An Interview With Hal Needham - Bandit Backstory
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An Interview With Hal Needham - Bandit Backstory
An Interview With Hal Needham - Bandit Backstory
Most first attempts at anything in life yield less-than-stellar results-be it a first kiss, riding a bike, or your first driving experience. Nevertheless, there is little doubt that you will remember it. Hal Needham's first attempt at writing and directing afeature film, however, did not conform to typical logic. Not only was it successful, it received the kind of accolades from which Hollywood legends are born.
Smokey and the Bandit was second only to Star Wars for box office receipts in 1977, grossing more than $126 million nationally. High praise for a first-time writer/director, considering the seasoned writer/director George Lucas had already been nominated for Academy Awards for 1973's American Graffiti and would be again for writing and directing Star Wars.
While George would be hard-pressed to write about his firsthand experiences in "a galaxy far far away," the subject matter of Smokey and the Bandit, its location and its characters, rang close to home for Hal Needham due to his Southern upbringing.
Hal was born on March 6, 1931 to Edith May and Howard Needham in Memphis, Tennessee. The family lived in Arkansas and Missouri during Hal's childhood, and the Depression was not kind to their finances. As a teenager, Hal served as a paratrooper during the Korean War, then did some modeling for a cigarette company and a few other jobs. He launched his stunt career in TV on the series Have Gun Will Travel (1957), which led to working with director John Ford and actor John Wayne, and stunt doubling for Burt Reynolds, among others.
Of the thousands of television and film credits that comprise Needham's resume, Smokey and the Bandit is held near and dear to the hearts of Pontiac fans worldwide, and catapulted Hal Needham to A-list director status. With a shelf life longer than a box of Twinkies, Smokey and the Bandit is just as popular a film today, on its 30th Anniversary, as it was in 1977. HPP recently spoke with Hal regarding his exploits during the production of this legendary film. As hoped after seeing him onscreen over the years, Mr. Needham was very down-to-earth, easygoing, and a pleasure to speak with.
HPP: What drove you to become a stuntman?
Hal Needham: Being poor and not being able to do anything else. I was a sharecropper's son back in the hills of Arkansas. Things weren't too good back in the Depression. I used a mule's backside for a compass up and down the cotton rows-I picked a lot of cotton. When I had a chance to become a stuntman, I took advantage of it.
HPP: What were some of your early jobs?
HN: Oh, well, my first movie job was The Spirit of St. Louis (1957), the story of Charles Lindbergh's life, starring Jimmy Stewart. From there on I did...You're asking a tough question and I'll tell you why. I've done 310 movies and over 4,500 television episodes, so it's kind of hard for me to keep them straight in my mind. I've done so many shows I can't even remember all of them (laughs).
HPP: Tell us about Stunts Unlimited.
HN: It was started by myself, Glenn Wilder and Ronnie Rondell Jr. At the time, there was a stuntman organization called The Stuntman Association. Though we all belonged to it, we just didn't like the way things were run. We were young and ambitious, so we took 14 guys with us and started Stunts Unlimited and it went on to become the best stunt organization in Hollywood.
HPP: What led you into writing and directing?
HN: Money! I was a stuntman for 20 years at the time, had doubled Burt Reynolds for 18 and had lived in his guesthouse for 12. I came up with the idea of Smokey and the Bandit, so I wrote it, took it home, gave it to him and I had no idea he was gonna do it. I was just trying to get a feel for whether he liked it or not. But he said "Hal, I got a space in my schedule," and then he said, "You wanna be a director?" I said, "Okay!" "If you find somebody to give you the money, I'll star in it and you can direct it." The rest is history.
HPP: Where did the idea for the plot come from?
HN: I was down in Georgia with Burt, working on Gator and at that time you could not buy Coors beer east of the Mississippi. Stories about smuggling Coors beer are legendary. Talk to the people and they'll tell you, "Yeah, we used to make a Coors run every weekend across the border." Anyway, the driver captain came down, and he said, "Hey Hal, I bought some Coors. Can I put a couple cases in your room?" I don't drink beer, but I said okay. So I stuffed six bottles in the fridge and went about my business. They'd disappear one or two at a time, so I kept replacing them. Finally I set a trap and caught the maid stealin' my Coors beer. I said, "What on Earth are you doing?" She said, "Well, you can't buy Coors down here and my boyfriend really likes it, so I was just takin' it home to him." Then she told me the story about how she couldn't buy Coors east of the Mississippi, so I just gave her both cases and said, "Thank you very much." That gave me the idea for Smokey and the Bandit. I thought, "What a good idea; bootleg a little Coors, get in a truck, lots of fast cars and a lot of cops chasin' em."
HPP: Originally, didn't you have Jerry Reed in mind to be the Bandit?
HN: Yes and no. I had talked to Reed because I intended to do the movie for maybe a million dollars, a million and a half, kind of an el cheapo. And he kind of half-assed agreed to do it. But then when Burt came along I said, "Jerry Reed, you are now the Snowman."
HPP: How had you known Jerry?
HN: He and Burt and I worked on W.W. and the Dixie Dance Kings (1975), Gator (1976) and I think a couple more movies.
HPP: How did Sally Field get cast in the movie?
HN: That was really the decision of the studios. Although I had worked with Sally a few times, I had nothing to do with hiring her. As a matter of fact, I didn't have a lot to do with hiring a bunch of folks because remember, I was a newcomer and was just happy to be along. So it was really the studio that put Sally in there.
HPP: Jackie Gleason? He was certainly a catch for the movie.
HN: Well, I had a lot to do with that. I said, "What about Gleason?" and the studio said, "Well, Gleason, we don't have enough money for Gleason." So I sent him the script anyway. I did two Smokey and the Bandit movies with Gleason, and he never knew my name. It was either Pally or Mr. Director. It was Pally when everything was good, Mr. Director when he was a little pissed. So he calls me up and says "Mr. Director, what makes you think that I would do this movie?" and I said, "Well, Mr. Gleason, I'm a big fan of yours and I've seen every Honeymooners episode ever made and many of your other shows and movies. I wrote this script and I'm directing the movie, so nothing is etched in stone. If you play the part, I can see that character being very, very funny. He said, "I'll do it." Of course we had to do a little negotiating on the paycheck and things like that, but that was how it happened.
HPP: How was he to work with once he was on the set?
HN: Wonderful! The only thing you had to watch for was when you gave him a 10:00 a.m. call, he expected to be in front of that camera by 10:30. If I had him in at 10 and didn't get to him until 11, he'd say, "Mr. Director, if you don't get me in front of the camera soon," and he'd have his assistant next to him, "I'll have to have run in and get me a scotch and soda." And I'd say, "You're up next."
HPP: Was there a lot of rewriting or ad-libbing during shooting?
HN: With Gleason, I'd say 75 percent of what he said was his own. I mean, he just came up with some of the funniest damn stuff and it was wonderful. Who am I to tell the master what's good and what's bad, you know? Most of his dialog came right out of his head. You know things like, "There's no way you could come from my loins," and, "The first thing I'm gonna do when I get home is punch your mama in the mouth." He called his son a "tick turd," really, a "tick turd." He had all kinds of funny stuff.
HPP: Did the other actors follow suit? Was there a lot of ad-libbing from them as well?
HN: Yeah, I guess so. I mean there always is unless you got some director with a lot of ego. You gotta listen to your actors, they don't wanna look like fools. They would often change the script during rehearsal and most of the time they changed it for the better.
HPP: How did the Trans Am become a character in the movie?
HN: That was my idea. I saw a picture of it in a magazine in black with gold stripes and T-tops and I said, "That's the car I want to put the Bandit in." I called the Pontiac people and told them my plan and, of course they'd never heard of me, so they said, "Well, what do you need?" I said "Well, I'd like to have some Trans Ams for Burt and I need three LeManses for the sheriff." After some negotiating, they gave me three Trans Ams and two LeManses. After that movie came out, you couldn't buy a black Trans Am. You had to wait six months. Their sales chart rose like the Empire State Building.
When I got ready to do the Smokey and the Bandit II, I had some pretty good friends at Pontiac. I was on a first name basis with them, in fact. They even invited me to speak at one of their affairs. So when I got ready to do II (the guy's name at Pontiac was Graham), I called and said, "Graham, I'm ready to do another Smokey and the Bandit." "How many cars do you need?" he asked. I said, "Well, I'm gonna need at least five Trans Ams." He said no problem. Then I said, "And I'll need 50 four-door sedans," and he said, "What?!" "I need 50 four-door sedans." In the second movie, Gleason calls his two cousins with the red and white cars. Well, I had 25 of each. They built them and shipped them on a train to me in Las Vegas. Pontiac said, "Do anything you want with them, but when you're done we gotta have them back so we can crush them to avoid any liability problems." So they gave me $750,000 worth of cars, but I sold more Trans Ams than all their dealers put together, for Christ's sake.
HPP: Many HPP readers have said "I first got into Trans Ams when I saw Smokey and the Bandit."
HN: You know what's really weird? I travel around a lot, and I do some speaking engagements. Kids will come up and they'll be 22 or 23 and they say, "Smokey and the Bandit's my favorite movie," and I say, "Wait a minute, you're 22 or 23. You weren't even born when I made that movie." They'll say, "Oh yeah, but my daddy's got a DVD of it and we watch it all the time." I'll tell you something else. It's hard to turn the TV on for a week without seeing Smokey and the Bandit. I was speaking up in Crested Butte at a film festival and they wanted a copy of Smokey, so my wife went to Universal to pick it up for me and they got to talking to her and they told her it was the most requested feature they ever had. That movie holds up even today.
HPP: How were the Pontiacs that you had gotten for the first movie modified to do the stunts?
HN: They weren't modified, except the one for the bridge jump. We were using a dirt road and the stuntman only had a short distance to get up to speed. We tried running the car stock with an automatic and it wouldn't get it done; it wouldn't go fast enough. Well, I had a NASCAR race team, so I just called my shop and said, "Send me up a 750 hp engine and a stick trans." Those are the only modifications we did, aside from safety equipment.
HPP: How was the bridge jump set up?
HN: Well, we built a ramp obviously, but I had the camera set so you couldn't see it. That bridge was already out, so we just measured it and determined how fast the Trans Am had to go to get over there, put a ramp in there, a big engine in and a stick shift, and said go for it.
HPP: By the time shooting was over, how many of those three Trans Ams were left?
HN: Zip. In the last shot, the Trans Am wouldn't even run. We had to push it in with another car so it would coast to the spot where Burt had to get out. We beat the crap out of those cars.
HPP: Then you also had the flatbed jump with the police car.
HN: Yeah. That's a pretty hard stunt. In fact, the first time, the stuntman came in a little hot and just went over. The left wheels fell off the trailer, the car hit the ground and rolled back on its wheels, and he just fired it up and said, "Let's do it again." He went back and did it a second time and it was perfect.
HPP: Were there any happy accidents that made it into the final cut?
HN: Well, let me tell you, when they jumped the fence and went onto the football field and then into that dugout, that whole thing was an accident. The stuntman got on the grass and the T/A just wouldn't stop. It scared me to death, because those were real kids in that dugout. My heart just sank because I could see a little kid, almost in slow motion, moving out of the way. I thought, "Oh my God I killed some kids." But nobody was even scratched. They said, "Well, Hal, let's use it." So we just built a board for the back of the dugout, drove through it and back on the highway.
HPP: During the making of the movie, were there any funny behind-the-scenes stories that people generally wouldn't know about?
HN: Well, one thing. I had yet to meet with Gleason prior to shooting. The night before we were to shoot he called me and said, "Mr. Director, would you come over to my hotel? I'd like to talk about the script." "Uh-oh," I thought. "Here we go, on the eve of my directorial debut, a big actor wants to talk to me about the script." So I went over to his hotel, he invited me in and I said, "Mr. Gleason, I've had a long day, why don't we get a drink?" and he said, "Absolutely." So we moved to the bar and we never said one word about the script. We sat there and got completely plowed. I said, "Mr. Gleason, I have to get up early tomorrow morning. I have to go." And he said, "Okay. Don't be late." So I got to the set the next morning and he was already there. He was wearing the same clothes he had on the night before, except for one thing. He had his legs crossed and his shoes were on the wrong feet. He was sitting in a little actor's chair and he leaned back and lost his balance, and there was about a 12-foot drop behind him. He just rolled down that incline. He got back up and said, "Well, I guess it's time to get dressed."
HPP: What was the mood during shooting? It came across in the movie that everyone was just having a good time.
HN: Fun and games. Absolutely! I mean we had a pretty tight schedule, so we had to worry about that. We couldn't just sit around and twiddle our thumbs; we had to stay on top of it and work. We shot it in 42 days and didn't go over schedule or over budget, and everyone seemed to have a great time.
HPP: Prior to Smokey and the Bandit's release, how confident was the studio in the movie?
HN: Not very. They released it in Radio City Music Hall in New York. It didn't make enough money to pay the dancers. They pulled it out in a week or two and said, "Christ, what are we going to do with it?" I said, "Take the thing down South." I made it for the South, the Midwest and the Northwest. Not Philadelphia, New York or San Francisco. They took it down South and it went through the roof. It set all kinds of records. Then they took it back to New York and it set all kinds of records there. At first, they were scared and I was, too. I didn't agree with them putting it in Radio City Music Hall, but I couldn't stop them. Once it went down South, we couldn't count the money fast enough.
HPP: When you were working on Smokey and the Bandit, what was the best advice anyone gave you?
HN: I'm not a domineering director, so if the soundman had a good idea or something that would work, I listened to him. I listened to a lot of people, though I don't know of anyone who came up and said, "Here's what you gotta do to get a hit movie." It was all right there in the script. We just shot the script.
HPP: Was there anyone who gave you horrible advice that you're glad you didn't follow?
HN: Yeah. There was a guy helping me negotiate my salary. He wanted me to demand more money. He said, "You gotta stick with it, you know. You need to ask for this much," and so on and so forth and I said, "Wait a minute, I should be paying these people to let me direct this film." I went in for a little less and, as it turned out, I was right. I didn't listen to him, thank God.
HPP: If you could do it over again, is there anything you would change in Smokey and the Bandit?
HN: Oh, boy. Well, it became a classic, so I wouldn't want to change anything and I'm glad I didn't.
HPP: You've made a lot of car chase style movies, and you did a lot of Westerns prior to that. Do you prefer one genre to another?
HN: Not really. Probably all of my directorial things have been comedy, action, car movies, but I like them all-Westerns, car movies, and action movies. I wish Westerns would come back because I have a couple ideas for Westerns that'd just be killer. But no one goes to see Westerns anymore.
HPP: Who are your influences in the areas of stunts, writing and directing?
HN: You mean before me (laughs)? There were quite a few outstanding stuntmen in the Western genre, like Yakima Canutt and Joe Yrigoyen. Now if you want to get into the acrobatics, there's a guy named Davey Sharpe. For directors-David Lean. He directed Doctor Zhivago, my all-time favorite movie. I would love to be in his class, but never made it. I worked with John Ford and a lot of big directors. Hell, I look up to all of them because they made a lot of movies and they made a lot of money.
HPP: Of the car movies that you weren't involved in, were there any which stand out that you really like?
HN: Oh yeah. The French Connection. They had good stuff. Bullitt was great, too. I mean, hell, after Bullitt came out, you'd walk in for an interview, the producer would talk about a car chase and say, "I want it to be better than Bullitt!" Well, Bullitt had a big budget and just wrecked and tore up all kinds of stuff. This guy has a two million dollar movie and says he wants it bigger than Bullitt. I mean you've got to be kidding me.
HPP: What do you think of the digitally enhanced car chase movies being made today?
HN: Yeah, I hate that. I can see a car being photographed and I can tell you how many frames per second they're running; whether they're overcranking or undercranking to make it look faster. But digital let's you do so many things that are absolutely impossible. I find it hard to believe, and I don't find it entertaining. That's just me. I guess the kids love them from playing video games, but I don't like it.
HPP: Would you consider a remake of Smokey and the Bandit?
HN: Never happen. I've never seen a remake that is as good as the first. If you've got something that's a winner, you better not screw with it too much or you'll screw it up. Burt's not as young as he was-neither am I-and the audiences have changed. I don't think you want to do that. I'd rather just say, "I did Smokey and the Bandit" and let it go, you know? Instead of going out there screwing it up and making a piece of crap.
HPP: Do you think a car movie could be made today that would have the impact Smokey and the Bandit did? Or do you think the market is too flooded?
HN: No, if you've got the right story, the right people, and the right action, it will work. Generally, people who make car movies try to see how big a crash they can get into or how far they can jump, but you don't have to jump that far. All you need is comedy. Make people laugh! If you had a good comedy car chase movie, I think it'd work today. As a matter of fact, I think it would be better today because there are more kids involved.
Special thanks to Hal Needham for participating in this highly entertaining interview. The HPP staff is very appreciative that a person of Hal's stature would be so forth-coming with his comments and giving of his time and personal photos to make this interview possible.
Photo Gallery: An Interview With Hal Needham - High Performance Pontiac Magazine
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