| by Frank D. Rich
Imperial Troops have overpowered the Rebels and forced them to retreat. Mammoth AT-ATs march toward Echo Base’s power generator during the Battle of Hoth, crushing everything in their path. Luke Skywalker’s Snow Speeder has been hit by laser fire and crashed, his co-pilot Dak killed. Luke narrowly escapes death as he makes a desperate attempt to retrieve a weapon from his ship before it is crushed beneath the giant foot of a walker. He runs across the tundra and sets his sights on the closest AT-AT. Firing his ascension gun into the underbelly of the steel beast, he is quickly hoisted up, ignites his light saber and slices open a small door. He tosses a thermal detonator into the opening, releases himself from the cable anchoring him beneath the Empire’s mighty war machine and drops face first into the snow below. Moments later explosions rip through the walker, causing its legs to stiffen before it finally topples over onto its right side.
Fans of The Saga remember this scene from The Empire Strikes Back as a minor victory for the Rebels, as the Empire roots them from hiding after destroying the Death Star. They also remember Luke single-handedly taking down an AT-AT as evidence of his progress towards becoming a Jedi.
Stuntman Colin Skeaping has a somewhat different memory of that scene…
“I was meant to hang beneath a helicopter about 30 feet high letting go at the required moment which would be Luke Skywalker dropping down from the walker.” It would not be so easy for Skeaping.
“Unbeknownst to me, someone had damaged the helicopters rotors while moving it under cover, because it was so cold at night. We went up, and I suddenly realized while I was hanging from the trapeze that he had gone way, way too high and had blown off course from where I should have been and I was over rocks. It was swinging from side to side very violently and I didn’t have a (safety) harness. I realized after a while that I couldn’t hold on any longer. All I could see were rocks, but to the left of me there was a lot of snow, so I waited until I swung full left and jumped—and I remember it felt like forever going through the air until I landed in a snow drift away from the rocks.”
“I fell 60 feet and walked away from it without a scratch. They built a tower on the frozen lake and I jumped down into snow…really what we should have done with that shot in the first place.”
I asked Skeaping to explain the role of a stuntman. “You are a physical ‘Jack-of-All-Trades’ utilizing your skills to provide entertainment. A professional stunt performer should be a highly trained coward, not a daredevil. Work should be safely achieved by consummate skill, not risk taking. Being a Jack-of-All-Trades stops you from being a Master of One. As a stuntman, you would never make a living if you were brilliant at one thing, but lousy at the rest.”
Skeaping’s love of athletics as a teenager, including gymnastics and diving, in addition to his Phys. Ed. and Drama background from St. Luke’s College, were all the credentials he would need to enter the world of stunt work in the late 60’s. At that that time, there wasn’t any formalized system that qualified someone to work as a stuntman. The seeds of change for an entire profession were planted on that snow-covered planet of Hoth.
“Bob Anderson and I were working on The Empire Strike Back and stuck in the hotel in Norway for about a week. We were discussing how unsatisfactory it was that people could be accepted on the stunt registry based on who they knew and not what they could do. There was no test at the time for these stunt people. They were taken in because they were mates; it was a very unprofessional way of doing things. Bob and I thought it would be a good idea to set up amateur listing of all the qualifications you would need to be competent as a stunt performer, We talked to the organizing bodies and presented our ideas to the Stunt Committee, which passed unanimously and, with only a few minor alterations, it’s been in place ever since.”
This rubric for measuring someone’s qualifications to become a stuntman went on to be called the Probationary Qualification System for Stunt Performers. It consists of two major parts, the first being a three-tiered hierarchy for stuntmen, which ensured that only qualified-persons could reach the level of Stunt Coordinator. The second piece, and the one Skeaping and Anderson were instrumental in developing, involved listing specific skills candidates would need to prove competency in to be eligible for work. These categories include Fighting, Falling, Riding and Driving, Agility and Strength and Water.
Unfortunately, for someone who has played such a vital role in the development of his field, Skeaping’s outlook on its future is bleak. When asked for his advice to anyone wanting to become a stunt person, his response was to the point: “Don’t. The game is over. CGI and other computer technology will shortly be the death of it, if the health and safety zealots don’t kill it first.”
Skeaping and Anderson’s friendship spanned forty years. The two met in the late 1960’s when a friend recommended Skeaping take Anderson’s class that taught stuntmen how to fence for film. “Bob was a great friend with whom I worked many times, including the Star Wars Trilogy. His death is a huge personal loss.”
It was Stunt Coordinator Peter Diamond who brought Skeaping in as a stuntman on Star Wars. “Peter Diamond, whom I had previously worked with several times, asked me to do Star Wars as a general stuntman and as a double for Mark Hamill. It therefore followed that I remained as the stunt double for the subsequent movies. I did all the acrobatics doubling Mark, and all the falling stuff. He did most of his own fencing, but under instruction from Peter Diamond or me. I also did a lot of flying stuff as his double, as he was not keen to do it.”
Life as Mark Hamill’s stunt double was not always easy. “Sometimes difficult, some times unprofessional, sometimes resentful that he had to have a stunt double at all, but on the whole we got on ok.”
One of the more intense scenes in Empire happens when Vader and Luke are battling on Bespin. Vader has put away his light saber and uses the Force to pummel Luke with objects before breaking the window behind them, causing a vacuum that sucks everything out of the room, including Luke. Skeaping recalls how he pulled off the shot.
“Basically they had intended to do this gag with wires and harnesses, until I told them that I could do it for real—thus making it look better and saving days of preparation. As a gymnast, I did a move called a ‘round-off,’ into a back-flip, followed by the highest, slowest rotating back somersault that I could do—falling 30 feet down onto a box rig. I tested it out at my home on a bridge over the River Thames, to see how many rotations I could get, and I did it with guys holding a plank that I would jump off. It created a lot of interest with the locals. For the film, I did it twice, once with a couple of somersaults, and once delaying the rotation as much as possible. It was the second version that was used in the film.”
Skeaping remembers the direction he received while working on the Original Trilogy. “George Lucas always struck me as a quiet and fairly introverted person, but with enormous talent and a strong vision of what he wanted to achieve. George only directed Star Wars, as Irvin Kershner directed Empire and Richard Marquand, Return. The director would say what he would like to see, and we would work out how to perform and achieve this.”
Some of Skeaping’s fondest memories of his work in the Galaxy Far, Far Away occurred during the Yuma, Arizona shots for Return of the Jedi, which doubled as Tatooine for the film. “It was hot working in the desert. All the hotel rooms were around the swimming pool when we got done shooting we all dived into the pool. I remember one night Dickey Beer, Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford and I went to a pizza place across the way and got the biggest pizza they could make, it was five feet in diameter. We drank a lot and we ate a lot, we could hardly stand up. After that, they banned Carrie and Harrison from going out with us in the evening while we were filming in Yuma because they thought we were a bad influence!”
Filming in Crescent City for the Endor shots also provided some interesting stories. Skeaping recalls what it was like working with the actors who played the Ewoks. “They were all put up in the same hotel, lots of them. I’ve never been with so many small people before. Apparently they ran riot in their hotel, in and out of each others bedrooms doing God knows what. I know many of the larger sized people moved to other hotels so they could get a good night’s sleep.”
Skeaping has scaled back over the years, and no longer accepts any foreign work. He served as the Stunt Coordinator on the British television dramas Ultimate Force, which ran from 2002-2006 and Midsomer Murders since 1997.
Looking back on his career, Skeaping reflected on the dynamics between stuntmen and the actors. “The best actors to work with are those who never want to do their own stunts, and appreciate the risks you are taking to make them look good—the worst? Those who think they can do all their own action and are unhappy when they have to be doubled, e.g., Ross Kemp in Ultimate Force which I coordinated for four years. However, I have never been afraid to lay the law down in this department, and eventually had a good relationship with Ross, once he saw what was being done to make him look good, and he conceded that he could not have done many of the stunts that were done on his behalf.”
After working as a professional stuntman for over four decades, Skeaping is happy that his career is winding down. “I am 67. I enjoyed what I did and now I’m happy to take it at a slower pace.”
Taking things at a “slower pace” means something a little different for the likes of Skeaping. He’s looking forward to continuing his love of motor sports, which began when he was a teenager and raced cars and motorcycles that he would find in salvage yards. “I have competed in moto-cross and road-racing on bikes, off-road racing in three- wheelers and quads, car racing in various sports cars, and currently have a heavily modified off-road racer called a QT Wildcat, and hope to contest some rounds of the British Off-road championship this year”.
Skeaping spends much of his time with his three working Bearded Collies: Tully, Sandy and Eddie. “I have had working Bearded Collies since 1970, and have them because they are intelligent, agile and willing to please. All of my dogs come from working farms where they are bred for brains.”
These dogs have followed in Skeaping’s professional footsteps. “They all also have careers as stunt dogs within the industry, and also do a huge amount of stage work. We have just done Peter Pan with all the dogs having parts doing their tricks and jumping, and Sandy has five Annie musicals coming up in the next six months.”
“They all compete to a high level in dog agility—Tully having been second in the agility final at Crufts last year, and winner of the YKC agility final. Sandy won the Silver Jubilee Dogstable final at Crufts last year also.” Finn, who died three years ago, was voted the “Daily Mail Dog of the Year” in 2004 for his achievements in Agility, on Stage, and for his charity work.”
Colin Skeaping is one of the last of a dying breed. Many of the stuntmen who worked on the Original Trilogy are no longer with us. The stories of these unsung heroes live on in those who remain. Their Recollections
are the stories of the men who took the risks to bring our favorite story to life.