“Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood”: A Nickell-odeon Review (with Personal Memoir)

September 4, 2019

This latest film by director Quentin Tarantino is a masterful collage of the movie city of 1969, providing a genius mix of fairy tale, cinema business, sheer hilarity, and horror that will have staying power. It held a special fascination for me who, just eight years later (in 1977), became immersed in what was still much the same world (even if I experienced it in decidedly my own way).

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (OUATIH) is gritty fiction about the lives of two washed-up stars—actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his faithful stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt)—in an imaginative saga of their challenges and escapades. The pair struggle from Hollywood’s backlots, to demeaning time making a spaghetti western, and worse—foreshadowed by the fact of Rick’s living next door to actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). There’s an encounter with the Manson family living at Spahn Movie Ranch (Spoiler alert:) and later the series of horrific slaughters of August 8 and 9, 1969.

In mid-April 1977, I had returned to the U.S. from Canada, having been wanted by the FBI as a Vietnam War refusenik but then pardoned by President Carter. I took the opportunity to sign up for Paul Stader’s Hollywood Stunt School. For a year, that gave me a chance to learn about movie illusions, as I had already done with a three-year-stint as a magician—a skill set I was already applying to the investigation of “paranormal” and other “strange” mysteries.

Paul Stader was a famous stuntman of another era, although still fit and active, occasionally being absent from class to be on location for The Man from Atlantis sci fi TV series. We heard many exciting stories firsthand. For example in one recent stunt he’d thrown a car into a skid, at which a stuntman and stuntwoman leapt in either direction. But it was such a close call that the stuntman’s shoe was sent flying through the air—beautifully captured on film! Another time he said actor Steve McQueen had exclaimed across a set, “Hey Paul, I saw one of your old reruns the other night”—referring to The Hurricane (1937) with Stader’s amazing 97-foot dive.

Speaking of McQueen, People.com reports he was intended to be at Sharon Tate’s house the night of her murder. However, he instead went off “with a chickie” (according to his ex-wife) which saved his life—at least in the real world (second Spoiler alert:) even though Tarantino did a fairytale rewrite of the whole terroristic affair.

In another McQueen connection at stunt school, I once worked out with a stunt double for actress Jennifer Jones who appeared with McQueen and Paul Newman in The Towering Inferno. The double had done a 40-foot high fall in the disaster film—for which Stader was stunt coordinator. Now she demonstrated with me an old trick: how to connect to an opponent with a handshake, then quickly place both feet in his midriff, while falling backward, and so flip him over one’s head. It was wonderful being taught by an expert.

There’s a great scene in OUATIH in which martial artist Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) challenges smartass Booth to a test of skills. He bests Booth at first, but then the stuntman turns the tables, throwing Lee so hard against a car it leaves a body dent in the passenger door. Tarantino’s inventive combining of comedy, exaggeration, and perfection of every detail—carried out on the reprised set of The Green Hornet—is proof that the acclaimed director is far from his last hurrah.

While Tarantino did caricature Bruce Lee’s cocksure persona, in fact Lee was a successful martial arts trainer for such great stars as McQueen, Tate, and Tate’s husband Roman Polanski, choreographing some of the fight scenes for the 1968 Matt Helm film, The Wrecking Crew. (In OUATIH, Tarantino also creatively conjures up a delightful scene in which Tate charms her way into a theater to enjoy that newly made film.)

One of my most memorable stunt fights was with Julius LeFlore, even then a great stuntman noted for a terrific twelve-story high fall doubling Bill Cosby in A Piece of the Action. Julius picked me to help demonstrate to our class “picture fighting” (as it is called in the business). I’ll forever remember those big black fists skillfully just missing my face at perhaps thirty mph, while starkly aware that one misstep on my part—as I “took” each punch, seemingly jolted and staggering backward—could have been disastrous.

There is much looking back and engaging in self-analysis in OUATIH, as especially in a remarkable sequence in which Rick plays a villain on one set. He embarrassingly flubs his lines, and utterly despising himself later in his trailer, returns to give an unforgettable performance that reveals DiCaprio’s astonishing acting ability.

During stunt school I benefitted from many careful analyses shared with me by experts. For Example, Rita Egleston, who doubled Lindsay Wagner in the Bionic Woman TV series and became a prolific Hollywood stuntwoman, explained in detail how the “bionic” leap up to a height was actually accomplished: It was done backward, down onto an air bag and then the film sequence reversed and spliced to another showing her running up to a point from which the supposed leap is made. A shot of the star would also be spliced in at a suitable point. Rita explained that in the actual downward movement, her hair would blow up and the dress or pants legs would billow, so her hair was actually sewn to her blouse, and garments were weighted and fastened to her legs with double-stick tape. The necessity of landing feet first, she explained, was the main problem since that is the most dangerous position; such airbag falls and jumps usually involved landing on one’s back.

A special reward of my time shadowing the Hollywood stunt world was connecting for the first time with my own family legend (my mother’s first cousin) Don Turner, long a stunt double for such stars as Erroll Flynn—having been in all of Flynn’s movies. He’s mentioned as such in Flynn’s autobiography, My Wicked, Wicked Ways. Don regaled me with behind-the-scenes accounts and analysis—of sword fights and other adventures. One of the most memorable had him admitting, reluctantly, that he had once broken an arm—an ill-timed act that cost him about $40,000 in stunt work on location in Paris. It involved a scene in which several horseback riders were to fall from their mounts at the same time. However, one stuntman who had gotten in front of him would have been trampled—except that Don brought his own horse down: holding tightly onto the reins as he came off his steed. His injury occurred when another horse stepped on his arm.

During my year of stunt school, I worked to pay the bills as a hired gun for a security firm (after qualifying at the U.S. School of Law Enforcement). I thwarted robbers, pickpockets, and other lawbreakers, and recall some scenes that could have been in the movies. (The Manson killings were in the past, but having been a uniformed officer during the Hillside Strangler murders of 1977–78 I remembered some vivid incidents of people’s terror at those serial crimes.) I performed as a stuntman in a Hollywood stunt show at the Santa Monica Main Street Fair, and as an extra in a couple of movies. Breaking into career stunt work, I found, was about as difficult as being discovered as a starlet. I began late (in my early thirties), but I did study that world of illusion and learned from it to help shape my own unlikely detective career, now in its fiftieth year.