Hollywood vet recalls stunt legend

General | Aug 9, 2016 | Carlos Castillo

I watched “The Bandit” this past weekend and it was time well spent. The documentary covers a lot of ground, specifically the collaboration of Burt Reynolds and Hal Needham for the film “Smokey and the Bandit.” Filmmaker Jesse Moss did a terrific job of interweaving the histories of both men and telling a rollicking tale of making movies when the movie business was itself still a little rough around the edges.

After watching “The Bandit,” I contacted my friend, Bob Webb, who had worked with Needham. Webb was an assistant director in Hollywood for about 40 years and would regale me with tales of his days in the entertainment industry when he lived in my neck of the woods, Novato, California. Webb now resides in Oregon.

Many years after “Smokey and the Bandit” debuted in 1977, Needham would go on to make several made-for-TV movies based on the character made famous by Burt Reynolds. Webb worked on a few of these movies, which were shot in North Carolina in the 1990s.

Webb, who hadn’t yet seen “The Bandit” documentary when we spoke Monday, remembered Needham as being a “gracious” man with a “great sense of humor” who was well-liked and respected by his crew. Webb remembered that Needham would put out a spread of food and in lieu of the crew taking a dedicated lunch break, he’d promise everyone to finish filming for the day promptly at 3 p.m. This was when a 7 p.m. quitting time was not out of the ordinary. On one of the TV movies, the crew was so appreciative that they all chipped in to buy Needham a set of silver-plated pistols at the end of the shoot, Webb recalled.

Even if the Smokey and the Bandit” knockoffs paled in comparison to the original film, Webb recommends watching them for the stunts and to appreciate Needham’s expertise in this aspect of the filmmaking process.

If you watch “The Bandit” documentary, you’ll come away with the same feeling that Webb recounted, that Needham was well liked and respected by the people on the set. Toward the end of the documentary, one of the people interviewed alludes to Needham (who died of cancer in 2013) not always following the rules. When I mentioned this to Webb he explained that oftentimes the rules and regulations governing on-set working conditions and safety were sometimes skirted when filming commenced, especially when the shoot was on location in right-to-work states.

“Some of the things [Needham] asked people to do, only the guys he knew would do them,” Webb said about the stunt work on Needham’s productions. Webb first met Needham in the 1960s on the set of the TV show “The Man from U.N.C.L.E”

I hope to interview Webb again after he watches “The Bandit” documentary to see what other related tidbits he can share about working with Needham. Stay tuned.

Update 9/8/16: Just finished reading Needham's autobio. Thoroughly enjoyed it. However, he did not talk about the woman who was horribly injured on Cannonball Run, nor did he address the stunt that went bad and injured people during the filming of "Smokey and the Bandit." Two glaring omissions. He needed to come clean on these events because he took a lot of producers, directors and ADs to task for asking him to do stunts that weren't fully thought out or executed. Can't talk out of both sides of your mouth. Still, a fantastic read. The man had an incredible work ethic!

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