Stumped in a quest to honor stunts

Jack Gill’s long cru­sade to cre­ate an Os­car rec­og­niz­ing the field has met with frus­tra­tion.

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - By Josh Rot­ten­berg

If you need to jump a car across a chasm, Jack Gill can tell you how. If you have to drive a mo­tor­cy­cle through a wall of f lame or fall from a 12- story win­dow, he’s your guy. Over the course of his 40- year ca­reer per­form­ing and orches­trat­ing stunts in f ilms and tele­vi­sion, Gill has pulled off those and many other per­ilous feats — and he has a 6- inch ti­ta­nium plate in his neck to show for it.

But there is one leap Gill hasn’t been able to make. De­spite a nearly 25- year cru­sade, Gill has been un­able to per­suade the Academy of Mo­tion Pic­ture Arts and Sciences to cre­ate an Os­cars cat­e­gory rec­og­niz­ing stunts.

“Ev­ery year I think, ‘ This

is go­ing to be the year,’ and it keeps com­ing back with a no,” Gill, 60, said on a re­cent af­ter­noon over lunch in Bev­erly Hills, hav­ing just re­turned from a vet­eran stunt­man’s idea of a va­ca­tion: a 2,000- mile mo­tor­cy­cle trek across Alaska. He shook his head. “It shouldn’t be this dif­fi­cult. It re­ally shouldn’t.”

This year, Gill was cer­tain he had his best chance. In re­cent months, he says, he re­ceived pos­i­tive sig­nals from Dawn Hud­son, the academy’s chief ex­ec­u­tive, and academy Pres­i­dent Ch­eryl Boone Isaacs that ap­peared to be point­ing the way to­ward a new Os­cars cat­e­gory for stunt co­or­di­na­tors such as him­self. “There was kind of a ray of sun­light af­ter 24 years of deal­ing with ‘ This is our own per­sonal golf course, and we’re not go­ing to let you on it,’ ” Gill said.

Gill has con­tin­ued to line up back­ing from high- pro­file ac­tors and f ilm­mak­ers for the ef­fort, build­ing on a list that in­cludes the likes of Steven Spiel­berg, Martin Scors­ese, Brad Pitt and Arnold Sch­warzeneg­ger. In a let­ter this week to the academy ob­tained by The Times, Johnny Depp wrote in part, “I be­lieve it’s time that the valiant stunt­men and women de­serve to be rec­og­nized come each and ev­ery award sea­son and hence I am happy and proud to sup­port a cam­paign to cre­ate an Academy Award cat­e­gory for Best Stunt Co­or­di­na­tor.”

In an email, “Fu­ri­ous 7” star Vin Diesel wrote that stunt co­or­di­na­tors “sig­nif­i­cantly con­trib­ute to cre­atively de­vel­op­ing the big ac­tion mo­ments that the au­di­ence re­mem­bers for­ever, at the same time as en­sur­ing the safety of our stunts” and that Os­cars recog­ni­tion for them is “long over­due.”

But since Gill met last week with the academy’s lead­er­ship, his hopes have faded. When the academy’s 51- mem­ber board of gover­nors meets Tues­day to take up a range of is­sues, the ques­tion of an Os­car for stunts is un­likely to be on the agenda, in­sid­ers say.

Stunt per­form­ers are hon­ored each year at the Emmy Awards and the Screen Ac­tors Guild Awards. But — although Gill and oth­ers have ar­gued that the in­clu­sion of a stunt cat­e­gory could only help boost the pop­ulist ap­peal of the Os­cars tele­cast — the f ilm academy has never rec­og­nized stunts ei­ther on Os­cars night or at its un­tele­vised Sci­en­tific and Tech­ni­cal Awards. ( The two ex­cep­tions: Stunt per­former Yakima Canutt re­ceived an honorary Academy Award in 1967 for de­vel­op­ing safety de­vices for stunt­men, and stunt­man turned di­rec­tor Hal Need­ham re­ceived a life­time achieve­ment Os­car in 2012, a year be­fore he died.)

“The board has never seen fit to ex­tend a cat­e­gory for stunts,” then- academy Ex­ec­u­tive Di­rec­tor Bruce Davis, who is now re­tired, told The Times in 1994. “It would get corny as hell to have sev­eral stunt cat­e­gories. Do you give an Os­car for peo­ple get­ting blown out of win­dows?”

Gill, who started his ca­reer as a stunt per­former in the 1970s and has worked on the likes of “The Dukes of Hazzard” and “Knight Rider,” says the stunt com­mu­nity is ask­ing for only one — and that, given the key role stunts play in so many movies, it’s only f it­ting. “It’s frus­trat­ing to us be­cause they run ac­tion se­quences [ dur­ing the Os­cars tele­cast] to keep peo­ple in their seats, but we’re not up there,” Gill said. “We’re not any part of it.”

Though the is­sue of Os­cars recog­ni­tion for stunts has sim­mered for years, this year it has taken on fresh im­me­di­acy. In 2015, movie­go­ers have al­ready seen some of the most eye- pop­ping stunt work ever put on screen, whether it’s cars be­ing dropped from a C- 130 trans­port plane at 12,000 feet in “Fu­ri­ous 7”— a feat that Gill him­self co­or­di­nated — or the gonzo non­stop de­mo­li­tion derby of “Mad Max: Fury Road.” Next month, movie­go­ers will see Sch­warzeneg­ger un­leash may­hem as a fu­tur­is­tic cy­borg in the ac­tion­heavy “Ter­mi­na­tor Genisys” and Tom Cruise hold on to the side of a plane as it takes off in “Mis­sion: Im­pos­si­ble — Rogue Na­tion.”

“This is­sue has re­ally come up a lot this year,” said “Fury Road” stunt co­or­di­na­tor Guy Nor­ris. “There’s prob­a­bly been more talk about it in the f irst six months of this year than in the past 10 years.”

Hud­son and Boone Isaacs de­clined to com­ment, but academy in­sid­ers say that the pri­mary ob­sta­cle to a stunt cat­e­gory as it stands boils down to num­bers. There are only 31 stunt co­or­di­na­tors in the academy ( they are in­cluded in the mem­bers- at- large branch), and the feel­ing among the academy’s lead­er­ship is that — for now, at least — it is too small a pool to con­sti­tute a branch with its own award rep­re­sent­ing the stunt com­mu­nity. ( The cur­rent small­est branch with an awards cat­e­gory is cos­tume de­sign­ers, with 125 mem­bers.)

In a state­ment, an academy spokesper­son said, “Stunt co­or­di­na­tors play an in­te­gral role in many movie pro­duc­tions, and those at the top of their craft are in­vited by their peers to be­come academy mem­bers. We con­tinue to en­cour­age them to grow within our mem­ber­ship.”

Gill coun­ters that, given the rel­a­tively small num­ber of stunt co­or­di­na­tors work­ing in the f ilm in­dus­try, the cur­rent academy mem­ber­ship “fully rep­re­sents what we have.”

Since launch­ing his cam­paign in 1991, Gill says, he’s run into a range of ar­gu­ments for why stunt co­or­di­na­tors shouldn’t have an Os­cars cat­e­gory, all of which he dis­putes. He’s been told there are al­ready too many awards in the Os­cars tele­cast as it is ( he says he’d be f ine with an award handed out off- air). He’s heard ar­gu­ments that there wouldn’t be enough stunt- heavy movies in any given year ( with the pre­pon­der­ance of ac­tion scenes across a range of gen­res, he says there would be more than enough). He’s heard some sug­gest that stunts aren’t re­ally enough of an art or a science.

That last claim ran­kles the most. “To say that it’s not an art form is just a misun­der­stand­ing of what our craft in­volves,” said Nor­ris. “We’ve gone so far be­yond the John Wayne days when it was all fall­ing off a barn or get­ting dragged by a horse. We’re in a whole other realm that I call ‘ high- risk il­lu­sion.’ ”

Though he’s re­signed him­self to the like­li­hood that his long cam­paign won’t find suc­cess this year, Gill isn’t about to give up on it. This is some­one who over the years has bro­ken 23 bones, punc­tured his lungs, had a f inger sewn back on and got­ten eight con­cus­sions. Suf­fice to say, he doesn’t quit easily.

As frus­tra­tion mounts in the stunt com­mu­nity, though, Gill be­lieves things may even­tu­ally es­ca­late.

“I would hate to see stunt guys de­mon­strat­ing out in front of the Academy Awards, be­cause that’s their spe­cial night,” he said. “Ev­ery year I’ve tried to talk them out of it and I’ve been suc­cess­ful. But I can’t stop them for­ever.”

Jay L. Clen­denin Los An­ge­les Times

“I T SHOULDN’T be this diff icult,” Jack Gill, who has per­formed and or­ches­trated stunts, says of the ef­fort to cre­ate an Os­cars cat­e­gory. He says that cat­e­gory could only help boost the Os­cars tele­cast’s pop­ulist ap­peal.

Jasin Boland Warner Bros.

“MAD MAX: FURY ROAD,” star­ring Tom Hardy, is among the 2015 movies that have of­fered eye- pop­ping stunt work — and given fresh im­me­di­acy to the is­sue of Os­cars recog­ni­tion for stunts.

Uni­ver­sal Pic­tures

“FU­RI­OUS 7,” left, also has no­table stunt work, and star Vin Diesel says Os­cars recog­ni­tion for stunt co­or­di­na­tors is “long over­due.” At right, David Has­sel­hoff in “Knight Rider,” a se­ries on which Jack Gill worked.

NBC / Getty I mages

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