TERRY LEONARD: BLONDES AND HARD GROUND
Prop Store was fortunate enough to sit down for coffee recently with Terry Leonard, one of the great Hollywood stuntmen of yesteryear, and one of the most in-demand second unit directors of today. Having worked on some John Wayne films such as EL DORADO, RIO LOBO, and BIG JAKE as well as other classics as THE WIND AND THE LION, APOCALYPSE NOW, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, CONAN THE BARBARIAN, 48 HOURS, RED DAWN and TOMBSTONE, Leonard has seen it all. He’s a member of a dying breed; an old desert-raised Cowboy who believes in word as bond and settling his own problems like a man. But guys like him are becoming rarer and rarer due to the growing reach of computer-generated effects, so Prop Store wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to chat with him so that we could share his eye-popping stories with the RPF.
Still close friends with guys like Harrison Ford and John Milius, Leonard could easily swap places with The Most Interesting Man in the World and tell tales—true ones—at least as good as those of the Dos-Equis guy. The towering giant (a former pro football player in the Canadian Football League) climbed out of his Corvette to meet his fans with a gregarious smile and a handshake that could crush walnuts. Even though he’s now a rather ripe 71 years of age, he looks like he could still kick my ass and yours and get away bare-backed on a horse with one hand grasping his six-gun. Thankfully, he didn’t. Instead, for the next two hours, he told stories that might otherwise be lost to time. Since Terry Leonard is a born storyteller, Prop Store decided to just let the man speak for himself.
Trust us: if you met him, you’d do the same.
Speaking about his first picture:
[It was] El Dorado. Actually it was McLintock. I was a local extra. I didn’t want anything to do with Hollywood. They would pay you twenty bucks a day as an extra, and five dollars a day extra if you got on a horse. If you worked six days, you could live all semester on it. Gas was nineteen cents a gallon. I had the neatest looking ‘54 Oldsmobile convertible that I bought for $250 – I mean it was neat looking. I think we were all better off forty five, fifty years ago than we are now…
I met Chuck Roberson, who doubled Wayne from 1946 on. Wayne had three stunt doubles through the course of his career. Yakima was the first one – he had other guys double him, but the guys who were known as John Wayne’s doubles – Yakima, Cliff Lyons, who was half of Duke’s size, and then Chuck Roberson, who started off in 1946. Chuck and I became friends – we talked on the phone every now and then. I never did show any interest in getting in the movie business. I wanted to go to the Olympic trials in 64, which I didn’t make, and then I was playing ball. I’ll tell you when I ended up saying, “I’m really gonna stick in the business cause I was gonna teach school, Sr. High, coach high school football and teach.” That was what I wanted to do. I went to Spain in ‘67 or ‘68 to double Jim Brown on 100 Rifles. There weren’t any black cowboys my size, I’d just come out of the Canadian Football League and was – a lot bigger than I am now. I fit in his clothes, and I could horseback. So Roberson was the coordinator, Tommy Gries directing, and it had the first interracial love scene in the movies, between Jim Brown and Racquel Welch, it got a lotttt of publicity. So I go to Spain to double Jim Brown, but when I got on the plane in New York -- I left here, on TWA, that’s when they served you Chateaubriand and Champagne and the Stewardesses were great looking and friendly and wore uniforms, I mean it was like traveling first class on a railroad car. So I get on the plane, in New York, and I’m sitting next to Fernando Lamnas, I’m on the aisle, Racquel is here, and Burt Reynolds is there. The stewardess comes out in the aisle, and says, “Could I get you anything to drink Mr. Leonard?” And I went, how does she know me? I must be famous! I didn’t know – the only thing I knew about a foreign country was going over the border from the University of Arizona to Nugalis, or reading about it in the National Geographic magazine. Now here I’m going to Spain, and the stewardess is asking me “Would you like something to drink Mr. Leonard?” Well, I didn’t realize that she had a manifest that showed who was sitting in chair number two, you know. So I got a false impression of my importance, and I thought hey, this is really cool. I said yes ma’am, I’ll have some whiskey. They’re coming down the aisle with Chateaubriand, filling my glass with Champagne, having a whiskey, I’m sneaking a glance at Racquel’s legs trying to be unobtrusive but still get a sly look, I’m sitting with Burt Reynolds, who’s emerging – his career is starting to take off. Of course Racquel, what a great lady. And Fernando Lamas. And I’m going to Spain, and they’re feeding me, and I’m getting drunk, and I’m looking at Racquel Welch and I said, this business is for me. How can you beat it?
On how many movies he’s worked on:
I haven’t really looked at IMDB [editors note: IMDB says 125!]. Everybody tells me, “Ah man, look at all the shows you’ve worked on,” and stuff. Well some of them I’ve been on for six months at a time. So instead of bouncing every couple of weeks for a show, where you can build your resume, of numbers – I was on APOCALYPSE NOW for a year. The other shows I’ve done, like A MAN CALLED HORSE I was on for six months. A lot of the shows I’ve done have been big, and long running. So that has taken away from, if you’re counting and you say “I’ve worked on 500 movies” – well, I would rather have worked on 60 movies, I don’t know how many I’ve done, I would rather have worked on, just to pick a number, on 60 movies, and have them be movies like APOCALYPSE NOW, then to have 500 run of the mill movies. But it really doesn’t matter. Because when your career is over, the only friend you’ve got is the money you’ve got in the bank. That’s a facetious line that I like to bring out.
RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK is perhaps the most famous movie Leonard did stunt work for. He doesn’t remember Tunisia—the site of the majority of the Raiders shoot—all that fondly.
Flies. They’re everywhere, and they’re the size of a hub cap.
[Before that,] I worked in Morocco, and the south of Spain is similar. I’d been in the south of Spain a number of times, in Almeria. But it was never quite 130 degrees. [In Tunisia, it was] 130 degrees every day. I lost ten pounds. I got pictures of me looking – I mean I look skinny. I was all dried up. As a credit to Steven, and George Lucas, instead of having just a medic or an EMT, they had a full surgeon from England – name was Sam. I can’t remember the rest of it. Mickey Moore had toxic syndrome. After a while, you don’t sweat anymore, because you just sweat all the water out of your body, and it’s like a lady having toxic syndrome. And down he went. If we hadn’t had Sam there, and made the decision to send him to London, I think Mickey would have died. And there was an accident with a local Arab kid about 8 years old, and if it hadn’t have been for Sam the kid would have died. But to bring a full Surgeon as your set medic, and to have a Leer jet standing by in case somebody got hurt… There could have been – I mean we were doing some pretty wild stuff there. For them to have the foresight to bring a full medical surgeon as our set medic, when most companies would say, “Ah, we’re in Tunisia, nothing’s going to happen here. Bring a nurse.” And she sits over there sweating her 350 pounds off under an umbrella … They [the surgeons] saved lives. I’ll never forget, I saw that plane somewhere on a little runway out there in Tunis. And I said, “What’s that jet doing here?” I mean, it’s a place where you’d expect to see a paper cup or something. And they said, “That’s our ambulance plane. If any of you guys get hurt, you’re outta here on that jet.”… To have the respect from the company, for the stunt guys – which you never get. It’s getting better now, because we’ve lost a few guys in the past. They’re pretty concerned now about the medic. I’ll tell you what – I’ve been to hospitals in the back of station wagons. You know, it’s all budget. You going to bring a surgeon, or you going to bring a medic? They brought a surgeon. And he saved lives. Steven and George – I haven’t worked for them since, thirty-two years, but that’s okay. I did 1941 with him, I did USED CARS where he was Executive Producer with Zemeckis. George was over there on the second camera. He asked me over there, do you remember the first time you met me? I said no George, I really don’t. He was a film student when we were doing a movie for Columbia called MCKENNA’S GOLD, and they were shooting a documentary, with Super 8 or 16mm. And George said, “I met you on McKenna’s Gold, I was helping Telly Savallis.” I said I’ll be god damned – amazing. I can’t say enough good things about those guys. They’re creative, they’re geniuses, they’re neat guys.
Leonard was involved in two of the most difficult stunts in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK: the horse-to-truck transfer during Indy’s pursuit of the Ark, and then the famous “Indy gets dragged under the truck” scene. Beginning with the horse-to-truck transfer:
The toughest thing about that stunt was getting that horse to the truck the second time. The first time ol’ Glenn Randall – I was outrunning the truck, and we had ground cameras to play to. This horse didn’t have a lot of rate in him, once I got him going, they weren’t movie horses or really good horses, they were horses from Tunisia... They found some horses to work with, and he was alright, but I wouldn’t have owned him. So we’re outrunning the truck, and he doesn’t have a lot of rate in him, so I can’t really check him back. Glenn Randall sees me coming up in the rear view mirror, and he’s gonna go ahead, shifts gears, truck backfires. And this – am I allowed to swear on this? – this dirty counterfeit son of a ***** realized – well I think any horse would have done that – when that truck backfired, he just hit the air brakes right as I’m in the middle of the jump going to the truck. So I got nowhere to go but down. The horse pulls away from me… [and] fell right down on the ground with them big rear wheels chasing me. I said here I go, I’m gonna get run over again. I was laughing. Cause I had just done that thing in Monument Valley, with the stagecoach stunt – the real deal, that I ended up talking to Steven about, and that’s how that got in the movie…
So now – we’re down there with this horse trying to make the transfer to the truck, where I get in the cab and fight with Harrison, which I’m actually chasing myself at that point because I’m the original driver of the truck, then Harrison jumps in and we start to – I’m the original driver, then it changes to Harrison when he kicks me out. So then I chase the truck that I’m supposed to be driving, but I won’t have anybody else drive it but Glenn Randall. He knows how to rate those trucks and gets the vehicles, sees what the horses are doing and such. So I’m chasing this doggone truck, I reach to make my jump to the truck to transfer onto it, the truck backfires, the grey horse goes south, down I go in front of the wheels – I said, “Son of a *****, I’m gonna get run over again!”
Terry Leonard had previously been run over in a horse transfer stunt, that time doing 1981’s THE LEGEND OF THE LONE RANGER. The stagecoach ran over both his legs, tearing ligaments and crushing bones. Three months later, he was doing the stunt again. This time, for Steven Spielberg on RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. The first time he attempted it, the counterfeit sonofabitch horse beneath him got spooked and dropped him. Terry was looking down the barrel of being crushed again—this time by a German truck. But Leonard laughed in the face of danger.
It didn’t really scare me. I mean if you’re doing this stuff and being scared there’s something wrong with you. You shouldn’t be doing it when you’re scared. So we said okay, let’s go again. Now this horse knew the boogeyman was in the truck. I could not get him to move to that truck to save my soul. That’s the toughest stunt in the movie. So finally – I’m punching holes in him with my spur on the right side to get him to move over to the left, to get me in position to make the transfer – we did it two more times, and it didn’t look as good as it would have the first time, but I had to worry about that horse ducking out on me. So I was more worried about the horse than I was making the jump to the truck. So that was the toughest stunt in the movie.
On whether the stunt where he is dragged beneath the truck is more dangerous, as it is typically made out to be:
That’s no big deal.
On what made RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK different:
The thing about the stunt on Raiders – Yes, it seems to be spectacular, and it was. But the point – it came at such a viable moment in the story. Stunts can only be an extension of the drama, otherwise you don’t remember them. The wildest thing I’ve ever done, was going under that stagecoach at 40 miles an hour with six horses pounding their hooves within 10 inches of my head [this is on THE LEGEND OF THE LONE RANGER], getting shot out the side because it broke my hand hold, and yet nobody remembers the movie, and nobody remembers the stunt. It’s a throwaway. It means nothing in the story whatsoever. Raiders – you talk about good filmmaking, knowing where to insert the moments you need to enhance the drama, enhance the story. Karen Allen looks at Harrison Ford as that truck is leaving, and says “What are you gonna do now?” and he says “I don’t know, I’m making this up as I go.” The next thing you see, here he comes on this big white stallion chasing the truck. Are you kidding me? Start with the trombones and the kettle drums! So – because the movie was so well made, and the action was such an extension of the drama, everybody remembers that stunt! Not because it was a great stunt, or because of me, or Glenn, or anybody else involved – it’s because the moment was really special. And that’s the only way you should do action, is when the moment is special.
So when a lot of young directors ask me about this stuff, I tell them – the action, I don’t care how spectacular it is, if it doesn’t mean something within the confines of the story, then it’s a throwaway. You might as well go to the circus.
Just then, a pretty girl walks by the booth and the old cowboy shows he’s still got his instincts about him.
Blondes and hard ground have been my mortal enemies.
Anyway, it was a great moment in film history. And not because it was so tough to do. It just meant something.
On what else he did for RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK:
I did the fight. The only thing we did on the horse was the part that I did – I don’t think there’s any other horse stuff in it, if I recall. And I swung on the vine out to the plane, and got on the plane just before the plane crashed with Harrison [in Hawaii]. We were there for three weeks while they repaired the plane, and didn’t send us home. So I was on salary for three weeks in Hawaii.
On Harrison Ford’s stunt doubles, Vic Armstrong and Martin Grace:
Well Vic – I mean facially, Vic looks just like him. And then, thirty two years ago? You couldn’t tell the difference. I got a big old chin and a big old nose and I look like Fearless Fozdick. You can see me on the horse and you can see when I’m supposed to be the truck driver, originally. When I get to the top of the hill and pull up and look down at the truck below me, and they do a side angle, you can see it’s me. But Vic doubled him, and Martin Grace doubled him. Martin doubled in the Well of the Souls with the snakes, the statue collapse, and all that. Good guys. Martin Grace is a good sword man, and of course Vic stands on his own. What a great, great stunt man. We were all together. Vic would be the bad guy, I did the horse stuff – I mean Glenn could have used Vic all the way through, because Vic is a hell of a horseman. But, Glenn got the job. I didn’t get him the job, but he was interviewed because I passed his name to Steven. So as friends, he’s gonna call me. I’m a good enough double for Harrison on horseback. I mean, they’re not really gonna look at my face. And then Vic went on to double him on later films. We’re dear friends. I think the world of him. He’s become a hell of a director. And he married Wendy [Leech], who was doubling the girl, Karen Allen.
What a monumental moment in film. I mean look – you get to meet Vic, an international crew of stunt guys, Chuck Waters, myself, Glenn, then the Englishmen. We all became friends, and those friendships have lasted throughout these years.
On “Memories, Friends, and Eight-by-Tens,” a line that Terry Leonard popularized and became the subject of a song in a documentary on RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK:
[That line] came from Raiders. I’m standing there in North Africa, doubling Harrison, and this is what was running through my mind – they asked me, Terry, “What does working in the movie business mean to you?” And I thought about it, “What does working in the movie business mean to me?” Forget the movie, forget the incidental fame that you might enjoy… that was a real introspective question, and I didn’t want to answer it frivolously. So I stopped and I thought. I’m standing there in this desert, in 130 degree heat, watching a thousand camels go across the road (they graze them over there like we do beef cattle)… a thousand camels are going across the road, I’ve just been to London, four months earlier I’d been over by a stage coach, almost killed, I’d just gone through an expensive divorce, been all over the world playing cowboys and Indians, and now I’m standing in this desert in North Africa, and I stopped and I thought, “What happens when your career is over.” What do you got? You’ve got a bunch of pictures on your wall, which are 8x10s of what you’ve done, which only means something to you, or maybe one or two people who come to have a cocktail and they say “Ah, did you do that?” and I say “Yeah.” It doesn’t mean anything. Money doesn’t mean anything.
I’m thinking of the people I’ve met all over the world, stunt guy friends of mine, when I was laying on my sixth hip replacement, I’ve had seven, I got phone calls from stunt guys from Spain. They heard all over the world that I’m having another hip surgery. I got phone calls at Christmas time from probably 10 guys – Canada, Spain, Mexico – so I’m thinking about this. Not that the hips had anything to do with it, because that was just a few years ago. But I started thinking about what really means what. Forget all the bull****, forget the cigar bar, forget all the pomp and circumstance, it’s memories, friends, and 8x10s.
Since Prop Store can’t quite excuse ourselves from an interview without asking at least one prop question, we ask Leonard whether the leather jacket he wore for his daring stunt sequence in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK was one of Harrison’s, or one that the costumers made custom for him.
No, they made another one for me. I tore the **** out of that jacket.
Thus concludes part one of our interview with Terry Leonard. There will be more blondes and more hard ground in the next installment, where Terry will talk about his work for John Milius, specifically on CONAN THE BARBARIAN.