Stunt­woman whose life was the stuff of movies

The Irish Times - - Obituaries - Kitty O’Neil

Born:March 24th, 1946 Died: Novem­ber 2nd, 2018

Ev­ery­thing in­cred­i­ble that Won­der Woman did on screen, Kitty O’Neil did for real. The leg­endary stunt­woman, who died last week aged 72, dou­bled for Lynda Carter in the 1970s TV show, while away from the set she also es­tab­lished new world records on land, wa­ter and in the air. “The speed gives me goose bumps,” she once said. “I love it.”

With­stand­ing fires, falls, crashes and ex­plo­sions, she did stunt work on TV, and in films in­clud­ing Smokey and the Ban­dit II, Air­port ’77 and the Blues Broth­ers, and she was the first woman ad­mit­ted into the Hol­ly­wood dare­devil team Stunts Un­lim­ited. In many ways, her life was far more ex­tra­or­di­nary than the sto­ries of the stars she dou­bled for.

On De­cem­ber 6th, 1976 O’Neil be­came the fastest woman in the world. She set a land-speed record in a 48,000-horse­power rocket car called the Mo­ti­va­tor. She burned through the Alvord Desert in Ore­gon at an av­er­age of 512.710mph – and that record still stands. On wa­ter, she set world records for speed in a jet-pow­ered boat called Cap­tain Crazy at 275mph and on wa­ter-skis at 105mph. O’Neil set a high-fall record of 127ft dressed as Won­der Woman when she jumped off the top of


Af­ter O’Neil, it was im­pos­si­ble to stick to the old line that women couldn’t do stunts

the Val­ley Hil­ton ho­tel on to an airbag on the ter­race be­low and then broke that record when she plunged out of a he­li­copter at 180ft.

O’Neil was born in Cor­pus Christi, Texas, in 1946. Her fa­ther died in a plane crash when she was a child, and O’Neil was raised by her Chero­kee mother. She lost her hear­ing as a baby af­ter high fever fol­low­ing measles and mumps, but be­ing deaf gave her a spur to achieve more, not less – pur­su­ing sport and learn­ing pi­ano and cello.

She took up div­ing but in 1964 when she was train­ing for the Olympics, she con­tracted spinal menin­gi­tis af­ter break­ing her wrist.

At one point it looked like she would never walk again, but she re­cov­ered, only to face can­cer twice in her 20s. Af­ter be­ing told she was too weak for a ca­reer in ath­let­ics, O’Neil de­cided to get her thrills out of speed in­stead, rac­ing mo­tor­bikes and cars in events in­clud­ing the cult off-road race the Mint 400. Af­ter one smash in a mo­tor­bike race, she peeled off her gloves to find two sev­ered fin­gers left in­side.

In the mid-1970s, a fe­male stunt dou­ble such as the diminu­tive, dar­ing O’Neil still seemed a nov­elty. Af­ter O’Neil, it was im­pos­si­ble to stick to the old line that women couldn’t do stunts.

In fact, O’Neil was a star her­self, and young fans could cel­e­brate their role model by buy­ing a spe­cial edi­tion Bar­bie doll in a nifty yel­low jump­suit with a red scarf.

It wasn’t an easy life, though, and in 1982, O’Neil re­tired from stunt and speed work. As for why O’Neil was so strong and fast and could take so many knocks, there are sev­eral pos­si­ble the­o­ries. Per­haps it goes back to that early ex­pe­ri­ence of be­ing a deaf child and want­ing to prove her­self. She al­ways said that her size helped: she was just 97lb and 5ft 2in tall, mak­ing her light and quick and, as she ar­gued, bet­ter able to with­stand the im­pact. Then again, maybe she was just nat­u­rally fear­less: “I’m not afraid of any­thing,” she told a re­porter in 2015. “Just do it. It feels good when you fin­ish. You made it.”

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