, the oldest of the sons, now 70. ”We were a wild group,” adds his brother Andy, 63. ”We all rode horses by the time we were 4 or 5. We were happy kids. And we’d fight anybody who came across us. That was our reputation.”

After school, the six Epper kids would practice galloping their father’s horses alongside moving trains and leaping onto them from their mounts. When they got older, they would rent cars from Hertz and teach themselves how to stunt-drive. ”They got wise to us after a while,” recalls Andy, laughing. ”The tires were never quite the same after we got through with them. We’d practice doing 180s and 360s and high-speed drifts. We never got busted, but they wouldn’t rent cars to any more Eppers after a while.”

Tony was the first to follow his father into the business. But soon Andy and the middle daughter, Jeannie, were getting bit parts in films like The Day the Earth Stood Still; Stephanie, the youngest of the girls, was standing in for the star of the TV show My Friend Flicka; and Gary was doing stunts on Rin Tin Tin. As the years went on, there was hardly a movie that came out of Hollywood that didn’t include an Epper in its end credits. If you squint hard enough, you’ll see a second-generation Epper falling down an elevator shaft or hanging from a helicopter in such smash-and-burn classics as The Wild Bunch, The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno, Die Hard, and Commando. ”Twenty years ago, you couldn’t walk onto a movie set and not see one of us,” says Jeannie, 66.

As the Epper kids grew up and established themselves as some of the most reliable and toughest hired hands in the industry, they began to have Epper kids of their own (seven of whom would go on to become stuntpeople). Which isn’t to say that the original Epper kids, the terrors of Long Ridge Avenue, had settled down. Burt Reynolds, who began his Hollywood career doing stunts alongside industry legend Hal Needham, remembers going to a favorite stuntman bar in North Hollywood called the Palomino, where the Eppers were known to raise hell.

”Let me tell you a story,” says Reynolds, cracking a frisky smile. ”Needham and I are sitting in the Palomino and two Epper girls are sitting at the bar. And a guy walks over to them and Hal says, ‘I’ll bet you a hundred bucks that that guy will be flat on his back in 30 seconds.’ And 25 seconds later, that guy was laid out cold on the floor. The Epper girls are tougher than most of the men in the business. And the guys will admit it! They’re amazing.”

No Epper has ever died doing a movie stunt. Their bodies may creak like old Shaker furniture when they get out of bed in the morning, but none have ever been killed in the line of duty. While fatalities in the business are fairly rare, you’d think that given just how many Eppers there are out there being set on fire and jackknifing cars at ridiculous speeds, there’d be a few close calls. And you’d be right.

Next to the front door of Jeannie Epper’s home in Simi Valley, Calif., is a sign that reads ”All men are idiots, and I married their king.” Jeannie is a great-grandmother now and married to a man who’s 21 years younger than she is. Her knees are nearly shot, but she’s still tough as an anvil. Last week she got paid to jump through a plate-glass window.

A couple of years ago, Jeannie was the subject of a documentary called Double Dare. But one thing that wasn’t mentioned in the film was the time Jeannie almost died. In the late ’60s, Jeannie was working on a TV show called Lancer, a Bonanza-style Western. She was standing in for a young actress who was supposed to be clutching a doll while trapped in a burning cabin. Before the scene, the director told Jeannie, ”Whatever you do, don’t let go of the doll.” Jeannie had a feeling before the house was set on fire that something wasn’t right with the gag. But it was too late. As the cabin started to go up in flames, beams started falling all around her. Fire was everywhere. She was trapped. ”When I woke up in the hospital, all my hair was burned off,” she says, ”but I still had that little doll in my hands. You should have seen that doll, too. It was all fried up. We both were.”

Jeannie Epper did her first professional stunt at 9: She rode a horse bareback down a cliff. Now, 57 years later, she’s considered by many to be the greatest stuntwoman who’s ever lived. Earlier this year, she was the first woman to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Oscars of the stunt world, the Taurus World Stunt Awards. Right before they began the tribute, a procession of nearly a hundred stuntwomen walked on stage. All of them owed their careers to Jeannie.

In the ’70s, Jeannie was Lynda Carter’s stunt double on TV’s Wonder Woman. And during the ’80s, whenever you saw Krystle throwing down in a catfight with Alexis on Dynasty, that was Jeannie under a blond Linda Evans wig. But there’s no question that her most famous stunt — or pair of stunts — came while shooting 1984’s Romancing the Stone.

In addition to standing in for Kathleen Turner during the film’s famous rain-forest mudslide, Jeannie swung on a vine across a 350-foot gorge. Terry Leonard, one of the film’s stunt coordinators, remembers the gag as a particularly unfunny one. ”While we were rigging the cables, we tied off to a tree. And when we did a test, the tree pulled right out of the ground because it had rained so much in Mexico. It went crashing down into the canyon. Something like that will take away your confidence pretty quickly. But Jeannie, she just stepped up and did it when it was time.”

Jeannie, like a lot of men and women who cheat death for a living, is deeply religious. As the old battlefield saying goes, ”There are no atheists in a foxhole.” When she gets ready to do a stunt, she takes a moment to pray. ”As far as I’m concerned, whenever I do a stunt, it’s 150 percent going to work out. But I’m a born-again Christian and I have a tendency to pray about it, get focused, and then say, ‘God, it belongs to you now.”’

You’d think that with all of the close calls and banged-up body parts she’s had over the years, a woman like Jeannie wouldn’t exactly be thrilled about having her kids follow her into the business. But all three of her children, Richard, Eurlyne, and Kurtis, are stuntpeople (as is Eurlyne’s 23-year-old son, Christopher). ”I’ll probably keep doing it until I can’t walk anymore — like my mom,” says Kurtis, a boyish-looking blond whose résumé includes jumping off the deck of an aircraft carrier in Pearl Harbor. ”She needs a knee replacement, but she won’t do it because she doesn’t want to stop working.”

All of Jeannie’s brothers and sisters have retired from stuntwork. But there’s something inside of her that won’t, or can’t, give it up. ”Some guys don’t like to put me in a really dangerous position anymore,” she says. ”It hurts your pride to acknowledge that you’re getting older. I’ve had to go through that the past few years. But I’m not emotionally ready to stop yet. My neighbors think I’m nuts.”

Whether through prayer, preparation, or just sheer craziness, stuntpeople are wired differently than people like you and me — the people who pay 10 bucks to see them anonymously risk their lives on screen. Tony Epper once crashed a propeller plane into the Pacific Ocean for a film, flipping it end over end like a pinwheel. Gary once did a high fall from 114 feet. Eurlyne’s had three neck surgeries and still wakes up every morning and goes to work. ”Is there fear? No, there isn’t,” says Needham. ”Now, I’ve made mistakes. I’ve broken 56 bones in my body, and each one was a mistake. But when we do stunts, there’s just no room for fear.”

Actually, there is one thing that stuntpeople are afraid of, and that’s CGI. To anyone in the business, it’s a four-letter word. Stunts that used to be done in real time by real men and women risking real danger are now being done on computers by digital F/X geeks. As a result, there’s less stuntwork to go around. Also, the business is becoming more and more like, well, a business. ”There’s no more fun,” complains Needham. ”All that digital stuff — we used to do that crap for real! I hate that stuff. Young kids who play videogames seem to like it, but I don’t.”

Some diehards like Jeannie believe there will always be a demand to see stuntpeople wager their lives for a paycheck. ”I just think people would rather watch real stunts and real risk in a movie. I think we still have that thirst from the gladiator days. If you know it’s all going to be safe, who’s going to hold their breath watching a stunt?”

Certainly, the business will never be the same as it was 20, 30, or 40 years ago — the Wild West outlaw days of Hooper and The Fall Guy, of working hard, playing hard, and getting into barroom brawls at the Palomino. But to some degree, Jeannie’s absolutely right. The movies will always need crazy men and women working in the shadows, doing the stuff that actors are afraid to do. Cars will still need to be flipped. People will still need to be set on fire. Roofs will need to be jumped from. There will always be stuntpeople. Which is to say, there will always be Eppers unafraid to put aside their fear, close their eyes, and jump.