The Stunt Man

The Stunt Man

Theatrical poster
Directed by Richard Rush
Produced by Richard Rush
Written by Novel:
Paul Brodeur
Richard Rush
Lawrence B. Marcus
Starring Peter O'Toole
Steve Railsback
Barbara Hershey
Music by Dominic Frontiere
Cinematography Mario Tosi
Edited by Caroline Biggerstaff
Jack Hofstra
Distributed by 20th Century Fox
Release dates
  • June 27, 1980 (1980-06-27)
Running time
131 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $3.5 million
Box office $7,068,886

The Stunt Man is a 1980 American film directed by Richard Rush, starring Peter O'Toole, Steve Railsback, and Barbara Hershey.[1] The movie was adapted by Lawrence B. Marcus and Rush from the 1970 novel of the same name by Paul Brodeur. It tells the story of a young fugitive who hides as a stunt double on the set of an anti-war movie whose charismatic director will do seemingly anything for the sake of his art.

It was nominated for three Academy Awards: Best Actor in a Leading Role (Peter O'Toole), Best Director (Richard Rush), and Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium. However, due to its limited release, it never earned much attention from US audiences at large.[2] As O'Toole remarked in a DVD audio commentary, "The film wasn't released, it escaped."[3]


Cameron (Steve Railsback) is a young veteran running from the police. He stumbles onto the set of a World War I movie and isn't sure if he has accidentally caused the death of one of the film's stunt men. The eccentric and autocratic director, Eli Cross (Peter O'Toole), agrees to hide Cameron from the police if he will take the dead man's place. Cameron soon begins to suspect that Cross is putting him in excessive danger. At a bar one night, another member of the production gets drunk and tells Cameron that Eli almost killed the helicopter pilot during the fatal accident Cameron caused, because he insisted he keep flying in order to get the shot. Cameron falls in love with Nina Franklin (Barbara Hershey), the film's star, and is devastated to find out that she and Eli slept together before he met her.

The boundaries between reality and fiction become increasingly blurred as Cross exercises godlike control over the production. During a screening of some footage for Nina's parents who are visiting the production, a nude sex scene with Nina is shown. Eli appears to be mortified, but allows the footage to play anyway. He waits until Nina is just about to shoot a traumatic scene the next day to tell her that her parents have seen the footage of her naked. It causes her to cry with humiliation, which seems to be the exact emotion Eli needs from her in the scene.

The final day of filming involves a complicated stunt where Cameron has to drive a vintage Duesenberg off a bridge. Nina has two other scenes to shoot as well, but Cameron is convinced Eli will rig the stunt so he will die. He persuades Nina to run away with him, but they are unable to leave the set, which is kept sealed from the neighboring town by the police on Eli's orders. Nina hides in the trunk of the Duesenberg, promising to slip away with Cameron during the stunt.

Before the scene is shot, Eli points to the Duesenberg and explains it is the only copy of the vintage car that the production has. He therefore orders that no one interrupt the filming of the scene once it begins. Cameron is beside himself with anxiety. He keeps trying to check the trunk to see if Nina is there, but finally decides that he will find out once he has escaped in the car. When he gets behind the wheel, the police chief asks if the in-car camera is on. Cameron mishears the question "Camera on?" the stunt man starts the car and speeds away before anyone is expecting it. The entire crew springs into action. Eli screams at them to start shooting.

Cameron thinks he has escaped when he arrives at the bridge. He flips off the camera, but a crew member triggers a charge which causes a blowout in a front tire. The car swerves off the side of the bridge and into the water. As it sinks, Cameron climbs into the back seat to free Nina from the trunk. Then he sees her standing next to Eli on the bridge, looking down on him. He swims to the bank. Eli descends behind him on a crane, and helps Cameron come to the realization his life was never in danger. Cameron says that the stunt is the hardest $1,000 he has ever made. Eli corrects Cameron, saying the pay for the stunt is only $650. Cameron becomes enraged, insisting he was promised $1,000. Eli laughs at him and offers to split the difference at $750. He flies off in the helicopter, leaving Cameron screaming at him.


During the early 1970s, Columbia Pictures owned film rights to the novel, with Arthur Penn and François Truffaut considered for directing it. Columbia offered the film to Richard Rush on the strength of the success of his previous film, Getting Straight.[4] Rush initially rejected, then ultimately accepted directing The Stunt Man. Rush then penned a 150-page treatment that was slightly detracted from the book; whereas in the novel, the characters were all crazy, they were instead "sane in a world gone mad."[2] Columbia executives then rejected the script, saying it was difficult to find a genre to place it in. Said Rush: "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." Rush then bought the film rights from Columbia and shopped the film to other studios, to no avail. Funding for the picture finally came from Melvin Simon who had made a fortune in real estate.[2]

Production took place in 1978. Opening scenes were filmed at Mary Etta's Cafe, Flinn Springs, California. Many scenes were filmed in and around the historic Hotel del Coronado in Coronado near San Diego, California.

Peter O'Toole mentions in his DVD commentary that he based his character on David Lean who directed him in Lawrence of Arabia.


Of The Stunt Man, Roger Ebert wrote "there was a great deal in it that I admired... [but] there were times when I felt cheated".[5] He gave the film only two stars but noted that others had "highly recommended" it. In an October 17, 1980, review in The New York Times, Janet Maslin noted "the film's cleverness is aggressive and cool," but concluded that although "the gamesmanship of The Stunt Man is fast and furious... gamesmanship is almost all it manages to be".[6] However, critic Pauline Kael considered it "a virtuoso piece of kinetic moviemaking" and rated it one of year's best films.[7] She called O'Toole's comic performance "peerless". The film currently holds a 92% "fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 26 reviews.



The Stunt Man received three Academy Award nominations:

Home media

The Stunt Man was released on DVD on November 20, 2001 in two versions by Anchor Bay Entertainment. The first version is a standard release featuring two deleted scenes and a commentary by director Richard Rush and stars Peter O'Toole, Steve Railsback, Barbara Hershey, Alex Rocco, Sharon Farrell and Chuck Bail. The second version is a limited edition (100,000 copies) containing everything from the standard release as well as including the 2001 documentary The Sinister Saga of Making "The Stunt Man".

The film's theme song "Bits & Pieces" is sung by Dusty Springfield.


  1. Variety film review;June 11, 1980 page 20
  2. 1 2 3 Paul Tatara. "The Stunt Man: Overview Article". Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved 2010-08-29.
  3. Almar Haflidason. "The Stunt Man DVD (1980)". Retrieved 2007-10-28.
  4. ROAD TO CINEMA - RICHARD RUSH - Director/Screenwriter PART 2. Jog Road Productions.
  5. Roger Ebert (November 7, 1980). "The Stunt Man". Retrieved 2007-10-28.
  6. Janet Maslin (1980-10-17). "The Stunt Man". The New York Times. Retrieved 2007-11-03.
  7. Pauline Kael. "The Stunt Man". Archived from the original on 2009-10-26. Retrieved 2007-10-28.
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