MY EXPERIENCES WORKING WITH STUNTS on “STREETS” by Tony Piazza
One of the greatest thrills I had on “The Streets of San Francisco” was getting a chance to work directly with the stunt men. I was involved in two stunts while working on the show- excluding the episode in which I was shot and had to roll down a driveway- both of which involved a car crash. The first took place in Santa Rosa, California, where photo-doubling Meg Foster (yes, and the outfit was embarrassing- wig and all) – we (stunt man for Michael Douglas and myself) were side-swiped by a car of thugs and slid into a tree trunk. The episode was “Trail of Terror” (1975).
Later that same summer, we were working on the episode “Dead Air” when I was approached at lunch time by the first Assistant Director, David Whorf and asked if I would be willing to do a stunt doubling Larry Hagman. It was scheduled for the next day (Saturday) and he explained further that it involved yet another car crash, only this time between a speeding car (of which I would be a passenger) and a parked vehicle. I instantly agreed (again chalk this up to youth) and anxiously awaited the events of the next day.
Karl Malden heard of the arrangement, and thoughtfully came up to me later in the day and asked if I really wanted to do this? He was afraid that I was being pressured, but when he was satisfied that it was truly my own decision gave me his blessings. He confessed at the time that he didn’t care for helicopters…felt they were death traps…and so avoided them at all costs (his stand-in, Art Passerella doubled him if any copters were involved in the plot).
Early Saturday morning the company arrived at the set; the location was at the foot of Broadway Street, just across from the restaurant- Victoria Station- (alas no longer there) and the actual filming of the stunt would not occur until after our lunch break. Earlier they had filmed the lead up to the crash; Larry Hagman gets into his girl friends’ car (a Mustang II) – slides into the front bucket seat next to the driver (Arlene Golanka) and they begin a conversation that is interrupted by a rifle shot. The sniper’s bullets hits the cars’ rear window, whereby Ms. Golanka’s character panics slamming her foot down on the accelerator, causing her car to careen across an intersection, and slam into a parked car. This segment (the lead up) was done under the shadows of the Embarcadero Freeway overpass (since removed during the 1989 earthquake) and our special effects man, Gibby, fired a special mixture from an air gun that splattered and simulated bullet impacts on glass.
Once all the principal photography was done we broke for lunch and then shortly afterwards I was sent to wardrobe to be outfitted in a duplicate of Mr. Hagman’s clothes and to hairdressing to be fitted with a wig. By the way, Larry Hagman himself was a blast… a very funny man. He kept the crew in hysterics by his crazy antics on the set….This was one episode I thoroughly enjoyed working on just because I didn’t know what “gags” he would pull during the course of the shooting. After changing my clothes, I happened to cross his path. He was talking to some other people when he spotted me wearing his outfit, and immediately called me over. He asked if I was going to do the stunt for him. I said “yes” and he laughed and responded, that “he wouldn’t!” Such words of comfort!
Finally, the time had come; Al Francis- the Cinematographer for the show that season had his crew set up a camera at the intersection- a rather low shot, which would pan as we rocketed by and hit the parked (studio) car at the curb. Now, the minute I started to get into the car, Virgil Vogel, the director came over and personally checked that every precaution was being taken. He was concerned that there were no chains holding my seat in place- these prevented the folding bucket seat from collapsing forward during impact…and held up production until they could be found and put in place (I really liked Virgil). Another delay came about when someone spotted a Lincoln parked in a lot behind our parked car and decided that it should be removed as a precaution before the shot. Eventually we cleared all hurdles, and the stunt driver R.J. and I started the “run- through” for camera. R.J, by the way also made sure I was prepared before we got started. He made sure I had my knee pads, and placed a furniture blanket between my knees and the dash. He also made sure that I had latched my seat belt (heavy duty ones installed especially for the stunt) and he very carefully explained every step of the set-up for the stunt. He would aim for the parked vehicles rear door- where there was the least resistance- the parking brake would be left off of the parked car- further dampening the impact, and detailed what speed he was aiming for, etc. A large crowd had formed by the time we were ready, which added more drama to the setting- but quite honestly, I had no fears because I knew I was in great hands. I also was having so much fun that I really didn’t give much thought to all the possible consequences. Interestingly, after all the waiting, it was over in a flash. With “action” we roared across the intersection, pushed the parked car aside, ran up on the sidewalk and came to rest after hitting the company car that had replaced the Lincoln that had been parked there. We had overshot our mark, and the precaution paid off! Aside from a feeling of heat that generated from my toes and traveled up my spine during impact, there were no ill effects from the ordeal- and as the crew came rushing up to check on us and I heard the applause from the crowd as we exited safely, I was thoroughly glad to have had accepted this assignment.
Back then, I was an elected board member to the Screen Extras Guild, and they had had a photographer there to capture the event for our newsletter- so happily today, I have both the pictures and the grand memories of an event in my life which I wouldn’t trade for a fortune in gold- even if I was asked to!
Tony Piazza is author of the 1930’s Hollywood murder mystery novel; “Anything Short of Murder,” which had its roots on the TCM fan website. His next novel, “The Curse of the Crimson Dragon” is due out early 2012. He was an actor/extra during the 1970’s and worked with such legends as Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, and Karl Malden.