How did a group of stuntmen in the 1960s diversify Hollywood? On this episode of Welcome to LA, we delve into the origin story of the Black Stuntmen’s Association.
Full script below:
[AMBIENT SOUND: Athens Park]
DAVID: There’s a park in Compton called Athens Park. It has some grassy fields, a couple of baseball diamonds and play structures. There’s nothing extraordinary about it. No plaque or monument commemorating its role in history. But there should be. Because it was in this park back in the mid-1960s that a group of black men started meeting regularly and together hatched their ambitious plan.
ALEX: We would go out at night, after people got off, they had regular jobs, and we would meet up in the park in the evening when it got dark. We were doing jumping jacks, and with the help of a few people, learning how to throw punches, how to fall off of the top of the back of bleachers onto mattresses. We didn’t have very much to work with because we didn’t know what we were doing.
DAVID: That’s Alex Brown, one of the men who trained in the park. It wasn’t long before people in the neighborhood started to wonder exactly what kind of fight he and his friends were training for.
ALEX: At that time it was a lot of racial tension. We actually had the police come by and set up outside of our area training and, you know, watch us.
DAVID: To the police it looked like Black Panthers or some other local chapter of a militant group training for some kind of race war.
WILLIAM: Every Saturday morning we were there, law enforcement would be there. It got to be a routine, and the neighborhood knew we were there and they would come out religiously on Saturdays just to see us practice.
DAVID: That’s William J. Upton. He was the youngest of the group, only 12 years old when he learned to throw a punch and take a fall in Athens Park. The men weren’t Black Panthers or any other militant group. But they were at the beginning of the fight of their lives.
From KCRW this is Welcome to LA episode 10: Buffalo Soldiers
In 1866, just one year after the Civil War ended, congress created six all-black cavalry and infantry units. The soldiers were sent out West to build the new America. Mostly they laid railroad tracks, built roads and forts, and they protected white settlers and suppressed Native American resistance to westward expansion. They came to be known as the Buffalo Soldiers. It was the Native Americans who named them. Some say it was because of the black soldiers’ curly hair which resembled the buffalo's mane. Others say it was a name given out of respect, that the Native Americans regarded the soldiers as fierce warriors. Or maybe it came from the buffalo fur coats the soldiers wore in the winter.
Throughout the Indian Wars the Buffalo Soldiers made up 20% of all U.S. cavalry, and they became the first wilderness rangers in the world when they were sent to protect what is now Yosemite and Sequoia National parks; 10 years before the creation of the National Park Service. The Buffalo Soldiers had status that civilian African Americans didn’t, but they were still not allowed to become officers.
One hundred years later in the 1960’s, Alex Brown was a member of the Buffalo Soldiers. A group of black Civil War reenactors who specialized in horseback riding in Los Angeles, where they dressed up like the original Buffalo Soldiers for special occasions.
ALEX: The Hollywood parade, the Watts parade. But as time developed, things kind of escalated a little bit.
DAVID: One day the men were invited to ride on an episode of the TV show "The High Chaparral," a Western starring Leif Erikson and Cameron Mitchel and they appeared in the parade scene of the film adaptation of the musical, "Hello, Dolly!"
ALEX: We rode in "Hello, Dolly!" on the backlot of 20th Century Studios. At that time, our founder Eddie Smith was saying, "well you know there's a need for black stunt people," which there were none at the time. I can remember that very vividly coming up and saying, look man we need a black stuntmen’s association.
ALEX: Back in the early 60’s there was no such thing as a black stuntman or woman in Hollywood. There were black actors and they needed stunt doubles just like any other actor. But the practice at the time was to do what was called a paint down.
DAVID: A paint down is basically black face that covers the entire body.
ALEX: I’m sure you’re sitting there and everyone in the radio audience knows what the paint down is about. It was about blackening white faces to have them do stunts.
[THEME SONG: I Spy]
DAVID: But all that changed in 1965 with the TV show "I Spy." It was about two Pentagon spies posing as tennis hustlers traveling the world, chasing women, and challenging wealthy aristocrats to tennis matches.
[CLIP: "I Spy"]
...You are really just this crazy fellow traveling around playing tennis, but I know you are more than that. You are half of one of your country's most effective intelligence teams and I know you have been briefed about my experiments in conditioning animal behavior.
DAVID: In the 1965 episode called "So Long, Patrick Henry," secret agents Kelly Robinson and Alexander “Scotty’’ Scott are sent to Hong Kong to extract an American Olympic athlete who has defected to Red China.
In one of the chase scenes set in Hong Kong, the camera zooms way out so you can’t make out the faces of the actors as they leap across rooftops and scramble over a steep cliff in a hillside chase scene.
[TAPE: Calvin Brown, "I Spy" stunt, Hong Kong]
DAVID: Agent Scotty was played by Bill Cosby, and he refused to let a white stuntman play his double. He demanded a black stuntman, Calvin Brown, to be his body double.
Around this time, the Buffalo Soldier reenactors had gotten together and formed the Black Stuntmen’s Association, which was really just a name. None of them had any actual experience as stuntmen. And the white stuntmen who worked in show business weren’t interested in training anyone who could potentially take their job. So the buffalo soldiers found a park in Compton not far from the stables where they kept their horses. And they started meeting regularly, teaching themselves to throw a punch at just the right angle, so it missed but looked real on camera. They jumped off the bleachers onto old mattresses. And one of the people who came to the park and worked with them was Bill Cosby’s stunt double Calvin Brown.
ALEX: He knew a little bit more because he had the support of Bill at the time, so Calvin came out, along with others — he wasn’t the only guy.
DAVID: In addition to all the stunt training, they rented cars and motorcycles to practice driving stunts — doing donuts and evasive slides in empty parking lots. And slowly they developed the skills to become stuntmen.
ALEX: That’s all we ever wanted was jobs. Just an equal piece of the pie — a little sliver. So when we began to make inroads, the white guys were getting a little insulted because prior to that, anytime they had a black actor or actress they would paint them down. So as we began to make little silver inroads to the motion picture business the other white stunt group was getting insulted that we began to infringe on their financial base, so we had a lot of opposition.
DAVID: Over the years the Black Stuntmen’s Association has filed 32 lawsuits in their fight for equality in the film industry, including a 1976 case that forced the major studios to abide by federal mandates against discriminatory hiring.
WILLIAM: We went in there and kicked ass on 32 lawsuits — and we won all 32 lawsuits against the film industry. Tell me someone else who has done that. to open the doors.
ALEX: See our motive was never selfish. It was in the beginning, because all we wanted was a job but in doing so, you can’t do this thing alone.
[MUSIC: from film "Glory"]
DAVID: Eventually the Black Stuntmen got a proper place to train, and they stopped meeting in Athens park. More and more of them started getting work, and in 1989, many of the BSA members all worked together on the Civil War movie Glory.
WILLIAM: You know about Glory? With Matthew Broderick and Denzel Washington and Freeman.
DAVID: "Glory" tells the story of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry regiment — one of the first all-black Union Army regiments. The filming of the battle scenes took place on a beach in Georgia.
WILLIAM: We were all there on that lousy beach with fleas and everything for three weeks charging up that hill — but it was a chance for all of us to be together.
DAVID: Was that the first time you all worked together on a movie?
WILLIAM: Yeah that's the first time I'd ever been with that many black people ever.
ALEX: We had every stunt guy
DAVID: What was it like?
WILLIAM & ALEX: it was fun.
ALEX: If you're around a bunch of stunt guys, you gonna get some lines and some stories. So that was the fun part of it.
DAVID: The not-so-fun part was charging up sandy hills wearing a bunch of heavy gear, getting eaten alive by bugs. It was grueling work but unlike a lot of stunt work, not particularly dangerous. Stunt performers are asked to do incredibly dangerous things. Even with the precautions taken to keep stunt performers safe, it is a brutal job.
Take for example, the story of Henry Kinji vs the oak tree. Kinji was a co-founder of the BSA and one of the only original founders who still works steadily. He recently finished shooting on a "Fast and the Furious" movie in Tbilisi, Georgia. He also played Goody in the movie "Car Wash" and has a ton of credits. One time, early in his career he was working on a TV show when the director told him about a driving stunt that he wanted him to perform.
...It's supposed to jump into a tree, and for a few days Paul kept telling me well, I want this car to land up in the tree
DAVID: This is a clip from a YouTube video of a speech Kinji gave recounting the incident.
I want you to land right there
DAVID: So this director points to a big oak tree. It had sort of a Y-shape to it and he tells Kinji that he wants him to launch a car off a ramp and land the car in the tree, so that it comes to rest in the crook of the branches. For three days Kinji tried to wrap his mind around this impossible task. He just couldn’t see how it was physically possible. And then the day came. Kinji climbed into the driver's seat, the director called action, he revved the engine speeding towards the ramp that launched the car into the air.
What a horrendous crash that was, see it pays to buckle up
DAVID: It smashed head on into the trunk. The force of the collision was so great that the front end of the car was pushed three feet back. The engine block broke. The driver's seat slammed into the steering wheel. Kinji’s ribs were separated, he damaged his pancreas, and broke his neck. The director used the shot even though the car didn’t get stuck in the tree.
ALEX: Directors are funny people. They just want what they want — and if you don’t realize that then you shouldn’t be there.
DAVID: It’s hard to watch the clip of the car smashing into the oak tree knowing that there’s a person inside who was injured so badly. But in his retelling of the story Kinji is all smiles, and the audience of fellow stuntmen laugh uproariously as he ticks off the injuries he sustained.
But the upside to a life of broken bones was the money. Being a stuntman paid way better than the jobs that the BSA founders had when they first tried to break into the business. Even at 12 years old William and his family saw how lucrative it could be.
WILLIAM: My mother and father were working — they were making like $60, $65 a piece a week back in 1967, okay. My mother asked Eddie how much would he be making if he does stunts? Back then in 1967 a contract was 120 dollars a day — I still have it in my thing — and my mother said what?! 120 dollars a day? Back in 1967… she said boy go over and join that group.
DAVID: Over the years more and more Black stuntmen and women have made gains in the industry but one of the biggest barriers to that progress is the lack of black stunt coordinators. They’re the ones who do the hiring.
LAFAYE: Right now we probably have 0.5% women who are coordinating. There's one young lady who just won an Emmy, Shauna Duggins and then we have Melissa Stubbs then we have Julie Michaels and myself.
DAVID: LaFaye Baker has been working as a stuntwoman for over 25 years. In 1998, she became the first African American woman to stunt coordinate a big budget project, the TV movie introducing Dorothy Dandridge starring Halle Berry.
Not having women and people of color working as coordinators is especially problematic when it comes to hiring what are called nondescript and utility stunt roles. For example, LaFaye was working on "Mission Impossible III," and there was a scene where they needed a bunch of people in the background running on a bridge.
LAFAYE: The director, which is J.J. Abrams, noticed that there weren't any women on a bridge. So then he's like "wait a minute, we got to get some women on the bridge and I need some ethnicities." So they brought the women in and I think we were for two weeks or whatever, but it was like — you just don't think about it. If you work on the show you're thinking about bringing only your friends. If I'm a stunt coordinator I’m thinking about bringing a diverse group of people, you know, to get the job done.
DAVID: LaFaye didn’t grow up wanting to be a stuntwoman. But she’s always been athletic and driven to be the best. At 12 years old she set a Guinness world record.
LAFAYE: As a teenager I was a hula hoop champ for Wham-o so in the process of being a hula hoop champ for Wham-o, I had the opportunity to actually break the Guinness Book of World Records, twirling 58 hula hoops at one time when I was 12... 58 when I was 12. So that's one reason how I got into the business.
DAVID: Baker’s first taste of show business was as a performer on various talk shows, twirling dozens of hula hoops for wide eyed audiences. But her mom pulled her out of the industry and said — you are going to college. After she graduated she became a probation officer and didn’t give any serious thought to ever pursuing a career in show business. But one day a guy just casually suggested she become a stunt woman. She thought that sounded crazy...but it planted a seed. And one day she told a coworker that she was thinking about it.
LAFAYE: I was talking, I did not know it was a possibility he knew someone. So what happened was, his best friend just happened to be one of the top Black stunt coordinators and he had a workout and was training people who were athletically inclined to become a stunt person.
DAVID: Since then Baker has gone on to work on dozens of projects, from breakout hits like the TV show "Lost," the movie "Green Lantern" and countless smaller productions. Late in her career she also joined the Black Stuntmen’s Association as part of the organization's efforts to include more women.
Baker loves being a stuntwoman, she loves the action, and the camaraderie, the money. But her body has paid the price. One of her worst injuries happened on the set of the Fugees music video for the song Ready or Not.
[SONG: "Ready or Not" by the Fugees plays]
DAVID: One of Baker’s specialities is trick motorcycle riding, and the shoot called for a scene where she would jump a motorcycle off a ramp and fly through the air.
LAFAYE: But there was a cliff on each side in this place called Lateral Canyon in Malibu, so you couldn't see anything. So I did the jump three times successfully.
DAVID: But on the fourth take there was a miscommunication of some kind, and no one told her that there would be a smoke machine
LAFAYE: Apparently the first three times the smoke was very light, because you’re riding a motorcycle, you just think it’s dirt or whatever. So I guess they wanted to add more smoke and they never told anybody. Normally if it’s something like that, they would have white tape so you can have a guideline going on the ramp — if it’s gonna be something of that magnitude… that didn't then because no one told me about smoke.
DAVID: She couldn’t see anything, and she failed to speed up enough to make the jump from the ramp. She crashed onto the pavement and broke both the joints in her jaw and shattered her mandible in three places.
LAFAYE: Blood was coming out every time I would talk, more blood would come out. They said — "LeFaye you got to stop talking." This is vain... I kept saying "no more pretty teeth" — that’s all I kept saying. And they was like — "LaFaye, you gotta be quiet, stop talking." So every time I run my tongue across my teeth I was screaming — no more pretty teeth — they told me that’s what I would say!
LAFAYE: They had a helicopter come in because this is working in the canyon. A helicopter guy came here and he tried to move me and whatever I say — why are you trying to move me? I can move my own self — so I just scooted my body on the little gurney. That's when I said — oh she's going to be OK.
DAVID: She was flown to the hospital where she lost some teeth, had 13 root canals and then another ten hours of reconstructive surgery. She spent the next nine months recuperating.
LAFAYE: I guess I was like, in a dream... all I was focused on was: I got to get healed. I was just working on automatic pilot the whole time, and I didn’t know it, because I just wanted to get healed. I work too hard, I love this business, I gotta get back to it. I went out and bought another motorcycle. My mom was upset.
DAVID: These days LaFaye doesn't go as hard as she used to. Every year there’s a new batch of younger hungrier stuntwomen who are willing to fall from a little higher, hit the ground a little harder, and push the limits of their bodies. But she’s still working, hoping to coordinate more so she can keep hiring diverse crews. She also started an awards show for stuntwomen and a nonprofit to help young women of color get into the industry.
And there is still an ongoing fight over paint downs. Surprisingly the practice of darkening white skin didn’t end in the 60’s As recently as 2014 SAG-AFTRA, the union that represents stunt performers investigated a paint down that happened at Warner Bros. The studio acknowledged the incident and said quote: “The situation has been rectified, and we regret the error.”
Stunt performers don’t have a voice on screen. They are bodies whose sole purpose is to absorb violent blows, get set on fire, fall from great heights. And for stunt performers, just like the original Buffalo Soldiers and the members of the 54th Massachusetts infantry, their body is their voice.
WILLIAM: Two concussions, three broken ribs, brand new $10,000 titanium knee, bad back… That’s not an honor, but If I was 40 years younger again, I would still go back and be with the BSA and do stunts. It's a wonderful industry. It's like Alice looking to the looking glass. It's the best career you could ever think of, not because you travel, not because you get paid, it’s because you meet people — you do things that you didn't think your body could do in life.
DAVID: Today the founding members of the Black Stuntmen’s Association are pretty much retired but they’re still fighting for equality, mostly working behind the scenes to get some recognition for the doors they opened. Their next big goal is to raise the 50 thousand dollars they need to get a star on the Hollywood walk of fame.
ALEX: It never ends, you know, so the more we fight it, the better it will be for other people... the ones coming behind us — this next generation, they have to keep going to. I always tell them — don't let the wagon get stuck in the mud because it's too hard to push out. Everybody has got to push, everybody’s got to help keep this thing going, because once you get it stuck it’s too hard getting it back out the mud.
DAVID: Even though they are retired, WIlliam and Alex keep paying their union dues, just in case they get offered one more gig.
ALEX: Most of us right now, at this stage we’re retired. We’re not working anyway
WILLIAM: Alex your SAG card is still active, isn’t it?
ALEX: Yes it is
WILLIAM: Mine is still active too (laughs)
Check out more from this season of Welcome to LA: