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Stuntman Jim Palmer: Got another one in ya?

A Hollywood insider's view of a career filled with fire and free-falls

Posted: January 10, 2009 9:17 p.m.
Updated: January 11, 2009 4:55 a.m.

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Jim Palmer has been pushed out of speeding cars on the freeway. He has been in vicious fights where they pulled guns and knives; regularly been set on fire, shoved into an elevator and blown away by the Terminator. Sometimes he escapes by racing off in a motorcycle, only to crash and burn.

After a particularly gnarly stunt, such as a landing that completely "knocks the wind out of you," he gets up only to hear the inevitable question from the director. "Got another one in ya?"

Welcome to the hard knocks, adrenaline-driven world of stunt performers and Hollywood stuntman Palmer knows it first-hand.

"After landing with a thud, you check your inventory," he said. "I get up and wonder which way is the right direction to go. That comes from hitting the ground multiple times. But those bruises feel like money at the end of the day."

To make up for the pain, the film and TV industry has devised a unique method of compensation. A "stunt adjustment" is the term for the extra money a performer gets each time they achieve the desired effect on film or TV. The more dangerous the stunt, the more money they get paid. "We have to do it again and again for multiple cameras, or if they don't get the shot," Palmer said. "You always have to be ready, you might have a call time of 5 p.m. and not do your stunt until 3 a.m. But you have to be ready when they call to do what you are paid to do."

He describes one notable sequence in a recent film.

"A neat stunt that went really well was in ‘Last Man Standing' starring Bruce Willis," Palmer said. "I was doubling a bad guy who fell through a skylight onto a granite counter." Palmer noted that his friend Terry Jackson doubled Willis for nine years.

'Stunt Adjustment'
Based on his two decades as a Hollywood stuntman, Palmer has written the aptly titled "Stunt Adjustment," an entertaining and engaging insiders view behind the scenes of the mysterious world of heavy action.

Cheerful and exuberant with a well-developed sense of humor, Palmer offers advice to new stunt performers - train, study, rehearse and reduce risk.

"In my book, every action shot in there is a real stunt," Palmer said. "There are pictures of guys upside down and falling on a car, no CGI is going to make it look real."

The book also chronicles the colorful history of stunts and honors such legends as Terry Leonard, Hal Needham, Buddy Van Horn, Gene LeBell, Paul Stader and Jeannie Epper, who doubled for Lynda Carter in "Wonder Woman." Palmer tells the truth about the industry and emphasizes the skill and precise timing it takes to make it a career.

"You should have your execution down if you have rehearsed," Palmer said. "After all, this is not ‘Jackass' - routine stunts can injure or kill you as easily as a complicated one. We want trained professionals, not daredevils."

Live to die another day
"I have been beat up or killed by Arnold Schwarzenegger about four times," Palmer said, casually referring to his 20-year career as a stuntman. At 46, he has the youthful "All-American" good looks that get him roles as a generic good guy or thug.

"In ‘Last Man Standing' I was killed three times, doubled the bad guy and played two other bad guys."

Palmer's first film role was doubling Leslie Neilson for a stair fall in "Repossessed." But his first big break was "Terminator II."

"I'm a good guy, and while I'm trying to save the kid, Arnold picks me up by the hair and tells me to ‘take a hike,'" he laughed. Palmer went on to play a bad guy in "Batman & Robin," and was shot by Arnold in "The Last Action Hero" and "Eraser."

In addition to Schwarzenegger, Palmer gives credit to the many actors he has doubled, been beaten up or killed by, including Patrick Swayze. "He is a great action star and very respectful of the stunt crew," Palmer said. As a stuntman, Palmer also recalls some unintentionally humorous moments like in "Mission/Impossible III." "When Tom Cruise can beat up three guys in an elevator," he said, "you know it is Hollywood."

Real to reel life
Palmer lives in Valencia with his wife, Angela, and her children, daughter, Asia, 16, and son, Brice, 11.

Angela is the owner of the Brow Bar Spa, a popular spot for locals. Palmer also has two daughters from a previous marriage, Jamie, 24, and Brooke, 12. Cheerful and gregarious with an easygoing manner, Palmer recalls as a kid wanting to be either a football player or stuntman. He played football in high school and at Boise State, then in 1985 spent a year as a free agent for the Los Angeles Rams.

"I played a couple of preseason exhibition games," Palmer recalled. "But at the pro level, it is more business than a sport. This is their livelihood, the competition is extreme and they don't care about you. It was a big wreck every day, but it was good training for stunt work."

So, Palmer got out before he got killed. After attending Paul Stader's stunt classes in 1987, he landed a part on the new "Miami Vice Live Action Show" at Universal Studios, Hollywood, where he was paid $65 per show.

Stunt legends
We caught up with Palmer at Valley Martial Arts store in North Hollywood on a recent afternoon. He was there with the legendary Gene LeBell, a stuntman since 1955 who remembers great "cowboy" stunts and at 76, still teaches martial arts. LeBell recalled when a high fall would pay $12 per foot. "Back in the ‘good old days' of Westerns, guys were paid $80 for an entire day of saddle falls," LeBell said.

Footfalls and high falls
"There is not one show or film that doesn't have some kind of footfall in it," Palmer said. In his book he describes the "Platoon" fall.

"You go down on your knees with arms raised up, then fall face down to the ground," he said. "Like Willem Dafoe did in ‘Platoon.'"

Palmer describes the "Wad Up," where you end up in a fetal position after hitting the ground or rolling into an object.

"The Chili Winder is a slight jump move while running and then spinning in the air to a mystery landing - these are good after ground bomb explosions."

Like his colleagues, Palmer remains adamantly opposed to computer-generated graphics to replace humans and fondly recalls movies like "Planet of the Apes," "The Blues Brothers," "Dirty Harry" and "The French Connection" where the falls, car crashes and fights were real.

"That stuff was gnarly," he marveled. "Which is why they are sold in boxed sets."

Palmer said some of the recent movies, like "Indiana Jones" and "Dark Knight," use so much CGI they don't even look real.

"They have cheapened the stunts, which cheapens the quality of the movie," he said. "With CGI they spend a lot and get a little. We have top notch technicians in the business and you can't replace them with a computer."

Stunt coordinators
But Palmer said no amount of "stunt adjustment" is worth risking your life or limbs.

"I can't emphasize how important the stunt coordinator is," he said.

According to Palmer, studios should spend the money on top coordinators, like Terry Leonard or Buddy Van Horn (who has doubled Clint Eastwood for 40 years), Joe Box, Jeff Cadiente or Troy Brown.

"These guys have extreme experience and knowledge of big action," he said. "You have to have top pros. If you pay for the best, you get the best."

In fact, Palmer said more often than not, the stunt coordinator and FX coordinators work together planning and choreographing the stunts, crashes and explosions.

"The job of a good stunt coordinator can't be overstated; you literally put your life in their hands," Palmer said.

Crash test dummy
Palmer was almost predestined to become a stunt man. He describes a bucolic life growing up in La Habra, a suburb outside of Whittier where action came naturally to Palmer and his two older brothers, Chris and Brian.

"I was the crash test dummy of the family," Palmer said. "I always wanted to do things bigger and better than they did. I got caught in a lot of dares that they never did. I rode my bicycle off the roof into the swimming pool. Of course, Mom wasn't there."

Their mom, Carolyn, is 73 and lives in Sun Valley, Idaho.

"She is the energizer bunny," Palmer said. "I still play tennis, hike and ski with her."

Their father, Steve Palmer, was a pro football player in Canada with the B.C. Lions and also on the legendary 1954 UCLA national championship football team.

Hollywood bio
Among the hundreds of TV shows and films in which he has performed, a few stand out for Palmer like "Terminator 2: Judgment Day," "Batman Forever," "Eraser," "Titanic" and "Batman & Robin."

More recently, Palmer performed stunts in "War of the Worlds," "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest" and "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End," where he played good and bad guys in all of them.

He appeared in "National Treasure: Book of Secrets," "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull," "Hancock" and the upcoming thriller "Angels & Demons."

He has also performed in a number of TV series including "Martial Law," and "V.I.P." under the coordination of Jeff Cadiente (the stunt coordinator on "24"). From his perspective, the future looks bright and Palmer looks forward to whatever comes his way.

"I developed a good reputation as a safe and reliable stuntman with the help of many veteran performers who believed in me," he said. "I continue to learn and work hard to do safe and exciting, hard-hitting stunts. This cannot be done without the top performers I am fortunate to work with, because ultimately, it is who you know."

So after 20 years, does Palmer have a favorite stunt?

"My favorite stunt is whatever I get called in to do," he said. "It's just nice to have a call time."

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