A real cowboy stunts his way to success.
Stuntmen and women rarely get recognized for their amazing work in film and on television. Most of them live their lives out in complete anonymity and pass away with no awards or trophies. They make actors that are paid more than them look much better than they ever could on their own. They risk their lives day in and day out for a paycheck and nothing more. A few of them go on to become directors, writers, and stunt coordinators.
One of the most successful and daring stuntmen to ever grace the screen was Yakima Canutt. Born in Colfax, Washington on November 29, 1895, to John Lemuel Canutt and Nettie Ellen Stevens, Enos Edward “Yakima” Canutt would have a long and storied career in rodeo and both in front of and behind the camera in film.
Canutt won multiple rodeo championships and event titles in the 1910’s-1930’s. In the early 1920’s, Canutt began acting primarily in small roles thanks to his friendships with popular western stars of the day including Tom Mix and John Wayne. Canutt and Wayne were especially fond of one another, and as a result, worked together in multiple films.
Canutt became well known for being a brilliant stuntman and ended up working on tons of westerns and other films. Not only would Canutt do most of the stunts in the film, he was willing to train the actors to do some of the stunts themselves. He also gained a reputation for being an extremely safe worker which would lead to more opportunities in his later life.
Canutt was also known for developing new stunts and/or suggesting changes to stunts to make them look more realistic and exciting. He worked on fight sequences, riding sequences, and tons of other stunt techniques and tactics to not only make the actors look good, but the film as a whole.
If you’ve watched any of Republic Pictures’ classic serials, you’ve most likely seen some of Canutt’s work. He also held a contract with Mascot Pictures. Some of the more famous serials that he worked on include Spy Smasher (1942), Zorro Rides Again (1937), and Dick Tracy Returns (1938).
Canutt’s greatest stunt as chosen by film historians and stuntmen alike is his classic “drop” scene in 1939’s Stagecoach. For the stunt, Canutt was dragged under a team of galloping horses and moved from the front of the team to the back and then climbed back onto the stagecoach. The stunt has been used many times since and is considered to be one of the most famous stunts of all time.
As Canutt aged, he realized that he would need to change occupations in order to continue making a living. He soon began working as a director, specifically as a second unit and action director. He would go on to become just as successful as a second unit director if not more successful than his work as a stuntman. Some of the films that he worked on included A Man Called Horse (1970), The Swiss Family Robinson (1960), and Ben-Hur (1959). Canutt was responsible for the legendary chariot race in Ben-Hur along with Andrew Marton. The planning stages for the sequence lasted about one year and the actual filming took place over five weeks at a cost of one million dollars.
Yakima passed away in 1986 at the age of ninety years. Despite influencing countless stunt workers and featuring in or directing portions of tons of famous films, his greatest accolades came in the form of induction into the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum Rodeo Hall of Fame, an honorary Academy Award, a Golden Boot, and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Sadly, there doesn’t seem to be much progress in the recognition of stunt workers to this day.
Thanks for reading this Focus On feature about Yakima Canutt. He’s just one of many men and women that have sacrificed their bodies to get the perfect shot for films.