Years ago someone said to me, “If you want to hear some real stories about moviemaking, just talk to a stuntman.” I’ve since forgotten who actually gave me such sage advice, but he was dead on. Stuntmen and -women are the unsung heroes of the film industry, risking life and limb on a daily basis to make other people look good, rarely getting much acclaim (outside of the industry itself, at least) for their hard work. So if you ever find yourself in the same room as a stuntman, go buy him a drink; he’ll tell you some wild shit.
Until that day, however, do the next best thing: buy Vic Armstrong’s biography, The True Adventures of the World’s Greatest Stuntman: My Life as Indiana Jones, James Bond, Superman and Other Movie Heroes. You may not actually know who Vic is as of this writing, but I guarantee you’ll be telling all of your movie-geek friends his stories when you finish reading his book. The man has not only led an incredible and fascinating life, but his impact on the film industry is indelible.
Who Wrote it: Vic Armstrong obviously had more than a little bit to do with his own biography, but he also wrote it in conjunction with the great British film historian Robert Sellers, who has written books like Hellraisers: The Wild Lives and Fast Times of Marlon Brando, Dennis Hopper, Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson.
Who’s In It: Vic Armstrong, obviously. But the stories he tells involve more Hollywood greats than I can list in this small space. Stunt doubling for Harrison Ford, Christopher Reeve and half the actors who played James Bond; going to wild sex parties hosted by Burt Reynolds; meeting drug lords in South America; throwing Tom Cruise under a speeding truck; telling Steven Spielberg he’s wrong; being given a Quaran from Muammar Gaddafi … The people Vic has worked with in his life are incredible, and the man has an equally incredible story about each and every one of them.
What’s It About: Vic Armstrong, obviously. But more than that, World’s Greatest Stuntman is about two core things: showing how different the movie industry used to be (and how it can never, ever be the same again) and explaining just how important and overlooked the roles of people like Vic are. And Vic’s attitude on both fronts shows just why he is indeed the best in the business.
Why You Should Read It: If you’ve got any kind of interest in old Hollywood and the way things used to be, then this is without question a must-read for you. Not only do his stories involve some of the best filmmakers that have ever lived — David Lean, Stanley Kubrick, Steven Spielberg and James Cameron, just to name a few — but they revolve around how the nature of the business has changed. Things on set have become far more democratic. The absolute command that a director or an A-list producer had in the ‘60s and ‘70s and the lengths they would go to to get things done is mind-blowing.
Sure, everyone says, “They don’t make movies like they used to,” but that’s such a nebulous phrase. When you hear Vic talking about living on a movie set for over a year to film just a single sequence or about how other movies were in production for so long that many of the crew ended up marrying locals and having children before the films even wrapped, it’s painting a picture of a world that we can never go back to. But what’s great about Vic telling these stories isn’t that he’s some old man telling “back in my day” yarns; it’s that he’s been in the business for so long, he’s seen how it used to be, how it is today, and where it’s going next.
And if stories about the Hollywood of yesteryear aren’t your thing, don’t worry — Vic has plenty of modern stories and insights to share as well. He was the second unit director on movies like Total Recall (for which he filmed some 1,200 setups, which is ridiculous), Starship Troopers (for which Paul Verhoeven said he should have been called his co-director), Gangs of New York, War of the Worlds and even two versions of Mission: Impossible III (he spent months working with Scarlett Johansson on stunts only to have the movie get cancelled without explanation).
Basically, think back on all of the awesome blockbusters over the last 20 years that were filled with practical stunt work. Not the CGI-laden crap that comes out today, but stuff that involves a real person jumping from, say, a horse to a Panzer tank; or driving cars through an ice palace (Die Another Day); or driving half a car through an office building (The Green Hornet). If you watch it and go, “Damn, that looks like it hurt,” chances are Vic was involved somehow. He’s been this unheralded savior of movie magic for decades, and hearing how he makes the incredible credible is a must for any film fan.