Everyone in the Industry seems to include legendary stuntman and action director, Yakima Canutt as a founding father of the American Stunt System that we have in place today. He helped create the systems, procedures and policies that keep stunt men and women safely working and producing some of the finest moments ever shot on film over the last 100 years. Republic Pictures director William Witney said of him, “There will probably never be another stuntman who can compare to Yakima Canutt. He had been a world champion cowboy several times and where horses were concerned he could do it all. He invented all the gadgets that made stunt work easier. One of his clever devices was a step that attached to the saddle so that he had leverage to transfer to another moving object, like a wagon or a train. Another was the “shotgun,” a spring-loaded device used to separate the tongue of a running wagon from the horses, thus cutting the horses loose. It also included a shock cord attached to the wagon bed, which caused wheels to cramp and turn the wagon over on the precise spot that was most advantageous for the camera.”
In the book, Falling: How Our Greatest Fear Became Our Greatest Thrill, Garrett Soden describes that time like this, “In the five years between 1925 and 1930, fifty-five people were killed making movies, and more than ten thousand injured. By the late 1930s, the maverick stuntman willing to do anything for a buck was disappearing. Now under scrutiny, experienced stunt men began to separate themselves from amateurs by building special equipment, rehearsing stunts, and developing new techniques.” Through the years, Yakima and his fellow stunt performers were hurt and some killed, so several leaders in the Industry, including Yakima started to develop safer ways of doing things and started to create a lot of the new tools of the trade.
In 1940, he started to direct the action on several pictures and a new role behind the camera was created. That of the Action Director, which eventually became the Second Unit Director and Stunt Coordinator positions. He trained and organized his own set of stunt performers which he could count on to do the stunts safely and properly and they included his two sons Edward “Tap” Canutt and Harry Joe Canutt. Tap and Joe would become crucial elements in the stunt industry in their own right and would perform stunts in some of the biggest epics and films of the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s, which included, Ben Hur, El Cid, Ivanhoe, Spartacus, Knights of the Round Table, King Richard and the Crusaders, Swiss Family Robinson, The Fall of the Roman Empire, Khartoum, Where Eagles Dare and so many others.