Feature: Loren Janes : How The West Was Won

Feature: Loren Janes : How The West Was Won

“I might jump an open drawbridge, Or Tarzan from a vine. ‘Cause I’m the unknown stuntman that makes Eastwood look so fine.”

From The Fall Guy Theme Tune

Loren Janes Passed away in June 2017, mostly united by mainstream media in the UK.  I figured as I’d interviewed Janes back in 2008 and went into detail about his landmark career it would be a prudent time to rerun the original article, as published in the now gone Impact Magazine.  Enjoy. 

It’s a very rare person that doesn’t get at least a little bit nervous on their first day in a new job.  It can be a stressful time – all those new faces and names, ensuring the impression you make is the right one.  It can be a tough day for even the most hardened and confident of people.  Now imagine that your first day on a job sees you standing at the edge of a cliff, staring down at the coastline of California’s Catalina Island.   Golden Globe winning director George Sidney is on the megaphone calling the shots on a film called Jupiter’s Darling and your job is to perform a cliff dive ninety foot straight down, past the rough jagged cliff face into the harsh, unforgiving, cold seas below.   The average person would run a mile.  But the 2011 Taurus Award winner Loren Janes isn’t an average person.  Considered to be one of the best in the business, Janes is a pioneering stunt man whose fifty year career has seen him work on over five hundred films and near two thousand televisions shows. From The Towering Inferno to Back To The Future from in Bullitt to Spiderman he has worked on some of the greatest films ever made.

Janes remembers his first day in the business like it was yesterday. “When I got their I asked them ‘What’s it like down below?’ and they said ‘Don’t worry, it’s plenty deep’.  I wasn’t convinced so I said ‘I wanna go look!’  They said no.  They wanted to get on with it but I insisted!  Eventually they took me out in a boat and I took a look.  Under the water, going 40 feet, out was a shelf!  If I’d done it how they wanted I would have dived 90 feet down into 4 feet of water ! I picked another spot, checked it out and did the dive!”  Janes takes a breath “It was fun but I thought nothing else of it.  I went back to teaching but I kept getting calls.  I had gotten about six calls in six months from studios wanting me to do gymnastics and other bits for them.  I soon had a choice to keep teaching or do movies!  I chose movies and did it for over 50 years!”

Loren Janes grew up in a little Californian town called Sierra Madre.  Sitting at the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains and with a cramped population of just over ten thousand, the town is famed for it’s annual Wisteria festival, it’s lack of traffic signals and it’s dirt sidewalks.  In fact Sierra Madre back then was still very much a town of the old west.  I guess then it’s no surprise that Janes quickly developed a fondness for horses.  “I loved horses.  I used to go out bare back on horses to deliver my papers!” laughs Janes enthusiastically.  It was this adventurous streak that would takes Janes out exploring to the  uncompromising mountains that towered across his home town.

 

 

It one of these walkabouts that Janes came across an old cabin. “It was in the middle of nowhere… and no one had been their for years.  I looked around inside and I found some old Tarzan books!  Eighteen of them! I’d never read Tarzan before so I took them home.  Within days I’d read them all.  From then on I’d regularly go and spend months in the mountains with just a knife and dressed in little more than a lion cloth!  I wanted to be Tarzan! ”  Janes early pursuits have become legendary.  From spending weeks at a time living off the land, to getting on the wrong side of a deer earning a hoof in the face in the process, to walking the 222 mile John Muir Trail through the unforgiving Sierra Mountains, Janes physicality led him to become the first civilian to enter the United States Olympic Trails for the Modern Pentathlon – an event that combines swimming, riding, fencing, shooting and running.

“I’d run 10 miles a day on location when I wasn’t filming.  Pavements.  Sand.  Whatever.  I’d always run.  I’d swim, ride… do anything I could to keep in shape.  Throughout my life I always challenging myself.  The hardest physical challenge I have ever undertaken was probably when three of us went up Mount Shasta , which is only 40 feet under the highest mountain in the United States.  We went up their in winter on Ski’s, all the way to the top then back down again through 10,00 feet of almost vertical snow. That was typical of the kind of challenges I’d get up to”

 

 

So how does a kid from a small town like Sierra Madre break into the movie business?  “Teach calculus and trigonometry!” Jokes Janes, who as I interview him is sat comfortably at home on his California ranch. “ I was teacher,  doing some diving in my spare time to raise money for band uniforms.  One of the guys in my calculus class’s wife was a big shot at MGM.  One night in passing she mentioned how were struggling to find a couple of guys to do a ninety foot dive from a cliff in Catalina and how the guys they normally use that weren’t available.  He said ‘Well my teachers a diver!’ They called me at school the next day, asked me to come and meet them which I did and they hired me on the spot!”

Janes career took off in the 50’s and 60’s with some of his greatest work back in the heyday of the Western.  In fact if your a fan of the early Westerns it would have been pretty hard Not to have seen Janes at work– from the Emmy nominated TV series The Rifleman and Gunsmoke, to Oscar nominated Cheyenne Autumn and The Magnificent Seven.  “In those days we really did the stunts.  Their was no green screen like today. Every stunt I did was real and every stunt I did, done wrong, could have been really dangerous.  I’ve done one hundred and twenty stair falls.  One time I did twenty six bare back saddle falls in one day!  I had to do twenty six different falls, each time dressed as a different Indian!”

It was back in the early sixties that Janes did one of his favourite stunts, on the John Ford directed How The West Was Won… “ That was a tough film!  They had me on a train that was going over thirty miles an hour.  I had to leap off, hit a cactus and fall over the cliff!  I planned it, worked it out, cut the cactus at the right point because, you know, even at 30 miles an hour hitting the cactus would be like hitting a telegraph pole otherwise.  I remember I even took a blow torch to the spines where I though I was going to hit.  We prepared for days and then when it came down to it I just did it.  Rough and wild like we always did.  And you know what?  I hit it EXACTLY where I burnt the spines off!  I’m very proud of that stunt.  In fact I heard that when they showed that one in France, when it got to my bit the after they watched it the audience stood up applauded!”

 

 

It’s not many people who can boast working with Elvis Presley, Charlton Heston, Spencer Tracey, John Cassavetes, Gene Hackman, Clint Eastwood or Robert DeNiro let alone working with all of them but Janes has, and many more besides.  But it was his relationship with Steve McQueen that would prove to be the most memorable, as they enjoyed a twenty eight year partnership that would see them working together on almost all of McQueen’s TV shows and movies from his early work on Wanted: Dead Or Alive through to The Hunter in 1980.  Janes remembers McQueen fondly “Steve was a great guy for sure.  If he really liked you there wasn’t anything he wouldn’t do for you!  If he didn’t… boy you were in trouble!  We were great friends, we’d dine at each others houses. He was a real legend in every sense of he word.”

It was his work on The Hunter, McQueen’s last before his untimely death in 1980, that would allow Janes one of his finest on screen moments.  Doubling for the dying McQueen, Janes found himself hanging free off a ladder swung out at a 90 degree angle from the top of an “L” train travelling at 55 MPH through downtown Chicago.  Shooting for three days, Janes spent his time on the film hanging for dear life over the freeway as commuters watched on agasp below unaware what was happening was actually being shot for a movie.  It was a dangerous sequence that he would repeat time and time again with no harness, no clips, not mats and most of all no CGI. “That was fun film” remarked Janes, “I sure miss Steve, even now”.

His relationship with McQueen was just one example of the status and respect that Janes would receive in his time working in the industry.  From dining with Chinese President Chiang Kai-shek to being entertained by like likes of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, Janes was respected by all.  Mentioning Sinatra reminds Janes of a rather interesting evening they shared together after a days filming on the  John Wayne/Dean Martin film The Sons of Katie Elder. “Sinatra, like McQueen was another one who IF he liked you would do anything for you!  If he didn’t well…”  Well indeed.  As Joey Bishop, Peter Lawford and many others found out, you didn’t cross ‘The Leader’ as Sinatra was affectionately known. Janes continued: “After one movie Frank invited us up to one of his concerts.  We sat at the back but it wasn’t long before someone came up to us and moved us to the front of the room on this little table with two chairs, right in front of the stage.  Afterwards, we went to dinner and Frank leaned over to me and asked ‘Anyone owe you money?’ I said ‘No!’   He moved in closer ‘Well if someone ever does just call me and I’ll get it for you!’” Janes laughs, before continuing  “A few more drinks later and he turned to me and said ‘Do you need anybody off’d?’.  I looked at him and said ‘What?’, Frank said ‘You know, taken care of?’.  ‘No!’ I said quickly  ‘Well if you do just let me know!’  I never took him up on the offer but it was nice to know it was there!”

 

 

Throughout his career Loren Janes was very much a man in demand, working almost non stop for near fifty years.  Renowned for his physicality, his ability to move effortlessly on screen, his unflinching honesty and his professionalism he was one of the industries most highly sort after stunt performers.  But in over 2000 TV show sand 500 films Janes is famous for never having broken a bone in his body. “I’ve always kept in shape, I never drank, smoked, used dope.  I’d take time to work out the stunt, make sure it was right and then do it.  That’s why I’ve never hurt myself” Janes has never refused to do a stunt in his career… well at least when it was possible ”Anyone who asked me to do something I would do it as long as it could be done” says Janes remembering back “BUT there was this one time I was asked by a director to jump across a ravine turn in mid air and come back!  That, well that was impossible… even for me!”

 

So how influential is Loren Janes?   In the 70’s wire work (which would later become known as wire fu) became the staple of Hong Kong action movies, a technique that in itself would eventually be appropriated back to the US mainstream in The Matrix and pretty much every mainstream action film since.  This development has for a long time been credited to the work of visionary industry pioneers like Yuen Woo Ping and Tsui Hark.  Incorrectly it turns out.  In fact according to US stunt performer Jeff Imada these techniques had a much more Western origin: “There’s an interesting story I was told from Woo Ping about the filming of the movie The Sand Pebbles.  Loren Janes went to over to Asia to work on the film and, according to Woo Ping, it was HIM that introduced wire stuff and the mini trampoline to them!!!” Said Imada when I interviewed him last year “ Before Sand Pebbles the Chinese never did that.   He showed them a little wire set up with piano wire and also mini tramps…”

Janes concurs, “That’s right!  It came from my gymnastics training.  High bar.  Parallels. Trampoline.  All things I did in High School & college. I did a demonstration and they just loved it.”.  So does it frustrate Janes that he isn’t rightly credited with this groundbreaking invention? “Not at all.  Those in the industry knows.  I know… and that’s what counts!”

Our conversation soon drifted to modern movies.  From someone who has been around since the pioneering days of stunt work in cinema, I wanted to get Janes take on how the modern approach, with their green screens and well rehearsed complicated stunt sequences compare to the more traditional approach of the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s.  “Nothing looks real nowadays! It’s not just the stunts but the even the stars are different now as well.  For sure the 50’s and 60’s bred a very different type of actor than today” says the man who worked alongside famed on (and off) screen tough guys like Gary Cooper, Clark Gable James Garner.  Janes remembers fondly back to these stars of yesteryear.  “Back then those guys would come onto the set, they would know their lines, they’d take time to talk to you and share a joke.  Today they are learning their lines as they arrive, you can’t talk to them, even look at some of them.  They even scream at everyone, although never at stuntmen because they know we’ll hit ‘em!  There terrible!” Janes names a few names but I’ll spare their blushes ! “They just don’t make ‘em like that anymore!”.  You can almost sense the disappointment Janes has on just how much the industry has changed since he started back over fifty years ago and whilst he doesn’t mention overtly, his affection obviously sits back more on the legends of yester year than the likes of the Brad Pitt’s and Josh Hartnett’s of today.

 

 

So does Janes have any regrets looking back?  “None.  None at all.  I am proud to have been in this business at what I consider to be with the best people at the best time.” Janes pauses for a second.   “Actually that said maybe one small regret.  When we did Bullitt we had three of the Mustangs [1968 Ford Mustang 390 CID Fastback].  When the film was over the director [Peter Yates] and Steve offered me one of the cars to keep.  To be honest I was into horses more than cars so I said thanks but no thanks.  I just figured there would be someone who would appreciate it more than me.  Well I just found out the guy who got it just sold it for a million dollars. And I didn’t want it !!!” Janes laughs.  Okay so no regrets then but how about any one person that he wouldn’t work with again? Janes doesn’t hesitate in putting forward a name: “Barbara Streisand. Three crews quit working with her on Hello, Dolly!  She’s just terrible…”

Away from his work on screen, Loren Janes has long been a supporter, advocate and spokesman for stuntmen and the industry alike, an unofficial role that on more than one occasion has seen him at loggerheads with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences for their refusal to reward the stunt industry for their work in the industry.   In part Janes thinks it comes down to the studios themselves. “The studios say that the actors do their own stunts so then the actors say they do their own stunts.  No one wants to admit that WE do their stunts!  We’re the only one’s that don’t get an award yet when I’ve been on different movies every body tells me, from the grips to the props guys, make up… everybody that we are the best guys in the business.  We do what we do right, we’re always nice and polite and how we make the stars looks good… “ So will this ever change?  Janes isn’t sure.  “I don’t think so.  It’s a shame because in truth without us those big movies, the ones that makes all the money, they wouldn’t happen.”

Whilst the little bald gold statue may allude Janes and his fellow stunt and action performers, he himself has been recognised numerous times for his contribution to the industry not least with the coveted life time achievement Golden Boot award in 2001.  Awarded by the Motion Picture & Television Fund Foundation, the award sets out to honour the achievements of cowboy heroes and heroines both in front and behind the scenes.  “The golden Boot was great, a real honour for sure.  I was only the tenth ever stunt man to get that so that’s pretty nice!” enthuses Jane.

As well as the Golden Boot,  2003 saw Janes awarded with a Silver Spur Award  for his outstanding achievement in entertainment and Western films, an honour that would seem him standing shoulder to shoulder with such previous winners and genre luminaries as Burt Reynolds, James Garner and Jack Palance whilst in 2004 he was inducted to the Walk of Western Stars in Santa Clarita, California.  According to Janes however, recognition never means more than when it comes from those who you worked alongside.  “I did a picture with Jon Voight called Runaway Train, on which he won the golden globe.  When he went up to accept it he said ‘This is great.  But you know what, the people that really deserve this was the stunt coordinator and the stunt man.  People like Loren Janes…’ .  he talked about how we did this and that, how important we were, how great I was.  In fact he went on and on about me for almost ten minutes.  That was pretty special.”

 

Janes retired from the industry four years ago now, with Spiderman being his last major film as a stunt performer, but considering it wont be that long before his eightieth birthday retirement doesn’t seem to have slowed this renowned adventurer down one bit.  Janes keeps up a daily fitness routine that includes swimming, hiking, horse riding, running and archery.  But even though he’s retired as a stuntman, Janes is still involved with the organisation he founded back in 1961, The Stuntmen’s Association Of Motion Pictures  which acts both a lobbying group and one stop shop for some of the industries brightest stunt talents  “When I started in the business, the movie moguls ran the studios.  Back then they knew who the best stunt men were, who was best to use and where to go to hire them.  Now  the corporate guys who run the studios, well  they know little about the industry.  They hire anyone off the streets to do stunts.  These guys do it for nothing, they get hurt and make the rest of us look bad.  So I wanted a way they would know where the real stunt men were.  And now they come to us… we have 140 members and still going strong.  Our work has changed the face of the industry for the better”

So what advice would Janes offer to the plethora of talent looking to break into the industry today?   “When I first got in the business I checked out all the stunt men going all the way back to the silent films right the way up to now.  The top ten were all leading gymnasts and acrobats.  All the best guys. ”  Guys like Ronnie Rondell, Mickey Gilbert, Freddy Waugh, Royden Clark who between then have worked on every major film and TV show since the early 40’s and 50’s and in the process making the industry what it is today.  Janes continues “I have people call me all the time and ask me how to break into the business.  I like to look at their background, what sports they have done, their disciplines.   If they have gymnastics and so forth.  Then I tell them that if they really want to do it expect it to take a long time.  And if you don’t, if you can’t give that then get away now  because you’ll never make it. It’s SO competitive.  There’s over six thousand people trying to make it in Hollywood as stunt men today and the fact is most never will.  So I try to talk them out of it.  And if they still want to… well then at least there on the right path”

From anecdotes about McQueen sitting down to lunch on Peanut butter and Banana sandwiches, to sending an unnamed studio executive at Warner’s flying across a table after being told to donate twenty five percent of his salary to the communist party, Janes he is never anything less that captivating.  A true gentleman he achieved what he has through hard work, dedication and a genuine passion for the industry he works in.  What’s more his legacy is one that endure for many years to come.  As for those who either aspire  or dare  to follow in Janes footsteps?  Well it’s a legacy that will be hard to surpass.

Janes truly is ’the unknown stuntman that makes Eastwood (and many, many others) look so fine’.

Originally published in IMPACT Magazine in 2008.

For more check out his IMDB Profile here. or his official website here

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