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The Westerner: Yakima Canutt, king of the stuntmen

Photo Provided Yakima Canutt is shot by John Wayne in this spectacular horse fall from “Stagecoach.”

The Indian jumps onto one of the lead horses and starts cutting at the reins trying to stop the coach. John Wayne takes a shot at him. Wounded, he falls between the lead horses. Mind you, that team was running flat out! He hangs on for dear life while being dragged along underneath, his head only inches from those flashing hooves. He is shot again, had to let go, and all six horses and the stage coach run over him, leaving him lying in the dirt twitching. The scene is from director John Ford’s “Stagecoach,” and the exceptional stuntman was Yakima Canutt.

Yakima was born Enos Edward Canutt on a ranch near Colfax, Wash., on Nov. 29, 1896. Yakima got his nickname at the Pendleton, Ore., rodeo in 1914 when he was participating in the bronc riding events. Some cowboys from Yakima were also appearing in the rodeo and a newspaper photo showing Yakima leaving the horse which he was attempting to ride referred to him as Yakima, and the name stuck.

Yakima began his rodeo career in 1913 and was named All Around Cowboy in 1917, and held this title through 1923.

Yakima entered the movie business in 1919 with a series of fast action westerns for Ben Wilson. His first movie was “Ridin’ Mad.” He starred in eight of these films from 1923-1926. In addition to starring in these movies, he was also a stuntman. With the advent of sound in 1929, Yak had a problem from having had the flu in 1918 while in the Navy. His vocal chords had been permanently damaged. His voice lacked resonance, a quality needed for good recording.

In the early 1930s, Yak began working for Mascot Pictures, owned by Nat Levine. This company could turn out action serials in 21 days. Yak worked for $50 an episode writing action into most of his pictures. He also ramrodded action, hired stuntmen and performed the major stunts. It was hard work, but the pay was good and it was a great testing ground for his ideas.

Yakima Canutt

Yak’s association with John Wayne began on the “Shadow of the Eagle” serial. Yak said he worked with John Wayne more than other stars on the screen.

In one of John Wayne’s westerns, “Paradise Canyon,” they had to do a rugged fight and Yakima said Wayne could put on a better fight than the majority of stuntmen. In fact, Wayne and Yakima worked together so often that the director usually left them to choreograph their own fight scenes.

In the late 1930s, Consolidated Film Laboratories, Monogram and Mascot merged to form Republic Pictures.

Yakima became a top stuntman at Republic. He handled the action and did parts in many Gene Autry films, “The Three Mesquiteers,” and several serials including “Zorro,” and “The Lone Ranger.” Many times, Yakima would receive a script which would have blank spaces and scene numbers in the main action spots with a caption saying “See Yakima for action sequences.”

In 1938, the producers at Republic Pictures like his work and as the studio began expanding in all directions, his opportunities improved as well. He was hand-picked to coordinate and ramrod the stunts. John Ford cast John Wayne as the lead in the high budgeted United Artists picture “Stagecoach,” and Wayne recommended Yakima to John Ford to handle the action.

Yakima continued his work at Republic with “Dark Command,” again with Wayne and all the serials and “The Three Mesquiteers series. Yak did the great stunt work with the wagon in “Dark Command,” and running the wagon over the cliff in “Angel and the Badman,” and the wild ride with Wayne and Gabby Hayes in the stagecoach in “Tall in the Saddle.”

He also worked on “Virginia City” with Errol Flynn. This was one of four pictures he did with Flynn and found him easy to get along with, a real he-man, and the women really went for him.

Yakima injured his ankles on a Roy Rogers film, “Idaho,” and knew his time as a stuntman was up. He had quit rodeos when he was at the top, and decided to quit this end of the business while he was still in the high brackets.

This subsequently led to his second unit directing of “Red Stallion of the Rockies,” “Old Yeller,” “Westward Ho,” “The Wagons,” “Cat Ballou,” “Blue,” “A Man Called Horse,” the opening runaway train sequence from “Rio Lobo,” and the spectacular train wreck, Indian attack and fight scenes in “Breakheart Pass,” and the action scenes in Clint Eastwood’s “Where Eagles Dare.”

One of the greatest action scenes filmed was the chariot race in “Ben Hur,” directed by Yakima, and starring Charlton Heston.

He was the only stuntman to receive an Academy Award, and was inducted into the Cowboy Hall of Fame, Pendleton Hall of Fame, Stuntman’s Hall of Fame, The Pro-Rodeo hall of Champions and the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

On May 24, 1986, the King of the Stuntmen, Yakima Canutt, passed away of natural causes at North Hollywood Medical Center. Yak left his wife, Audrey, two sons, a daughter and several grandchildren.

Personal notes on Yakima Canutt:

I met Yakima at the Raleigh Western Film Festival in 1984. He signed his book for me, “The Stuntman,” and he, his wife and I had dinner together. It was interesting to hear him talk about the early days and especially his association with John Wayne, who he felt was going to be a big star.

After his death, I was in California attending a function and contacted his widow, Audrey that I was planning on doing an article on Yak’s career. She invited me over to view his various items. I held his Oscar, that he received in 1966, and viewed his Hollywood Walk of Fame plaque. His yard was filled with old wagons that he worked on to provide safety for animals and stuntmen. She gave me a lot of great photos and posters on both his rodeo and movie career. I ended up doing a 10-page spread on his career with 21 photos for my magazine, “The Westerner.” She also showed me a tape of a proposed documentary on his career and the scene showed Yak on a horse in the same area where he had done the famous stunt in “Stagecoach.” This documentary, unfortunately, was never developed!

My good friend, Neil Summers, who worked with Yakima on “Rio Lobo” and was a close friend, said with Yak’s passing went the most spectacular stunt career ever to be in the films.

I have a list of all his movies and they are too numerous to list here. Some of the many great stuntmen I met who worked with Yak were: Henry Wills, Dean Smith, Neil Summers, Joe Canutt (Yakima’s son), Jack Williams and Bear Hudkins.

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For information on “The Westerner Magazine,” and related movie and TV books, contact me at 304-295-3143 or email me at oldwestshop@aol.com.

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