Stuntwoman whose life was the stuff of movies
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.”