The King of Stuntmen

THE hallway walls are plastered with photos of one man jumping off cliffs and trains, leaping between buildings, dashing beneath jetliners - even wrestling 27-foot anaconda snakes. In one photo, he looks like Steve McQueen - the man whose on-camera stunts he performed for 25 years. In others, he looks like Paul Newman or Yul Brynner. For more than 35 years, through 500 feature films and 1,000 television shows, Loren Janes has worked with every major star, director, and producer in the industry, often doubling for the top names in cinema. At 57, in what many consider a young man's game, he is still considered among the best.

``He wrote the book on stunts,'' says Hollywood stunt coordinator Pat Johnson, lauding Mr. Janes for forming the Stuntmen's Association of Motion Pictures and Television 28 years ago, which brought better safety standards to a profession that was often subject to abuse before 1961. ``Not only did he teach all of us how to do the stunts - and he does them all - but he made all of motion pictures better because of it.''

A longtime lecturer to various organizations about achievement, fitness, ideals of scholarship, and goals, Janes is now limbering up for another big leap - out of his career as stuntman and stunt coordinator to producer and director.

``I've gone as high as I can go on one side of the profession, and now I want to take all I've learned to try and put quality back where it is lacking,'' says Janes. In a two-hour conversation at his ranch-style house, Janes laments the demise of his own specialty as paralleling a greater problem within an industry that's now driven by only one concern: money. ``I'm very pessimistic about where stuntmaking is headed as well as the overall creative thrust of movies,'' he says. ``There's precious little quality, and that's what the public needs and wants.''

In stuntmaking, he says, the budget-driven shortage of creativity makes for danger to the stuntman and movies that are chockful of needless action. ``The biggest and best in this industry always had an unwritten rule that the greatest action stunt is worthless unless there is a story point to go with it,'' he says. With more independent producers, and younger inexperienced directors, he says, the reverse logic prevails.

``You get special effects and action to the point of meaninglessness,'' he says. ``People get bored, and the movie becomes useless. It's better to have just two or three well-executed, well-placed stunts that fit a story.''

Further, the anonymity that stuntmen enjoyed in the '40s, '50s, and '60s ended when network specials and other series began to dramatize individual performers in the mid-'70s. That brought an influx of dream-seekers to Hollywood, which drove both salaries and performance quality down.

``Nowadays you have these producers who can get all these stunts done on the cheap by those who don't know what they're doing,'' says Janes. ``Since they are new, [producers] don't know a good [stunt person] from a bad one. All they know is that this guy will jump off a building for a third of what the other guy will do it for.'' The other side of the coin is that more aspiring stuntment will try more dangerous stunts to make a name for themselves.

``That combination leads to my conclusion that I wouldn't advise my own son to go into stuntmaking today,'' laments Janes.

His answer to the independent producer influx of the 1950s was to form the Stuntmen's Association of Motion Pictures and Television. Not only were certain standards agreed to, but members could stick together when producers tried to sidestep safety measures. The 1986-87 trial of Hollywood director John Landis for deaths while filming ``The Twilight Zone'' movie spotlighted recent abuses and led to closer scrutiny of safety issues.

Despite his 3 decades of stuntmaking, Janes has never broken a bone or sustained a serious injury. Colleagues attribute that unequaled record to Janes's attention to mental and physical preparation, as well as knowing when to say ``no'' to a producer. That judgment must come before a stunt is filmed, because many permit no practice ``run-throughs.'' All cameras were rolling, for instance, when Janes dashed beneath a Pan Am jet for the final sequence in the movie ``Bullitt.'' ``I had to hit the ground just beneath the wing wheels without getting sucked into the engines, which were just three feet off the ground,'' Janes recalls.

In another movie, Janes had to leap off a train traveling at 35 m.p.h. into a standing cactus. ``I singed off the needles with a blowtorch,'' he says. ``And I had to weaken the taproot so there would be just enough give when I smacked into it that I wouldn't hurt myself.''

Janes's new tack in advancing sanity and quality is to produce and direct his own projects. His idea is to make films that are uplifting, low on sex and violence, but that are still exciting and entertaining.

First up for Janes is a movie based on two American kids, one privileged, one not, who grew up to become Congressional Medal of Honor winners. Not surprisingly, the film's message is one of courage. ``It's not going to be about soldiers on dope or alcohol or killing people or destroying things,'' he says. ``It's going to be about how their bravery affected others.''

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