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Man on Fire 

A Q&A with writer/director/stuntman Hal Needham

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Raised in Arkansas, Hal Needham is one of the great American stuntmen, as well as the director of screwball, fast-car classics like "Smokey and the Bandit" 1 and 2 and "Cannonball Run." He'll be in Little Rock for the Little Rock Film Festival, and will provide the introduction for a special outdoor showing of "Smokey and the Bandit" on Sunday, June 5, at the Riverfest Amphitheatre, sponsored by the LRFF and Movies in the Park. Needham recently chatted by phone with Arkansas Times reporter David Koon from his home in West Hollywood, Calif.

AT: You were born in Memphis, but grew up mostly in Arkansas?

NEEDHAM: I was born in Memphis, and moved to Arkansas when I was probably 3 or 4 years old. Then I left when I was probably 11 or 12 — somewhere in that neighborhood.

AT: Where did your family live in Arkansas? I don't think it ever says in your book.

NEEDHAM: You got your pencil handy? I lived in El Dorado, I lived in Enwright, Georgetown, Oak Grove, Pangburn, Perkin and Sidon and West Helena. How's that for covering the state? We were sharecroppers, so every year, we were moving to a new place to live. That's why we moved around so much.

AT: What was it like moving around that much as a kid?

NEEDHAM: It wasn't very much fun. We didn't call a moving company to bring over a big van and a bunch of guys. We threw all our junk on a farm wagon with a team of mules, we hooked our cultivator behind because it had wheels, and tied the milk cow to that and away we went down the road.

When we'd move, as best I can remember, we'd leave late at night, maybe 1 o'clock in the morning, and it would take us all night and the next day to get where we were going. One time, as I remember, it was 10 or 11 at night, and we're going down this muddy road and our team is so tired they can hardly pull the wagon, and we get stuck. So my stepdad goes back to a house that wasn't very far back and asks the guy to pull us out. The guy said, "Well, I've got a team of mules back there, but they've never been hooked up. Let's see what happens." Can you imagine hooking a team of mules to a wagon that have never been worked? They were raring and jumping. I thought they were going to tear the wagon up, but they finally got us out, and we went on. It was not fun, the way I lived in Arkansas.

AT: From reading your book, it sounds like you were desperately poor, even by sharecropper standards.

NEEDHAM: We were bottom of the totem pole! We were always way back in the woods. All the towns I named you? We never lived in any of them. We were within 10 or 12 miles of them. So, yeah. We didn't have running water. A couple of times we had a well out in the yard, but most of the time we had to go carry water from a spring or the river or some damn thing. No electricity, obviously, and the only heat we had was a fireplace and cookstove. We were poor. Really poor.

AT: The accounts of it you write are harrowing. I especially liked the story about your mother canning all those vegetables so your family could live through the winter.

NEEDHAM: The summertime was spent prepping for wintertime. She'd put up three or four thousand quarts in the summertime. We canned everything, including meat, because we had no refrigeration and it would go bad. She canned everything — vegetables out of the garden, we'd pick blackberries before we'd go to work. She'd be cooking breakfast and we'd go out picking blackberries and she'd can them that day.

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