These days, big-city philistines posing as cultural elites call it “flyover country.” From the comfort of a private jet, it looks like a vast ocean of emptiness. And yet, every election day, media newsrooms find themselves grudgingly painting that part of the map red — blood red.
To them, the American hinterland is part Deliverance, part Raising Arizona. Toothless gas-station attendants. Frumpy diner waitresses. Motor-home brothels hedging the highways. In the Heat of the Night racist police officers on the prowl, yee-haw! Ignorant picnicking churchgoers spewing toxic barbecue fumes into the pristine blue sky. Country-music lovin’ high school students destined to grow up into unwashed, uncouth, uneducated truckers.
Coast-bound libs fancy the South as kinda like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, but with Wal-Marts. Flyover country. A nightmare realm.
Well, back in the summer of 1977, flyover country was pissed. The nation they loved was being run into the ground by the jet-setters. Skyrocketing inflation. Rampant unemployment. Plummeting GDP. Crushing misery index. Multiple oil crises. Vanishing trade surpluses. A wretched President. Ordinary people were scared and angry, looking for — what’s the word? — oh yeah, “change.” Spare or otherwise.
So it was like manna from heaven when that May an ex-stuntman and his cadre of good-ole-boy pals offered audiences a silly, funny, blissfully outrageous movie, one that stuck a middle finger in the collective faces of the ruling culturati. Hot cars! Hot girls! Hot stunts! Cold beer! Even a hound dog! All of it rollicked across drive-in screens throughout this great land, in a story notable for its complete irreverence and utter lack of pretension. Nanny-state road safety? Eat our dust, you sumbitch! Humorless feminism? Soon as I get home, the first thing I’m gonna do is punch yo’ mama in da mouth! FDA-approved diet recommendations? Let me have a Diablo sammich and a Docta Peppa, and make it fast, I’m in a goddamn hurry! Global cooling? Stick the tailpipe of this flamin’ chicken, Starlight black, gold-pinstriped, snowflake-rimmed, T-topped special edition Trans Am in your mouth and smoke it!
By the end of the summer, the country had given the film a big 10-4 and made it a cultural phenomenon, and the big-city mandarins suddenly had a new sneering name for America’s blood-red hinterland: “CB country.” The critics viewed this orgy of laughin’, cussin’, and lovin’ with incredulous disdain, dismissing it as a piece of lowbrow cinematic fluff. But in CB country, Smokey and the Bandit (1977) had become one of the top box-office smashes of all-time and a veritable Robin Hood outlaw myth for an entire generation of disaffected Americans. Thirty-two years and a horde of mediocre pastiches later, the original’s raw appeal remains undimmed.
Keep your foot hard on the pedal.
Son, never mind them brakes.
Let it all hang out, ’cause we got a run to make.
The boys are thirsty in Atlanta
and there’s beer in Texarkana.
And we’ll bring it back, no matter what it takes!
The man who gave us the legend of the Bandit was Hal Needham, a guy perfectly suited to his role in our popular culture. Born in 1931 in Memphis, he spent his boyhood years raising hell in the backwoods of Missouri and Arkansas. Always rangy and athletic, in his late teens he spied an Uncle Sam poster featuring U.S. Army Paratroopers kicking butt in Korea. Promptly signing up with the 82nd airborne, he began the training that would ultimately lead him into the risky, high-wire world of professional Hollywood stuntmen. During one jump his primary chute failed, and he fell for thousands of feet trying to work his reserve chute free as comrades looked on in horror. Losing consciousness, he woke to learn from his buddies that he had freed the chute seconds before hitting the ground, slowing his fall just enough to survive. It was the first of thousands of stunts he would perform throughout his life.
After leaving the Army (when pressured to re-enlist, he told his Captain, “I gave a dog a can a C-rations the other day, and he went around for a week licking his back-end trying to get the taste out of his mouth”) he took a job lumberjacking. One day, at the very top of an enormous tree, he happily sawed through the trunk — only to realize with classic Road-Runner timing that he had just cut off the part he was securely strapped to. Another death-defying fall ensued, this time sans parachute and attached to a bone-crushing hunk of wood. But again, God was looking out for fools that day — Needham fell a hundred feet into a large pile of springy branches and leaves, escaping with only some scratches and bruises.
He eventually migrated West, met some stuntmen at his day job, and began hanging around film sets looking to do anything to impress. Some daring parachute and wing-walking work for The Spirit of St. Louis (1957) made his name among stunt coordinators, and soon he had his first regular gig as Richard Boone’s double on television’s Have Gun, Will Travel. Chuck Roberson, the longtime stunt double for John Wayne, became his mentor, and Needham worked for John Ford and John Wayne throughout the fifties and sixties, developing a reputation for skill, fearlessness, and a lack of BS. Like many other stuntmen in the Ford/Wayne stock company, Needham would get small acting roles in many of their films. Here he is with John Wayne in McLintock!, all stuntman cool in a minor role as Wayne’s ranchhand:
[youtube dy96yQELpTI — click here to watch in full-screen HD]
Most of the stuntmen in those days suffered regular injuries jumping off buildings, doing horsefalls, and having various items smashed over their heads in fight scenes. But Needham took punishment to a new level and became a legend for the risks he took. He walked away from stunts with broken bones over fifty times, broke his back twice, punctured his lung, and lost some teeth, but none of it fazed him. “You’re not hurt until you have to go to the hospital,” he says about those years. “Broken arms and things . . . hell, that don’t count.”
Needham also separated himself from most other stuntmen as an innovator. By 1970 he had grown sick of the many outdated rules and regulations that came with membership in the industry’s Stuntman’s Association trade group, so with several others he broke away from that organization and formed Stunts Unlimited, a one-stop shop for all the stunts, equipment, and safety expertise a movie might need. He also opposed the no-minority/no women policy of the Stuntman’s Association, and black and female stunt experts found their first official home in Needham’s new company. “We thought we were pretty progressive at the time,” he says today.
Needham also won accolades throughout the industry for helping to invent the Shotmaker, a truck-borne rig that allowed a camera to swoop around a fast-moving car and get shots from any angle, a vast improvement over the static, old-fashioned way it used to be done. This LA Times commercial shows Needham and his invention at work:
[youtube FDkR9j-QKJI&NR — click here to watch in full-screen HD]
By the end of the 1960s Needham had become not just a stuntman but a stunt coordinator, and in the 1970s he also began second-unit directing, learning the ropes of camera placement and lighting.
Back in 1959, at the beginning of his career, he did some work on the TV series Riverboat, starring Darren McGavin of A Christmas Story fame, where he met a young unknown actor and sometime stuntman named Burt Reynolds. Both men shared a down-South, blue-collar sensibility, a love of athleticism and stunts. They also realized that they were both more ambitious than their friends. “It’s that good-old-boy country kind of people that we come from,” Needham would later explain. “We were both trying to get a foot in the door and be somebody when we first met.”
They each noticed how driven the other was, even while their friends only made halfhearted attempts to score their next gigs, so they began helping each other. Needham taught Reynolds the intricacies of stuntwork, and introduced him to his many friends in the field. Reynolds, for his part, made sure that whenever he needed somebody to double for him, Needham got the job. When Reynolds’ first marriage broke up in the mid-’60s, he stayed at Needham’s house until he could get back on his feet. When Needham’s own marriage fell apart a few years later Reynolds returned the favor, letting Needham stay in his guest house out back. Movie piled upon movie and the good times rolled on until, before he knew it, Needham had been living in Reynolds’ backyard for twelve years.
On one Reynolds shoot in Georgia, the Coors beer Needham had received from a friend kept disappearing from his fridge. Some sleuthing revealed that the maid was stealing it. When he confronted her, she explained sheepishly that Coors wasn’t distributed east of the Mississippi — it could only be had by bootlegging it across state lines — so it was a rare treat in Georgia, one that she couldn’t resist grabbing for her Coors-loving boyfriend. This was all news to Needham — living in California, he had all the Coors he wanted. But the essential ridiculousness of the tale amused him, and he thought: what a wonderful hook on which to hang the plot of a redneck movie!
For years, you see, as age and injuries took their toll, Needham had thought about attempting a segue into directing. Now, a chance encounter with a thieving maid had given him an idea. He began crafting a screenplay in the seclusion of Reynolds’ guest house, working by hand on yellow legal pads. Through the whole process he remained focused on exactly the kind of picture this was going to be, and the audience he intended to make it for. Screw Hollywood, he thought — this flick was going to be for his kind of people, “The South, the Midwest, the Northwest, all the flyover states.” He wrote each scene, and dreamed up each stunt, with the intention of making the film his first directing gig. He knew that the Buford T. Justices of the studio system would balk at his asking to direct, judging him to be just a dumb stuntman. So he wrote scenes that could be shot on a micro-budget, and convinced his friend, country music singer and sometime character actor Jerry Reed, to agree to star as the Bandit.
When reading the early drafts of the script, one is struck by how — for all of its action elements — the basic mood is one of reverence for the people who live in isolated clapboard houses in the deep South, struggling to get by day-by-day, far away from big-city life. Here’s the description of Snowman’s living room from the script:
Most of the furniture is old and what isn’t, is covered with plastic. No fancy carpets or objects d’art. On the coffee table is an open, colorfully illustrated Bible. A blonde wood television set sits in a corner of the room. There are a lot of toy trucks lying around and over the mantel is an oil painting of a fancy eighteen-wheeler with an epitaph under it reading: “I’d rather be a truck driver, than be a millionaire…”
There’s also a more fatalistic, Vanishing Point style ending, with the Bandit and the Snowman surrounded and captured by the police after they make it to the fairgrounds. As the police drive off into the sunset with their quarry, lights flashing but sirens eerily silent, “we pull further and further away, watching the whole event become history.” And then, as the screen fades to black, two lonely voices are heard over a CB channel:
Did ya hear they nailed the Bandit?
Yeah, I heard. But they won’t hold him for long. Anyway, he sure gave them sumbitches a run for their money.
Many of the hilarious shenanigans present in the final film aren’t to be found in Needham’s original script — they would be added on the fly during production, by a pair of comedians separated in age by a generation but destined to become a wonderful on-screen comedic duo. The enormous popularity of Smokey and the Bandit was the result of a number of fortuitous pieces falling into place for Hal Needham. The next of those pieces turned out to be the unwavering loyalty of his best friend.
Next Saturday in For Conservative Movie Lovers, we delve into the career of Burt Reynolds, and see how his respect for Hollywood’s old school and its traditions helped turn Smokey and the Bandit from a low-budget “hick flick” into a pop-culture phenomenon.
FURTHER READING and VIEWING
Here’s a cool video of Hal Needham that focuses on stunt driving, with a great scene showing Needham lassoing a moving car:
[youtube GLxib2xmWRc — click here to watch in full-screen HD]
Read an early draft of the Smokey script here.
The Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Beverly Hills has a great oral interview transcript with Needham that runs many hundreds of pages. Conducted by Mae Woods in 2004-2005, it covers all aspects of his career in detail, and includes many great stories about working behind the scenes with John Wayne, John Ford, Burt Reynolds, and many others. If you live in Los Angeles (or are visiting) and have an interest in Needham, it’s well worth the trip to the Library to read.