Why is it, in the Academy Awards’ 94-year history, an apparent prejudice is allowed to continue toward stunt professionals by not recognizing their extraordinary artistic and physical contribution to filmmaking?
Stunt performers are often denied the recognition of their peers in the cinematic world, beyond a slap on the back and an “atta boy.” The Emmys and SAG Awards each have two categories for stunts, but film’s highest honor is an Oscar (with BAFTA not far behind, also devoid of a stunt category). I always arrive at one conclusion, and I don’t suggest it lightly: The long-standing tradition of being seen but not heard — or more appropriately, unseen and unheard — is nothing short of discrimination.
More from The Hollywood Reporter
I’m not a stunt performer myself. I’m a senior agent with Media Artists Group leading the action and specialties division, founder and president of stuntaccess.com (which connects stunt pros to jobs globally) and a lifelong advocate for those who create the most exciting footage onscreen. I’m also a member of the Television Academy (ATAS), the World Stunt Academy and Women in Film. My introduction to the stunt world came by running Gene LeBell’s business, which led to me becoming the only woman ever to hold an executive position at the Stuntmen’s Association of Motion Pictures. I went on to run Emmy winner Jim Vickers’ stunt offices for shows like CSI: Miami, Grey’s Anatomy and Curb Your Enthusiasm. I currently rep many performers with a physical background or prowess like Terry Leonard, Kevin Nash, THR’s first-ever “Stuntperson of the Year” Tanoai Reed as well as Julie Michaels, Michael Papajohn, Anthony Molinari, Marty Klebba, James Lew, TJ Storm, Oleg Taktarov and Allan Graf, who round out a brilliant roster of Hollywood’s most well-known and elite stunt actors. Because of my 20-plus years in the business, I know that stunt pros are artists, actors and athletes all in one. They study, practice and perform just like actors — every stuntperson I know is constantly learning. Yet while actors get Oscars, stunt professionals do not. Besides casting directors, stunts are the only major contributors that don’t get the chance to receive this golden baby.
We’re not supposed to know stuntpeople exist — we’re supposed to think it’s our favorite actors doing those incredible stunts. The reality is, those stunt performers are the professional athletes of film and TV. And while actors may worry about a part killing their career, a stunt performer is worried about getting killed. Bad acting has never killed anyone, but bad stunts have. Arguably, stunt performers take more hits than a professional football player, and a stunt person’s career quite often lasts decades longer than that of any pro athlete. Why, then, are they not acknowledged by their peers as anyone else in the film business? Especially when stunt performers assume a risk of extreme injury or death every day they show up to set?
It’s not for a lack of trying. Stunt coordinator Jack Gill told Vulture in 2019 that he’s been lobbying for the Academy to give out such an award for nearly three decades, with sit-downs with the president and executive director. Steven Spielberg, James Cameron and Arnold Schwarzenegger have publicly voiced their support for a stunt category at the Oscars. There are many actors who readily credit their stunt doubles. Tom Holland, after the release of Spider-Man: No Way Home, thanked Luke Scott and Greg Townley for their work. Dwayne Johnson gives his stunt double Tanoai Reed credit whenever he can. Keanu Reeves, Brad Pitt and others are on record acknowledging those who really make them look good.
Because of superstars like Johnson and John Cena, people are starting to see the viability of a pro athlete who makes a project more exciting and real for the audience. Actors who have an athletic background are twice as valuable as your average actor. It’s not a CGI cartoon doing the action — it’s really these actors.
The Academy’s latest position seems to be, “There is no time for stunts in the show.” [The Academy says the path toward an award category comes out of a branch, of which stuntpeople do not yet have their own.] The TV Academy added two extra nights to honor those deemed worthy in their respective fields. And because stunt pros are so experienced, humble and a joy to work with, it’s even more blatant how belittling this snub is. Sure, a couple of stuntmen have won special Oscars before, like Yakima Canutt (who doubled for John Wayne, winning an honorary Oscar in 1967) or Hal Needham (who won technical and honorary awards in 1978 and 2013). But lifelong stuntman Richard Farnsworth wasn’t nominated for his two Oscars (best supporting actor in 1979 and best actor in 2000) until he traded in his stunt bag for dialogue.
Stunt pros aren’t in it for the glory of a trophy, but that doesn’t change their right to receive recognition. They show up to do what they love, while protecting those you love to see onscreen. To quote my client, stunt legend Terry Leonard (the Fast & Furious franchise): “I believe that stunt coordinators whose work contributes to the overall success of an action film should be considered for an Academy Award. The excitement that quality stunt sequences generate in cinema should no longer be overlooked.”
This story first appeared in the Jan. 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.