One Helluva Ride: The Life of Yakima Canutt
We talk about pioneers of the Old West quite a lot, here at the Campfire Chronicle. When we talk a about them, we tend to mean pretty much what the first definition is in the handy-dandy, free online dictionary. It looks something like this:
noun: pioneer; plural noun: pioneers
1. a person who is among the first to explore or settle a new country or area.
But today, we’re going to talk about a different kind of pioneer. We’re going to talk about the man who pioneered the field of movie stunt work— cowboy Yakima Canutt!
When Enos Edward Canutt was born in the Snake River Hills of Washington, in 1895, no one could have imagined that he would be credited with changing action movies forever. But, they should have at least guessed that he would grow up to know his way around a horse!
Although Canutt’s formal education ended with elementary school, he learned plenty working on the family ranch. As was common for the day, he learned life skills from an early age. He knew how to hunt, shoot and ride and is said to have broken a wild bronco, at the tender age of eleven.
By sixteen, Canutt was entering bronc riding competitions and, at seventeen, he won the title of World’s Best Bronco Buster. It came as no surprise when he decided to pursue a rodeo career. In 1914, when he was nineteen-years-old, a newspaper caption provided him with one of the world’s greatest nicknames. He was riding in the Pendleton Roundup in Pendleton, Oregon when a photo identified him as, “Yakima Canutt”. Rather than fighting it, he embraced it, and Enos was forevermore known as Yakima or Yak.
Yakima continued working rodeos, but World War I put a little hitch in some of his plans. In 1918 he enlisted in the Navy, but he was granted a 30-day furlough during his service to return to rodeoing to defend his World Champion title. Which he did!
Yakety Yak; Don’t Talk Back
Following the war, Yakima went to Los Angeles for a rodeo and decided to spend a balmy winter in the area. While there, he met Western star, Tom Mix, who invited him to appear in two of his movies. Yakima also had the opportunity to work as a stuntman in the Western serial film, Lightning Bryce. The call of the rodeo circuit was strong, however, and Yakima left Hollywood in 1920.
His rodeo reputation was so great and his awards so plentiful that the Fort Worth rodeo came to be referred to as “Yak’s Show”! In 1923, Yakima returned to Hollywood for an awards ceremony, and while there, he was offered a role in eight Western motion pictures!
He had a fairly decent career playing mostly heavies in a string of B movies. But time marched on and advances came to the film industry. One of those advances didn’t do anything to further Yakima’s acting career. Sound! As with so many other silent film actors, he was not destined to make the transition to talkies. He had a raspy voice that had been badly damaged by a flu virus. He noted that he sounded like a “hillbilly in a well”. There weren’t a lot of parts for hillbillies in wells, so Yakima had to rethink his career path.
Yakima continued to do what hew knew best, riding the rodeo circuit. He also started doing stunts in films. The Hollywood Western was big business at that time, and Yakima watched as other rodeo riders attempted to outdo each other’s stunts in movies, on the hope of being offered more movie roles. Yakima didn’t need more than an elementary school education to figure that at that rate, someone was going to be badly injured, and soon. So he decided to apply his cowboy ingenuity! He took the tricks being performed in movies of the time, and found ways to make them safer. He created the “L” stirrup, which allowed a rider to fall off a horse without getting his foot caught and being dragged by his horse. He designed cabling that allowed for wagon crashes, while releasing the team.
His name may not ring a bell, but you’ve seen his work. During his impressive career, Yakima worked as a stunt double for Errol Flynn, Roy Rogers, Tyrone Power and Clark Gable. Do you remember the scene in Gone With the Wind in which Rhett Butler drives a wagon through flames? That was Yakima, thankyouverymuch!
Yakima also doubled for John Wayne in gobs of films. John Wayne also doubled for Yakima, in a sense. From the way he walked to the way he talked, the Duke said he modeled his cowboy image on none other than Yakima Canutt. Wayne is quoted as saying, “Yakima Canutt is the most magnificent man I ever met.” It should be noted that Canutt didn’t just double for Wayne; he also taught him how to perform many of his own stunts.
Ben-Hur was His
Even with his safety measures, Yakima suffered some severe injuries over the years. When Yakima realized that the shelf life of a professional stuntman is limited, he turned his focus to the other side of the camera. He became a stunt coordinator and second-unit director. What would the movie Ben-Hur have been without that chariot race, which was staged by Yakima? Both of Canutt’s sons, Joe and Tap, followed in their father’s footsteps. Joe Canutt even served as Charlton Heston’s stunt double in Ben-Hur!
Yakima also handled the stunts in Ivanhoe, Spartacus, El Cid, and Where Eagles Dare. But his reach extended far past the films he worked on. More modern films like Raiders of the Lost Ark contain action scenes inspired by Canutt. Indiana Jones’ spectacular leap from a galloping horse to a Nazi truck was a classic Yakima Canutt stunt.
Yakima Canutt has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1500 Vine Street. He was also awarded an Honorary Academy Award for his work as a stuntman and for his development of safety measures to protect stuntmen. An inductee of the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, his autobiography, Stuntman, was published in 1979. Yakima died in 1986 in North Hollywood, California, but those in the film industry have not forgotten the work he did.
Before Yakima, no one really thought of being a Hollywood stuntman as a career. I don’t know if he ever thought of himself as a pioneer, but he most certainly was. For Yakima, life was one helluva ride, from the early rodeo days to the pinnacle of his Hollywood career…and I am pretty sure that he enjoyed the heck out of it.
Here’s a great video of Yakima that I know you’ll enjoy!
Happy Trails, y’all!