The Faustian Fall Guy: Richard Rush’s ‘The Stunt Man’

Written by Tim Pelan

By Tim Pelan

You’ve got to admire an opening sequence where an unconcerned, lazy dog lies in the middle of a dusty side road, obstructing a Sheriff’s patrol car by licking its own balls. The camera pans to a low-flying helicopter overshooting the spot where said lawman will fail to apprehend a fugitive who goes on to become an unofficial stunt man in the chopper occupying director’s film. Suddenly, a buzzard (symbolism!) flies into it. The pilot remarks “That goddamn crazy bird just tried to kill us!” Peter O’Toole, unseen at this point, playing the madly magisterial director Eli Cross, replies, “That’s your opinion. Why don’t we stop and ask his point of view?” Straight away, clued in also by the ragtime style opening music and clapperboard effect titles, we know we’re in for an unconventional ride in director Richard Rush’s critically acclaimed cult classic (three Oscar nominations—best director, adapted screenplay, and lead actor for O’Toole), The Stunt Man. It was 1980. Rush had previously directed the unconventional proto-buddy cop movie, Freebie and the Bean in 1974. He had been a fan of O’Toole for years and couldn’t understand why he was being so badly used in movies. He was desperate to land him for the role of the director in his upcoming adaptation of the 1970 novel by Paul Brodeur.

Scripted by Rush and Lawrence B. Marcus, The Stunt Man tells the tale of fugitive Vietnam vet Cameron (Steve Railsback) who stumbles upon a World War One action film, accidentally causing the death of a stunt performer. Cross agrees to hide and disguise him on the production if he takes the fellow’s place, using his hold over him to push him into ever more dangerous escapades, turning art into a deadly game for the sake of his own ego. To land his favorite actor, Rush got himself invited to the same Hollywood party he knew O’Toole was attending. They chatted a long while, but nerves got the better of him and he failed to bring up the screenplay—“When he walked out the door I remember saying to myself, ‘You chicken shit bastard, why the hell didn’t you mention it?’” Luckily, someone who was there with O’Toole mentioned that Cross had made Freebie and the Bean. O’Toole dashed back in, pumping Cross’ hand. “I’m crazy about that picture.” The screenplay was duly delivered, absorbed and agreed to. “I’m a literate and intelligent man,” O’Toole told Cross, “and unless you let me do your film I will kill you.”

As Eli manipulates Cameron into his scheme, they seem to appear behind a wall of gauze, actually a reflection as they enter the doors of the hotel around which the shoot is based. Stopping on the threshold, Eli tells the young Turk, “That door is the looking glass, and inside is wonderland.” To the neophyte stuntman (and the audience), the line between artifice and reality is about to become ever more blurred. Rush conceived The Stunt Man as a picture that reveals “the panic and paranoia over controlling our own destinies.” He saw the central characters as sane in a world gone mad. Cameron comes to believe Eli intends to capture his own death on camera. He also becomes infatuated with the lead actress Nina Franklin (Barbara Hershey, who may or may not be manipulating him and is in turn manipulated by Cross—he “accidentally” slips her nude scene into dailies viewed by her visiting parents, telling her this later to effect the desired reaction in an emotional scene). Columbia rejected the first draft (it was eventually made independently and distributed by 20th Century Fox)—“They couldn’t figure out if it was a comedy, a drama, if it was a social satire, if it was an action adventure… and, of course, the answer was, ‘Yes, it’s all those things.’ But that isn’t a satisfactory answer to a studio executive.”

“How tall was King Kong?” Eli constantly volleys to the exasperated Cameron. “Three feet,” comes the reply. All is illusion in their world—there is no way such an elaborate multi-camera stunt sequence as Cameron’s headlong chase across rooftops would be shot in one take, as we see in the film. Especially with Cameron seemingly winging it. We see him showered with glass, reacting as if genuinely injured, and butted in the face by a rifle, bruising and scarring his cheek. The stunt coordinator later peels the special makeup off his face. O’Toole’s Eli meanwhile zooms about in a chopper, or his aerial rig, like a God, lording it over the ants below.

Before Cameron even joins the crew, he and a crowd of onlookers watch a major action sequence as a bi-plane strafes a beachhead of German soldiers, explosions, and bullets tearing the place up. When the smoke clears, we see the soldiers torn apart, and the spectators gasp, only for the stuntmen to get up, revealing their legs aren’t bloodily torn apart, but in fact buried beneath the sand, for example. Rush negates the extensive prep work involved, not explaining that surely the onlookers would have been privy to that. Instead, he shows their shock and relief at the reveal. A massive cheat, but he doesn’t care. Why? Because we are Cameron, happening upon something strangely surreal and unfamiliar, yet harking back to traumatic memories long buried of his own service in Vietnam. Late in the third act, he has a kind of emotional breakdown with Hershey’s character in a store room, revealing the truth behind why he’s on the run—a war buddy had promised him a job in his store, but said things were too slack. In reality, Cameron discovers he’s been “banging my old lady.” As he relives his rage (he accidentally injured an intervening cop), the imagined ice cream tubs and crates of the store are replaced by paint pots he flings about in their remembered place, an off the wall precursor to John Rambo’s breakdown in First Blood two years later.

With regard to the lengthy development time for the picture, Rush declared, “I must be five years ahead of my time because that’s how long it takes a studio to say ‘Yes’ to one of my projects.” The director learned from the ground up as a recording engineer and a still photographer, graduating to directing films for his own company. Critics during his more prolific ’60’s phase dubbed him “the first American new wave director.” A compliment Rush no doubt relished, especially after Columbia had tried unsuccessfully to woo Arthur Penn and François Truffaut to direct The Stunt Man.

The ragtime-like theme music mentioned earlier was not the only element to the film’s admittedly minimalist score by Dominic Frontiere, for which he won a Golden Globe. One of the main themes, “The Chase,” features as both a fast tempo instrumental, used during virtuoso stunt sequences, and a slow-burning torch song by Dusty Springfield, retitled “Bits and Pieces.” The Norman Gimbel lyrics are suffused with heavy wordplay, reflecting the young protagonist’s confused state of mind. The singer breaths, in that unique, dusky voice of hers:

And you watch and wonder where you belong
And the crowd, it moves and takes you along
And the colors splash and repaint your sky
And reality is yours to deny
And you look for someone your arms can hold
Who will let you tell what begs to be told
Then you ask yourself what good are your dreams?
In a world where nothing is what it seems

The song was good enough to deserve an Oscar nomination (which it sadly didn’t get), cleverly reflecting the mood of the film itself, not a mere add-on like so many movie songs have become. It is perhaps a little too redolent of the classic “Windmills of Your Mind.”

By the late 1970’s, O’Toole was commercial anathema and Rush faced an uphill battle convincing the suits that he was right for the part of his egotistical director. “There was no chance of yielding on my part. Once O’Toole said yes, the picture had to go with him as far as I was concerned.” O’Toole’s difficult hellraising reputation he brushed aside. “Peter had a deified position in my mind that placed him above all those trivialities. As it turned out, he was an absolute dream to work with. It was like having a Stradivarius to play that was quite willing to be played.”

Opinions differ as to whether O’Toole based his portrayal on his old mentor David Lean, or Rush himself. O’Toole told David Itzkoff for Artsbeat that “for me, a person, a character, a part is on the page. I don’t invent, I don’t copy anybody or think of anybody. Something happens, and I can’t explain it. I’ve tried to write about it. How the ink from the page comes up into my eyes and forms itself into a part that I want to play, and I’ve no idea how it happens. Intellectually, I can understand that I read it and enjoy it. But why this particular one, I don’t know.” On whether he was channeling David Lean, say: “‘That’s Orson Welles?’ ‘That’s John Huston?’ No, no, no. It’s Eli Cross. He lives for me. I don’t want to be anybody else, thank you very much. He’s not copying anybody. He’s himself.” The veteran actor stated he would give short shrift to any director who tried to manipulate him the way Eli Cross does with his cast, crew, and naive protege: “Anybody who would do that to me would get a punch in the head. No, nobody ever bothers me with that. I can’t tolerate it. Oh yes, some people have tried, and they’ve had their reward. From then on, I don’t speak a word to them. From me, you get a mild expression of disgust, and then I walk off and have a beer.”

O’Toole was careful to get his costume exactly right, and every morning he’d come to Rush with suggestions. Rush recalls, “One day Peter came to me and said ‘How’s this?’ and I said, ‘That’s it, that’s exactly the look I’ve been after, the Americanization of Peter O’Toole.’ And I didn’t realise that he was dressed exactly as I was (including his viewfinder suspended around his neck) and it wasn’t until noon that day that I finally figured it out. The rest of the crew were aware of it and it caused some amusement.”

Rush was certainly as driven as his fictional counterpart Eli. During the filming of the massive stunt around the Hotel del Coronado, permission was denied for the bi-plane to fly above the location. His stunt coordinator Chuck Bail flew the plane, supposed to go on and land at a nearby naval base. Instead, he developed “radio trouble” and lost contact with the closest control tower, conveniently over the hotel. At this point Bail then performed a handful of dives and strafing runs while Rush filmed him with five pre-prepared strategically located cameras.

After all the trouble Rush had getting funding to actually make the film, it suffered from an extremely limited domestic release and was effectively buried—the studio had no idea how to market it. In O’Toole’s opinion, the film wasn’t released, “It escaped.” “It didn’t fit into the wrapper that the distributors had prepared that they send their hamburgers out in,” Rush sniffed. Most critics found much to admire, however, and it enjoyed a second life on television screenings. That most hard-to-please doyen of cinema Pauline Kael raved that it was, “A virtuoso piece of kinetic moviemaking. Working with material that could, with a few false steps, have turned into a toney reality-and-illusion puzzle, the director, Richard Rush, has kept it all rowdy and funny—it’s slapstick metaphysics. Peter O’Toole is the flamboyant, fire-eater director who the stunt man thinks is out to kill him. Playing a protean figure—visionary, fierce-tempered, and ornery, yet ethereal and fey, O’Toole gives a peerless comic performance.”

The poster for the film depicted a devil figure sitting on a director’s chair behind the camera. The dwarf-like figure was reimagined to an O’Toole-esque lean silhouette. The actor took one look at the long forked tail thrusting forward between its legs and quipped to Rush, “How did you know?”

Tim Pelan was born in 1968, the year of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (possibly his favorite film), ‘Planet of the Apes,’ ‘The Night of the Living Dead’ and ‘Barbarella.’ That also made him the perfect age for when ‘Star Wars’ came out. Some would say this explains a lot. Read more »



Check out the full interview with Oscar nominated director and screenwriter Richard Rush on Road to Cinema from Jog Road Productions. Mr. Rush discusses his work making low budget culturally relevant films for AIP, American International Pictures in the 1960s. He made such films as Hells Angels on Wheels, The Savage Seven and Psych-Out. He also discusses his working relationship with actor Jack Nicholson, casting the future movie star in many of his early roles, making his first major studio film for Columbia Pictures Getting Straight starring Elliott Gould and Candice Bergen. The film chronicled the counter culture movement on college campuses in the 1960s and 1970s. The success of the film led Mr. Rush to develop The Stunt Man which took 10 years to reach the screen. He discusses his adaptation of the novel, working with actor Peter O’Toole, and how he approached directing this incredible film which received rave reviews and multiple Oscar nominations. Film critic Pauline Kael called The Stunt Man, “a virtuoso piece of kinetic moviemaking.” After viewing The Stunt Man director François Truffaut labeled Richard Rush his “favorite American director.” Also, his work on Color of Night starring Bruce Willis and how he finally claimed his director’s cut of the film.


“Peter O’Toole was the best thing that ever happened to me. Having your favorite actor in the world play the best character you have ever written is almost too much to ask for. Once he read the script he called me from London and said ‘Richard, I’ve just read the screenplay and if you don’t let me play the part, I’ll kill you!’ It was about the best response you could get.” —An interview with Richard Rush

Here’s a rarity: Lawrence B. Marcus & Richard Rush’s screenplay for The Stunt Man, the director’s story notes and his response to the studio’s own notes [PDF1, PDF2, PDF3]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.

In loving memory of Richard Rush (1929–2021)

Below are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Richard Rush’s The Stunt Man. Photographed by Joe Harada & Robin Krause © Melvin Simon Productions, Simon Productions, Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.

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