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Hal Needham

Film director and stuntman.

Born: March 6, 1931; Died: October 25, 2013.

Hal Needham, who has died aged 82, was a former paratrooper who drifted into movie stunt work largely because he was not really qualified to do much else. He became Burt Reynolds's stunt double in the early 1960s and when Reynolds became a major star he helped Needham make the unusual move from stuntman to director.

Needham came up with the story himself for Smokey and the Bandit, in which The Bandit character speeds around the country in a souped-up car, transporting illegal shipments of beer across the state line, pursued by the police, the Smokey of the title.

Initially Needham had difficulty interesting production companies, but when Reynolds agreed to play The Bandit it became a whole different proposition.

A mix of unsophisticated comedy, action and road movie, Smokey and the Bandit made more money in North America in 1977 than any other film except Star Wars and Rocky.

Needham went on to make a string of movies in a similar vein, including The Cannonball Run (1981), which once again starred Burt Reynolds and a load of cars.

Needham was one of the most commercially successful directors of the late 1970s and early 1980s and, for better or for worse, he created a fashion for films and television that combined cars, action and gags, often employing Southern US landscapes and attitudes.

The critics hated everything he did, and he responded by taking out an advert in Variety, quoting some of the most negative comments alongside a picture of him sitting on a wheelbarrow overflowing with money.

The son of a sharecropper, Hal Brett Needham was born in Tennessee, but grew up largely in Arkansas. He spent three years in the US Army in the early 1950s and had several short-term jobs before a chance meeting with a former Army buddie led to stunt work.

He regularly worked on westerns, including several with John Wayne. He was Richard Boone's stunt double in more than 200 episodes of Have Gun, Will Travel (1957-63). And he doubled for Reynolds on the popular western television series Gunsmoke after the actor joined the cast as the "half-breed" deputy Quint Asper in 1962.

They became close friends and Needham lived in the guest house on Reynolds' property for years.

Needham worked as a stuntman or stunt co-ordinator on hundreds of television programmes and films, and he claimed to have broken 56 bones, including breaking his back twice, as well as puncturing a lung and suffering all sorts of other injuries.

Reputedly he was the highest paid stuntman in the world and he also worked on the development of equipment used in stunts, including air bags and rocket-powered cars.

He and Reynolds owned a NASCAR racing team and Needham was involved in an attempt on the world land speed record. He owned the Budweiser Rocket car and his team claimed to be the first to break the speed barrier on land.

There are no regular Oscars for stunt work, but he won one of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' Scientific and Technical Awards in 1987 for the development of a new camera car and crane, and he was presented with an honorary award this year.

His other films as a director include Smokey and the Bandit Ride Again (1980), Hooper (1978), Cactus Jack (1979), a western with Kirk Douglas and Arnold Schwarzenegger, in one of his first leading roles, and Stroker Ace (1983). He also directed several further Smokey and the Bandit adventures for television in the 1990s.

He is survived by his third wife Ellyn and by two sons.

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