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Famed Hollywood stuntman Jack Williams honored with plaque on Western Walk

Santa Clarita Cowboy Festival 2005

Posted: April 25, 2008 12:26 a.m.
Updated: July 17, 2008 1:06 a.m.

"I want to keep all this pristine," said Jack Williams, surveying the 360-degree scenic panorama from a ridge on the ranch he owns on the southwest side of Agua Dulce, California,

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This is an expanded version of a "Faces" feature first published on Page A-1 of The Signal April 25, 2005. Williams, who rode off into the sunset on April 10, 2007, will be honored with a video tribute during the Walk of Western Stars gala Friday, April 25, 2008.

"I want to keep all this pristine," said Jack Williams, surveying the 360-degree scenic panorama from a ridge on the ranch he owns on the southwest side of Agua Dulce, California, off State Route 14 near Saddleback Peak. It's just a few miles as the crow flies from Vasquez Rocks, where so many classic Westerns have been filmed.

A Santa Clarita Valley resident since the mid-1970s, Williams is one of the four Western film and television legends whose names will be added to the Walk of Western Stars in Newhall starting 3 p.m. Friday, April 29, joining fellow inductees Powers Boothe, Graham Greene and Harry Carey Jr.

Williams bought his "few hundred acres of paradise," as he put it, in 1964 with proceeds from his lucrative career as one of Hollywood's best, most active and celebrated Western stuntmen. "Coco bought the ranch," he said, referring to the horse he rode in many of his most famous scenes. Coco died at age 33 and is buried near Williams' adobe-style home on the spread. (2008 note: Of course we got the joke, Jack!)

Williams' finely chiseled facial features, muscular build and stunt expertise made him a popular stand-in for nearly every top Western actor in Hollywood during the genre's golden era.

His specialty: making a horse rear up on its hind legs and fall on its side -- as if shot out from under the rider -- without causing injury to either.

Today, Williams calls his property Quail Trail Springs and has kept the vast majority of the acreage untouched, except for fire access roads. "It will never be developed," he said. "I'm no tree-hugger, but we're all just caretakers here. I want to give it back to all the critters that used to live here.

Nestled in a quiet canyon, Williams' large adobe-styled ranch house is bright, open and airy, with stone courtyard and gurgling fountain adjacent to the entryway. In the northwest corner of the house, which he shares with his devoted wife Clare, his work station is as well-equipped as any 21st century telecommuter's home office.

"I don't like going into town unless I have to," Williams grinned, perched in his command center with a view. "I'd rather stay right here, in these mountains. This place is my tranquility."

The peace and quiet Williams enjoys today contrasts with the action-packed film and television career that took him to locations throughout the SCV and all over the world.

Williams, who turned 84 on April 15, performed his first stunt on a horse at age four, being tossed from a horse to a stagecoach in "The Flaming Forest," a 1926 silent. A decade later, at 15, he rode in "The Charge of the Light Brigade" starring Errol Flynn.

Starting as an 18-year-old freshman at USC, where he soon became a varsity polo star, Williams worked his way through college stunting for movies. He earned up to $225 a day taking spills from horses, bull-dogging steers, and standing on and jumping two horses over a car at the same time, Roman-style.

Williams performed stunts in "Dodge City" and had a bit part as a hot-headed soldier in "Gone with the Wind," both released in 1939, while still in school.

Before retiring a few years ago, Williams' only break in the action came during World War II, where he saw action on a different scale. He joined the Coast Guard in June 1942 after graduating from USC, and served three and a half years during and just after the war.

"You know where I was 60 years ago?" he asked a reporter last Saturday. "Okinawa."

Williams was navigator on an LST delivering troops to the beach during the April 1, 1945 invasion of the Japanese-held Pacific island.

"I was the key guy, the only one who knew where we were supposed to be," he said. "All my life, I've tended to think in terms of picture productions, and [the battle for Okinawa] was the greatest production I've even seen."

The Allies were victorious by June 21, but at a cost of more American lives than the battles for the islands of Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima combined.

After the war, Williams got back in the stunt saddle on Howard Hawks' epic "Red River," released in 1948. Since then his work has been featured in more than 80 films. The most recent was 1999's "Wild Wild West," when he was 78. "We shot that in Placerita Canyon," he said.

Along with Flynn, Williams doubled for or worked with many other Western icons in his six-decades-plus career, including John Wayne, Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Ronald Reagan, James Stewart, Gary Cooper, Fess Parker, Richard Widmark, Robert Taylor, Yul Brynner, Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, Lee Marvin, Brian Keith, Glenn Ford, Ray Milland, Joel McCrea, Charlton Heston, Gregory Peck, Clint Eastwood, William Holden and Kirk Douglas. Williams even doubled for actresses including Olivia de Havilland, Julie Adams, Greer Garson, Sophia Loren, Lucille Ball, Claudia Cardinale and Angie Dickinson.

Williams and his stable-full of tricks appeared in genre-defining oaters such as "The Alamo," "The Last Outpost," "Bugles in the Afternoon," "Bend of the River," "The Far Country," "Yellowstone Kelly," "How the West Was Won," "A Man Called Horse," "Cat Ballou," "The Professionals," "Major Dundee," "Alvarez Kelly," "Cheyenne Autumn," "The Sons of Katie Elder," "Rio Bravo," "Rio Lobo," "The War Wagon," and many more that can still be seen on cable, video and DVD.

On the small screen, Williams was the go-to guy for many '50s and '60s Western series, including Roy Rogers' and Dale Evans' long-running television show. Through the '50s, '60s and '70s, he had acting roles in series such as "Bonanza," "The High Chapparral," "The Monroes," "Rawhide," "Daniel Boone," "Laredo" and "Maverick." In 2002, he was prominently featured in the TNT cable channel's "Behind the Action: Stuntmen in the Movies" documentary.

Williams counts himself lucky to have worked with many of the legendary Western directors along the trail - including Howard Hawks, John Ford, Yakima Canut, George Stevens and John Sturgess.

The horse-fall stunt that made Williams so in-demand is one he learned from his father, George Williams, a cowboy from the Montana plains who could train a horse to fall on cue. As a youngster, Jack said, "There was probably no feat I could have imagined that was as fascinating as that.. He trained a horse they called ‘The Suicide Horse' -- worked him for almost three years until it nearly killed him.

"So I took the technique and perfected it."

George's wife Paris Williams, Jack's mother, was a world-champion trick rider on the rodeo circuit and a pioneering movie stuntwoman, and also taught her son many tricks.

Williams said the right combination of horse and rider is what it takes to pull the horse fall, a very unnatural thing for a horse to do. "It's as hard to get a horse that has all of the things you need to do this as it is to find a Willie Mays," he said. "The other part is communication - I could communicate with the horse.

"First, you build a rapport with the animal. You never hurt him, because he has to have confidence in you. He thinks you're King Kong. The minute he finds out you're not, he becomes unreliable. You do a million things right with a horse but ruin him if you do one thing wrong. Guess what the horse remembers?

"The idea is to be able to perform under any condition under any circumstance," Williams said.

"There were cases [on movie sets] where they'd been wasting valuable production time trying to get a horse to fall, and I'd be the guy they'd call in who could put it on film in one shot."

One of the few stuntman members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Williams was a founder of the Stuntman's Association of Motion Pictures, and is a member of the Stuntman's Hall of Fame. He's also a proud recipient of the Motion Picture & Television Fund's Golden Boot Award.

Williams, who first visited Saugus with his folks in 1927, and whose mother lived in Newhall and at the Agua Dulce ranch in her later years, views his new five-pointer on the Walk of Western Stars as an honor just as significant as his previous accolades.

"I've been such a part of Newhall over the years, and if my mom and dad could see this, she would be honored, and he'd think that's the way it should be," he said, eyes welling up a bit. "They thought I was the greatest guy that ever lived, that I was Superman. Just thinking about it breaks me up even now."

Williams paused to reflect and compose.

"As a stuntman, life's an adventure," he said. "It's marvelous, but so fragile. You remember in 'The War Wagon' where they've got the dynamite shaking and it could go off any second? That's the way life is."

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