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The accidental stuntman: a local reflects on his career in movies

Posted: April 25, 2009 9:51 p.m.
Updated: April 26, 2009 4:55 a.m.

Terry Leonard's Agua Dulce home office is adorned with numerous photographs of the stunt work he did in his early film career. Today Leonard directs movies and has been involved in the last three films of the Fast and Furious series.

 

Terry Leonard never planned to go into the movie business.

Plan A was to teach and coach. Plan B was to play professional football.

The Agua Dulce resident never imagined his career would eventually find him being dragged behind a truck on a desert road, doubling for Harrison Ford in the 1981 blockbuster “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”

Remember that fantastic, explosive freight-train crash in 1993’s “The Fugitive?” Leonard directed that sequence.
Since 1963, 68-year-old Leonard has either performed or coordinated stunts in more than 100 films, and has served as second-unit director for more than 40 movies.

His first job was as an extra in the 1963 John Wayne film “McLintock!” while he was still a student at the University of Arizona.

“I had no intention of being in the movie business,” he said.

Leonard, tall and muscular with chiseled features, competed in trials for the 1964 Olympics, and played professional football for three years with the British Columbia Lions in Vancouver.

He was sacked from the football field by a back injury, and in 1966, he contacted actor and stuntman Chuck Roberson, whom he’d met on the set of “McLintock!” and asked how he could get into the stunt business.

“I gave this business a year,” he said. “I caught fire. I started working and never looked back.

“They paid me to go all over the world to play cowboys and Indians.”

Over the last several decades, Leonard has performed stunts in films including “The Shootist,” “Big Jake,” “Romancing the Stone,” “Patriot Games” and “Death Proof.” He’s coordinated the stunts for movies including “Apocalypse Now,” “Red Dawn” and “Rush Hour.”

“I’d like to think I’m a good stuntman,” he said. “It’s a hell of a way to make a living.”

Leonard has had his share of injuries through the years, and has had two hip-replacement surgeries.

His famous stunt in “Raiders ” was inspired by a stunt gone wrong.

While working on William Fraker’s “The Legend of the Lone Ranger,” Leonard performed a similar stunt — a nod to famous stuntman Yakima Canutt — by leaping from a horse to a stagecoach.

He was badly injured after being run over by the coach and spent three months recovering.

When he was working on the Indiana Jones film, he said, he proposed the stunt to director Steven Spielberg, and it was written into the script, with the stagecoach swapped out for a Nazi supply truck. The rest is cinematic history.

Stunt work has also become a family affair.

Both of Leonard’s sons — Malosi, 30, and Matt, 29 — have become stuntmen in the past five years.

“They like it,” he said, beaming as he talked about his sons. “They’re great athletes.”

Leonard has also put in time behind the camera.

Most recently, he directed the action sequences for “Fast and Furious,” the auto-centric Vin Diesel action flick that has so far grossed more than $116 million at U.S. theaters.

This was not his first ride on the “Furious” franchise. Leonard was also second-unit director for “2 Fast 2 Furious” and “The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift.”

Leonard was second-unit director for 1995’s “Die Hard: With a Vengeance,” and it was during that project that he developed a friendship with storyboard artist Warren Drummond.

Leonard said he received a call from Drummond, who set him up with an interview with director John Singleton for the second-unit director job for the 2003 film, “2 Fast 2 Furious.”

When the next film came around, he said, “they thought enough of me to bring me back.”

With directing comes a different level of stress, he said.

“When they hand the second unit over to you, you’re no longer a stuntman,” Leonard said. “They know your name. You’ve got to have your ducks in a row.”

He’s taken on the role of primary director only once, for the 1987 film “Death Before Dishonor,” filmed in Israel and starring Fred Dryer of the 1980s “Hunter” TV series.

Having worked in front of the camera gives Leonard strength when he works behind it, he said.

“I know what’s going through (a stuntman’s) mind,” he said. “I know how to fix something if it doesn’t look right on film.”

Being an actor doesn’t necessarily make for a better director, he said, “but it sure helps.”

Leonard would like to direct another film, but he said it’s not the be-all, end-all of his career.

“I’m very content with what I do,” he said. “I was real content being a stunt man.”

A longtime fan of Western films, Leonard is doing his part to preserve that heritage.

A major draw to the Agua Dulce property he bought 25 years ago — besides being a getaway from the hustle-bustle of Hollywood — was the roping arena he built.

Leonard is a member of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, and attends rodeos throughout the Western states.

As the cowboy movie has declined in popularity, the rodeo circuit has attracted a number of stuntmen who specialized in Western films, Leonard said.

“It keeps the Western element in our lives,” he said.

He lamented the slow disappearance of the Western film.

“It’s a vanishing era,” he said. “The morality of looking a man in the eye, shaking his hand and meaning it is becoming less and less popular.”

Leonard’s celluloid life has brought him accolades.

In 2003, he received the Golden Boot Award for his work as a stuntman and director, plus the World Stunt Awards’ lifetime achievement award. He is one of only five stunt coordinators to be invited to be a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and was inducted into the Motion Picture Stuntmen’s Hall of Fame.

“To be anything in this business, you have to be driven,” he said. “I take my job seriously, (but) I don’t take myself seriously.”

 

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