Forty years on, stuntwoman Sandy Gimpel still loves her occupational hazard

When she's not making workout videos, the Hollywood veteran gets set ablaze and falls from tall buildings.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Age means nothing to 68-year-old veteran stuntwoman, Sandy Gimpel. A fourth-level black belt in karate – a sport she also teaches – she routinely falls down stairs, jumps from high cliffs, and takes more than a few bruises from some of Hollywood's leading men. Recently, Eddie Murphy tossed her over a crowd of people in front of a building for his film "Norbit." [Editor's note: The original version misstated the location of the stunt.]

"She's got the body of a 20-year-old," says her fitness instructor, Michael Blanks, "and the spirit of one, too." [Editor's note: the original version misstated the occupation of her instructor.]

Now, this pro wants to share lessons from more than four decades of stunts such as sticking her bare hands in a hot flame and doubling for the likes of Sally Struthers. In January, she will release a new workout video titled "Stuntblasters – Cardio Mix DVD." [Editor's note: the original version misstated the release date of the video.]

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"Life is a stunt," says Ms. Gimpel, snuggled deep in her plush couch, much like one of the five cats who share her neat-as-a-pin showcase home. (She also does interior design, she says, because every performer needs a sideline to help weather the lean times such as the current writers strike.) Every day is a work of choreography, she says. From the moment you wake up or drive a car or walk a city street, it requires preparation and daily maintenance.

"I train every day so when I need to twist or turn for a stunt, I'm ready." But, she says, everyone should stretch and get moving, daily. "You'd be amazed how much a simple morning boost can help you on that drive or walk, and make you feel better and younger all day long," she says.

Mother of a grown daughter, Gimpel trains daily with a mix of martial arts, aerobics, and weight work. This morning, she begins with the advanced, heart pounding "Drenched Cardio" class at Body Theory, Mr. Blanks's North Hollywood gym. At just over 5-feet tall, she is indistinguishable from the hordes of bobbing young actors, athletes, and dancers around her. But her résumé – and war stories – belie her youthful, fat-free frame. [Editor's note: the original version misstated the nature of the class.]

Stunt casting

A California native whose father was a gymnast, Gimpel began her professional career as a dancer. She quickly found that in the 1960s, where variety programs such as The Dean Martin Show often demanded lines of dancers all the same height, jobs were scarce for her tiny size.

In 1967, she applied to be a stand-in on TV's "Lost in Space." Instead, she was recruited for her first stunt job to double for the show's 11-year-old Bill Mumy. Paul Stader, the stunt director, took her under his wing, says Gimpel. She considers the three years she worked on that show "her apprenticeship." The most important lessons she learned about stunts: always tuck your head (to protect it), doublecheck the choreography and rigging for all stunts, and most important, always know the people you work with.

A cable snaps – at 120 ft.

She recalls a vivid illustration of the importance of trust. In a stunt that involved being plucked from a motorcycle sidecar dangling 120 ft. in the air, the cable that held up the sidecar failed. But, in spite of pressure from producers who were on a tight schedule, Gimpel had taken the time to secure a secondary support line – which saved her life.

"The producers had been close to hiring someone they didn't know," she says, a much younger woman who would have been reluctant to stall filming with an unfamiliar crew. "But because they knew me and trusted me, they didn't stop me from taking the time to secure a backup line," she adds.

Gimpel's legacy in the male-dominated stunt trade is that of a woman who has broken ground for all stuntwomen. During the 1970s, she had begun to work as a stunt coordinator. It's a role that can include directing second units but requires a union card from the Directors Guild of America, something no stuntwoman possessed back then. When producers tried to replace her with a DGA stunt coordinator, and asked her to train him, she walked out. Friends and colleagues prevailed upon the producers and she became the first female DGA stunt coordinator.

Today, she splits her time evenly between falling down stairs herself and directing others. "You just know with Sandy that the stunts will be properly researched and the talent will be safe," says producer Ron Smith, who has hired Gimpel on a number of films, most recently "The Invasion."

Don't try this at home (or anywhere)

The most dangerous job she's ever taken involved relatively new technology – the bungee cable. Kellogg's hired her to bungee jump from a hot air balloon – backward. Gimpel laughs as she recalls the finances of that job. Union scale for stunts starts around $700. Fees escalate depending on the risks and difficulty of a job. "I made around $15,000 for that jump," she says with a broad smile.

The industry has changed with the advent of the computer, she says. Green screens and special effects have taken jobs from stunt doubles, but technology has made her work safer. When Eddie Murphy threw her from the roof, a system of deceleration cables guided her descent.

One big leap for stuntwomen

Generations of stuntwomen regard Gimpel as a pioneer. "Sandy paved the way for many of the younger girls," says Missy Reynolds, who has run a stunt and talent agency for more than 35 years.

"You couldn't find someone to say something bad about Sandy if you searched the entire globe," says Ms. Reynolds.

"She opened a lot of doors for women who want to be coordinators," agrees stuntwoman Joni Avery. And, she adds, Gimpel's longevity "is a testimony about how good a stuntwoman she is. Most women burn out after 10 or 15 years, either through injury or burned bridges."

Some changes have seriously cut into work opportunities, says Gimpel. The proliferation of behind-the-scenes information about today's movies has impelled more stars to do their own stunts. That's understandable, she says, because it deepens their characters' credibility. Nonetheless, she adds, they will always need the pros. Actors all think they can take a punch or a slap or a fall down the stairs, she says. But most films require many takes. "Where will that actor be after the 5th or 10th or 15th time he has to fall down that stairs?" she says. "That's what I'm there for."

Alison Tully contributed to this report.

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