His education was no higher than elementary school. He could hunt, trap, shoot, and ride horses with the best. He broke a wild bronco when he was a mere lad of 11. As a 6-foot-tall sixteen-year-old he started bronc riding. At 17 he won the title of World’s Best Bronco Buster. When he ventured to Los Angeles he befriended a few stars who marveled at his prowess. He made a few movies. Then he won more than a handful of rodeo championships. He returned to Hollywood and became a legend.
He is cinema’s FIRST ACTION HERO.
If you’re a film fan you’ve seen him hundreds of times, but don’t know his name. If you’re a true film buff you not only know his name, you understand how important he was, and still is, to stuntmen everywhere. His name was Yakima Canutt.
Yak, as he was called, reigned in Hollywood in it’s early years. He started off as a lead actor, but a broken nose and a flu damaged voice meant his days as a lead would be seriously challenged by the advent of sound. Taking advantage of his knowledge of horses and rodeos, he began developing ‘stunts’ and stunt equipment. The stunts wowed audiences. The equipment saved lives and money for the studio executives. Yakima Canutt became a music sought after commodity.
In 1932, Canutt met John Wayne. A friendship and a working relationship developed that changed both. Canutt and Wayne developed a way of fighting on screen that made them look more realistic. Wayne lifted much of his on-screen persona from Canutt. Their fate was sealed with Wayne’s ascendancy in STAGECOAH, where Canutt was his stand in. Remember he did all his stunts without any CGI, what you saw is what he did. Canutt would also double for Clark Cable in SAN FRANCISCO, GONE WITH THE WIND, BOOM TOWN.
He soon became a well respected second unit and action director. Here are a few of the films he acted as the action/second unit director
– the jousting scenes in IVANHOE
– action sequences for Kubrick’s SPARTANS
– Disney’s SWISS FAMILY ROBINSON & OLD YELLER
– CAT BALLOU, A MAN CALLED HORSE, EL CID and many others.
His career was long and lustrous. He created and patented several safety devices for stuntman, but what he is best know for his action sequences in BEN-HUR. His chariot race sequence is still considered one of the best, if not the best.
Cinema’s FIRST ACTION HERO died at the age of 90 in 1986.