One of Hollywood's busiest and most accomplished stunt men for over two decades, Hal Needham broke into directing features via his friend, actor Burt Reynolds, who starred in several wildly popular if decidedly low-brow action-comedies for him, including "Smokey and the Bandit" (1977), "Hooper" (1978) and "The Cannonball Run" (1981). Critics despised Needham's cardboard scripts, which were largely constructed as filler between elaborate stunts and stale gags, but he deflected naysayers with good humor. Laughter seemed to be the key element of his work both on and offscreen, as evidenced by his penchant for running bloopers under the end credits of his films. Needham's career waned in the early 1980s, prompting a move to television, but his early movie efforts remained the epitome of crowd-pleasing, popcorn-driven entertainment for over three decades. He died in October 2013.
Born Hal Brett Needham in Memphis, TN on March 6, 1931, he was the son of Howard Needham and his wife, Edith May Robinson. Raised largely in rural Tennessee and Arkansas, he developed his taste for extreme adventure while working as a tree topper in the logging industry, and later, as a paratrooper during the Korean War. After completing his military service, Needham relocated to Southern California, where he worked briefly as a billboard model for Viceroy cigarettes while seeking to break into the film industry as a stuntman. He apprenticed under the legendary Chuck Roberson, John Wayne's longtime stunt double, before breaking out on his own as Richard Boone's stunt double on the Emmy-winning television Western, "Have Gun, Will Travel" (CBS, 1958-1963). That job soon led to steady work on other TV horse operas, including "Rawhide" (CBS, 1959-1965) and "Riverboat" (NBC, 1959-1961). The latter series introduced him to Burt Reynolds, who soon became one of Needham's best friends and supporters.
Needham soon found work as a stuntman in a wide variety of feature films, including John Ford's "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" (1962), "How the West Was Won" (1962) and "Camelot" (1967). By the mid-1960s, he had advanced to stunt coordinator, working frequently with journeyman director Andrew V. McLaglen on such films as "Bandolero!" (1968) and "The Undefeated" (1969), and frequently taking small acting roles in his projects, most of which required him to take a punch or fall off a horse. In 1971, he joined forces with fellow stuntmen Ronnie Rondell and Glenn Wilder to create Stunts Unlimited, an exclusive organization of stunt performers who sought to provide top-notch stunt work for the industry. The company would later serve as the basis for 1980's "Stunts Unlimited" (ABC), an action-adventure film directed by Needham about stunt men recruited for espionage jobs.
In 1973, Needham advanced to second unit director on "White Lightning," a Southern-set action vehicle for Reynolds, and later served similar duties on "The Longest Yard" (1974) and "Gator" (1976). He also set out to raise funding for a low-budget action-comedy he had penned called "Smokey and the Bandit," which concerned a lovable outlaw who attempts to haul 400 cases of beer to a rodeo in 28 hours while avoiding a tough Southern sheriff. Actor-singer Jerry Reed was initially attached to play the Bandit, but Needham found it difficult to garner any interest until Reynolds read the script and agreed to play the lead. Universal Pictures soon came on board, and with Reed as the Bandit's pal, Snowman, Reynolds' real-life girlfriend Sally Field as the love interest, and comedy legend Jackie Gleason as the sheriff, "Smokey and the Bandit" went on to become the second highest-grossing film of 1977, bested only by the global phenomenon of "Star Wars" (1977).
Needham soon launched into a string of low-budget, high-energy action-comedies that attempted to reproduce the lightning in a bottle excitement of "Smokey." The results were largely mixed: "The Villain" (1979), with Kirk Douglas as a wily and seemingly indestructible Western heel who attempted to steal away Ann-Margret from virtuous sheriff Arnold Schwarzenegger, was dismissed as a live-action cartoon, but "Hooper" (1978), with Reynolds as an aging stunt man unable to give up the adrenalin rush of his job, benefitted from a smart script and fine performances by Field, Brian Keith and a host of savvy supporting players, including James Best, Robert Klein and John Marley. But none could match the popularity and box office draw of the original "Smokey," so a sequel, 1981's "Smokey and the Bandit II," was quickly drafted. It drew respectable ticket sales and scored a world record when stunt man Buddy Joe Hooker jumped a Dodge Monaco over 150 feet, but failed to reproduce the charm of its predecessor.
Needham officially left stunt work after "The End" in 1978, instead devoting his time to directing, as well as a bid for the World Land Speed Record. He was instrumental in the development of the Budweiser Rocket, which in 1979 reportedly broke the sound barrier with speeds in excess of 739 miles an hour. The record was never officially bestowed on the vehicle, and Needham later moved on to racecar driver Harry Gant's Skoal Bandit, which he owned in the 1980s. The decade was also Needham's most prolific, as well as the period in which he earned the most critical brickbats for his work. Needham's films in the 1980s stuck to a simple formula - big stars, bigger action and broad comedy - which made for some crowd-pleasing films like "The Cannonball Run" (1981), a slapstick, all-star race picture with Reynolds, Dom DeLuise, Farrah Fawcett, Roger Moore and even Asian superstar Jackie Chan criss-crossing the country in an illegal race. "Cannonball" was the sixth highest-grossing film of 1981, inspiring a 1984 sequel that pushed the limits of vehicular mayhem and moribund gags. It failed to attract the crowds, followed by a similar reception for "Stroker Ace" (1984), which paired Reynolds with his real-life love interest, Loni Anderson. 1982's big-budget science fiction epic "Megaforce," with Barry Bostwick as a motorcycle-driving superhero, also tanked, which essentially brought Needham's movie career to a halt.
In the late 1980s, he worked largely in television, where he produced and directed a string of syndicated TV-movies featuring his Bandit character, played by former soap star Brian Bloom. The quartet of projects, which began with 1994's "Bandit Goes Country" and wrapped with "Bandit's Silver Angel" (1994), performed modestly well for Needham, who also reunited with old friend Reynolds to helm an episode of his short-lived series, "B.L. Stryker" (ABC, 1989-1990). His final turn behind the camera as a director came with 1999's "Hard Time: Hostage Hotel" (TNT), a TV-movie with Burt Reynolds as a former convict-turned-detective. The new millennium saw Needham contribute his experience to several documentaries on his famous stars, as well as the NASCAR documentary "Tim Richmond: To the Limit," which aired as part of the "30 for 30" (2009-2010) series on ESPN. In 2011, he released his autobiography, Stuntman! My Car-Crashing, Plane-Jumping, Bone-Breaking, Death-Defying Hollywood Life. Hal Needham died of cancer on October 25, 2013.