>There's a series of beer commercials on the air now in which the spokesman is presented as "The World's Most Interesting Man" — a suave, hottie-draped fella who intones: "Stay thirsty, my friends."
He obviously never met Hal Needham.
Needham will take part this week in the Little Rock Film Festival, including introducing a special, outdoor showing of 1977's "Smokey and the Bandit" — which he conceived and directed — at the Riverfest Amphitheatre on Sunday, June 5, beginning at dusk. Admission is free.
Born desperately poor in Memphis and raised in sharecropper shacks all over Arkansas, Needham was a tree-trimmer and airplane wing-walker who went on to become a pioneering stuntman in Hollywood, personally bringing many safety and technique innovations to the business. When he wasn't falling from high places, Needham directed 10 films, including "Smokey and the Bandit," "Hooper" and "Stroker Ace." In his free time, he tried to break the sound barrier on wheels in a rocket car. If that wasn't enough, he lived in Burt Reynolds' poolhouse throughout the 1970s — very, very good years to be a houseguest and friend of Burt Reynolds.
World's Most Interesting Man? Yeah, I think Needham's got a lifetime lock on that title.
Plainspoken, with a hint of Southern twang, Needham, 80, is retired now. Little, Brown and Co. recently published his memoir, "Stuntman! My Car-Crashing, Plane-Jumping, Bone-Breaking, Death-Defying Hollywood Life." In places, it's a tale so crazy it sounds like fiction.
The stepson of a farmer who regularly uprooted his family to follow the crops, Needham lived outside of at least eight different towns in Arkansas before he was 10 years old (I say "outside" because he said his family always seemed to light 10 to 12 miles from civilization). They were too poor to own a car, so when they moved, the family traveled by mule-drawn wagon.
"We were bottom of the totem pole," Needham said recently in a phone interview. "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."
Needham's stepfather moved to St. Louis during World War II to work in the materiel plants there, and the family soon followed. When Needham was older, he killed off his fear of heights working as a tree-trimmer, and soon found work on weekends in a stunt show at the airport, dangling upside down from a rope ladder under a biplane while crowds gasped below.
From there, it was on to Hollywood, where Needham slowly worked his way into stunt work. It was tough going in the early years. "The stunt business is kind of a closed business. A lot of it is father-and-son, or father-and-daughter," he said. "When you were like me, and you had no relatives and no help or anything, it was tough skiddin'. You had to go out and politick, and if you got an opportunity, you really had to show your stuff and be good."
Once he got his shot — showing off his tree-climbing skills while working as an extra on an episode of "Have Gun, Will Travel" about lumberjacks — Needham quickly made a name for himself as a man who would go bigger than everybody else. Before long, he was in high demand, doubling for John Wayne and doing stunts on just about every 1960s TV show you can name, from "Bonanza" to "Star Trek."
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