Ace Atkins

New York Times Best Selling Author

So Long, Mr. Needham

One of my all-time heroes, stuntman Hal Needham.

There was a brief time when I flirted with the idea of becoming a stunt man. I was working an internship in Hollywood to fulfill graduation requirements at Auburn University. The film was a mess, at best a highly forgettable piece of junk. The real fun for me was getting to work with the crew, the grips, the special effects folks and stunt men. Most of the stunts were headed by Gil Combs, a real pro who’d just worked on “Die Hard” and a member of a famous stuntman family. When they found out a lowly production assistant had just finished playing D1 football, I was asked if I might reconsider wanting to become a screenwriter.

About as close to a stunt as I ever worked was climbing up several stories of scaffolding outside the old Ambassador hotel in Los Angeles to help with a scene. I never let the guys know it, but I wasn’t very fond of heights. I would’ve enjoyed the car work and the fights, but scaling and jumping off buildings was not for me.

When I was a kid, I’d always been fascinated by the work of Hal Needham. Needham, as most of readers know, was the longtime stunt man for Burt Reynolds. He also worked on “Have Gun, Will Travel” and on many John Wayne films.

I think if I had gotten to meet Needham twenty years ago, he may have talked me into a staying. He was a Southerner, born in Memphis and raised in Arkansas. He had been in the 82nd Airborne during the Korean War and went on to direct two of my favorite films, “Smokey and the Bandit” and “Hooper.”

Several weeks ago, I had been planning to fly out to California to interview Needham as research for the new Quinn Colson novel. Sadly, Needham died on October 25th. After breaking his back twice and countless burns and injuries, he died after a short battle with cancer.

So much of his personal story and films make up the mythology of my Quinn Colson novels. As we’re told, Quinn’s father, Jason, was a protege of Needham’s and worked on several 1970s and 1980s action classics. We are sure to learn more about those wild Hollywood days in the new Quinn novel I’m writing now. Fond memories of Needham and every cut, twisted ankle, and broken bone. Here is a look back at some of his original gags for “Have Gun, Will Travel.”

— Ace

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