Jacob Smith’s book captures early days of death-defying stunt work

April 30, 2012

Ask Jacob Smith if he had a muse who inspired his latest book and he will tell you there were two: Burt Reynolds and Evel Knievel. These seventies icons sparked a curiosity in Smith, assistant professor of radio/television/film, which led him to write The Thrill Makers: Celebrity, Masculinity, and Stunt Performance, “an historical tour de force,” as one critic called it, that comes out this month.

Captivated, initially, by Reynolds’ movies like Smokey and the Bandit and Cannonball Run, as well as the emergence of celebrity stuntmen like Evel Knievel, Smith began to research stunt performance—a path that led him all the way back to the Victorian era. The Thrill Makers explores the origins of stunt culture and profiles those death-defying entertainers who were performing before and during the birth of Hollywood cinema: lion tamers, bridge jumpers, airplane wing-walkers, human flies.

“Often these people, when they did appear in movies, were never credited,” Smith said. “So I wrote the book, in part, to fill in what I thought was a gap in film history.” Smith, who has authored two other books, said there was someone in each chapter who drew him in. “I love Captain Paul Boyton,” he said. “He’s a guy who had an inflatable suit and would turn himself into a kind of human kayak, barreling down frozen rivers.”

Another subject, Washington Donaldson, was an aerial gymnast who would make ascensions in a hot-air balloon with no basket, just a trapeze. He met his end in Lake Michigan, whose shoreline is close to the Northwestern office where Smith put the finishing touches on his book.

“Donaldson generated a lot of publicity, as you can imagine,” Smith said. “So when he was in Chicago he took a newspaper reporter up with him. The balloon went out over the lake and disappeared, and it became a big national event. Where is he? Will they find him? But he was dead. They never found his body, but the reporter’s body washed up onshore.”

As Smith researched his book, he combed through accounts of stunt men from Hollywood’s Golden Age.

“The one big requirement that was made of them,” he said, “was not to talk about their work. They had to keep it secret. Because it made the actors look less accomplished or less masculine if the audience knew that someone else was riding the horse for them, or doing jumps for them. So it’s sort of ironic. Here were these really colorful characters with incredible histories. You’d think the publicity department would’ve wanted to talk about them, right? But no.” Lucky for the reading public, Smith has taken the leap himself.