Stuntmen and stuntwomen may have the most demanding job in Hollywood, performing falls, tumbles, dives and other feats too dangerous for actors. Sandy Gimpel, 67, is still doing stunts at an age when many people are retired. She tells VOA's Mike O'Sullivan, she has no plans to quit the risky business.
Sandy Gimpel was a young dancer at a beachside amusement park when she got her start as a stand-in for child star Billy Mumy on the 1960s television series Lost in Space. She was the same height as the young star, and could stand in place for him as the crew adjusted the lighting and prepared for filming. She would also do stunts, sparing the young performer from demanding physical scenes. The sequences were filmed and edited so the audience couldn't tell the difference.
"And so I did the show for three years," she recalled. "And I loved it, absolutely loved it, and decided that's what I wanted to do with my life."
Working on the TV series, she got to know producer Irwin Allen, and worked with other crewmembers in his blockbuster movies.
"I did Towering Inferno. I did Poseidon Adventure. I was in the glass elevator when it crashed. I did Man from the 25th Century, Land of the Giants. Everything he did, he was very, very loyal, and kept all of us working all the time," she said.
As she worked, she improved her skills and learned to do high falls, and simulated fights. Her many movie credits include this year's Eddie Murphy comedy Norbit and the 1988 comedy Twins, starring Danny DeVito and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
She says the stunts may look easy on screen, but the work is dangerous.
"People have gotten killed. People have gotten hurt," she noted. "Guys have broken their backs, gotten knocked out unconscious. There are some easy stunts, footfalls and stuff like that which should be pretty simple. But the problem is, if you let the actor do it, and God forbid, he gets hurt or dislocates his shoulder by doing a forward roll, which is simple, they have no picture."
Many stunts rely on ropes and rigging, and Gimpel insists on checking them herself. She recalls a time when her caution paid off. She went over a cliff in a motorcycle and sidecar. Before the stunt, she delayed the filming to add an extra tie to the rigging as an added precaution. It was a smart move. The original tie pulled loose, and she and her companion were left dangling from a rope.
"If it wasn't for our backup tie, I wouldn't be doing this interview - seriously," she explained. "We would have just been gone."
One less serious mishap led to two broken ribs. Gimpel was standing in for actress Helen Hunt in a television movie. She had to dive through an open window, but got caught in the Venetian blinds, which broke her stride and caused her to hit several ledges on the way down. Even though she was hurt, she did the stunt a second time, but the director used the first one in the movie.
Sandy Gimpel says the most dangerous part of her job is working with fire. She relies on a safety crew, who coat her body with ice-cold fire-retardant, and then she puts on her protective suit.
"And they have to light you," she said. "Then, you do your thing, and when you start feeling the heat, you go down on the ground and you have a signal, and they put you out. And they have to put you out on time."
The stuntwoman says some people may have easier jobs, but she loves the rush of adrenaline that her job provides.
"I love what I do. I never want to stop," she added. "If everybody in the world loved their job as much as I do, we would have a pretty cool world, I've got to tell you."
Gimpel is a martial arts expert and physical fitness buff, and she teaches karate to children in her spare time. She has also created an exercise DVD called Stuntblasters Workout, which has some tamer activities for the less daring.