One of the greatest injustices in the history of 20th century cinema is that Hal Needham is not a household name. Given this month marks the 40th anniversary of Needham’s most famous work, Smokey and the Bandit, we decided to rectify this. Assembling a tattoo salute to this titan of stunt work would prove to be no easy task, but we went the extra mile for Needham.
Needham was born in Memphis in 1931. He served as a paratrooper during the Korean War, which led to a love of adrenaline that soon found him working as a Hollywood stunt man. He caught his first break working as Richard Boone’s stunt double on the popular TV series Have Gun, Will Travel. By the 1960s, he was one of the top stunt men in all of Hollywood.
Not content just to perform stunts as directed, Needham showed a penchant for inventions that elevated the possibilities of stunt work. His first major contribution was the air ramp, a spring-loaded contraption used to launch people into the air. Before this, stunt men would simply stand near an explosion and throw themselves away from it when the time was right. Now they could fly through the air, producing a much more realistic stunt.
He also invented the nitrogen ratchet, a cable that pulls stunt people at great speeds to create the effect of serious momentum. Needham also had the bright idea of using explosions to roll cars. This car cannon needed some serious testing before perfection, which the genius stunt man happily provided. One of the early tests used way too much explosives, sending Needham and his car into the air before it landed on its roof, breaking his back and puncturing a lung.
But Needham’s greatest contribution to the world came from another device. Though not specifically his invention, he was the very first human test subject for the airbag, a device that has saved countless thousands of lives. He even testified about the invention’s safety before Congress, leading to its widespread adoption.
Needham was a long time stunt double for Burt Reynolds, and the two quickly became best friends. Despite being the highest paid stuntman in Hollywood, Needham spent 12 years living in Reynolds’ guest house. During this time, he penned his first screenplay, a light-hearted car chase romp called Smokey and the Bandit. Reynolds read the script and famously told Needham that it was the worst screenplay he had ever read, but he still wanted to make the film.
The movie’s premise is ridiculous. Two friends accept a bet to run 400 cases of Coors Light from Texas to Georgia in an 18 hour round trip. Released in 1977, Smokey and the Bandit defied all possible expectations and became the second highest-grossing movie of the year, behind only Star Wars. This was a huge accomplishment for a first-time director and the start of a fantastic career behind the camera.
Reynolds and Needham followed this up with a string of classic flicks such as Hooper, Stroker Ace, and The Cannonball Run. Between 1976 and 1989, there were no less than 5 films made about the Cannonball Baker Sea-To-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash and Needham was responsible for 40% of these titles. None of them is as good, or as fun, as the original Cannonball Run, a fantastic comedic ensemble that saw the first teaming of Reynolds and Dom DeLouise, as well as giving America one of its first looks at a young Jackie Chan. Needham contributed another great idea to cinema with this film by being the first to show humorous outtakes during the credits, something Chan openly cribbed from the director.
Needham spent his later years trying to break the world land speed record and owning professional racecars. He returned to the director’s chair in the ‘90s with a string of made-for-tv Smokey and the Bandit sequels that we are quite happy pretending never existed. He was granted a lifetime achievement Oscar in 2012, his second behind a win in the ‘80s for engineering work. Hal Needham passed away in 2013 from cancer at age 82, which in and of itself is an impressive feat considering how many times he put himself in mortal danger in the name of entertainment.
We here at Tattoodo all salute the life and work of Hal Needham. If you feel similarly, we implore you to pony up and get yourself a sweet Hal Needham tattoo. Someone seriously needs to step up to the plate and give this auteur the tattoo love he deserves.