Hal Brett Needham
March 6, 1931
|Died||October 25, 2013 (aged 82)|
Arlene R. Wheeler
(m. 1960; div. 1977)
(m. 1981; div. 1996)
Ellyn Wynne Williams
Hal Brett Needham (March 6, 1931 – October 25, 2013) was an American stuntman, film director, actor, writer, and NASCAR team owner. He is best known for his frequent collaborations with actor Burt Reynolds, usually in films involving fast cars, such as Smokey and the Bandit (1977), Hooper (1978), The Cannonball Run (1981) and Stroker Ace (1983).
In his later years, Needham moved out of stunt work, and focused his energy on the World land speed record project. In 2001, Needham received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Taurus World Stunt Awards, and in 2012, he was awarded a Governors Award by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Needham was born in Memphis, Tennessee, the son of Edith May (née Robinson) and Howard Needham. He was the youngest of three children. Raised in Arkansas and Missouri, Needham served in the United States Army as a paratrooper during the Korean War, worked as a treetopper (an arborist who performs tree topping services), and was a billboard model for Viceroy Cigarettes while beginning a career in Hollywood as a motion picture stuntman.
Needham's first break was as the stunt double for actor Richard Boone on the popular TV western Have Gun, Will Travel. Needham trained under John Wayne's stunt double Chuck Roberson and quickly became one of the top stuntmen of the 1960s on such films as How the West Was Won, The Bridge at Remagen, McLintock!, The War Lord, and Little Big Man. He doubled regularly for Clint Walker and Burt Reynolds. Needham moved into stunt coordinating and directing second unit action, while designing and introducing air bags and other innovative equipment to the industry. Needham at one time lived in Reynolds' guesthouse for the better part of 12 years.
In 1971, he and fellow stuntmen Glenn Wilder and Ronnie Rondell formed Stunts Unlimited. Needham had written a screenplay titled Smokey and the Bandit and his friend Reynolds offered him the chance to direct. The film was a huge hit, and the two followed it with Hooper, The Cannonball Run, and Stroker Ace. Needham also directed the TV pilots Stunts Unlimited (1980) and Stockers (1981), neither of which was picked up as a series. His final theatrical release as director was the 1986 BMX film Rad.
In 1977, Gabriel Toys introduced the "Hal Needham Western Movie Stunt Set" complete with a cardboard old west saloon movie set, lights and props, a toy movie camera and a spring-launched Hal Needham action figure that would break through a balcony railing, land on breakaway table and chairs and crash through a window. They were only manufactured for a short time and have since become highly collectible.
Needham moved out of stunt work, focusing his energy on the World Land Speed Record project that eventually became the Budweiser Rocket, driven by stuntman Stan Barrett. The team failed to set an officially sanctioned World land speed record with the vehicle, and their claims to have broken the sound barrier in 1979 have been heavily disputed. In the 1980s, he and Reynolds co-owned the Mach 1 Racing team, which fielded the Skoal Bandit No. 33 car in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series for Harry Gant.
In 2001, Needham received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Taurus World Stunt Awards. In 2012, he was awarded a Governors Award by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, where he was introduced by Quentin Tarantino.
Needham and his relationship with Reynolds inspired the Cliff Booth/Rick Dalton friendship in Tarantino's 2019 film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
Needham died on October 25, 2013 in Los Angeles, California, aged 82, shortly after being diagnosed with cancer.