Most first attempts at anything in life yield less-than-stellar results-be it a first kiss, riding a bike, or your first driving experience. Nevertheless, there is little doubt that you will remember it. Hal Needham's first attempt at writing and directing afeature film, however, did not conform to typical logic. Not only was it successful, it received the kind of accolades from which Hollywood legends are born.
Smokey and the Bandit was second only to Star Wars for box office receipts in 1977, grossing more than $126 million nationally. High praise for a first-time writer/director, considering the seasoned writer/director George Lucas had already been nominated for Academy Awards for 1973's American Graffiti and would be again for writing and directing Star Wars.
While George would be hard-pressed to write about his firsthand experiences in "a galaxy far far away," the subject matter of Smokey and the Bandit, its location and its characters, rang close to home for Hal Needham due to his Southern upbringing.
Hal was born on March 6, 1931 to Edith May and Howard Needham in Memphis, Tennessee. The family lived in Arkansas and Missouri during Hal's childhood, and the Depression was not kind to their finances. As a teenager, Hal served as a paratrooper during the Korean War, then did some modeling for a cigarette company and a few other jobs. He launched his stunt career in TV on the series Have Gun Will Travel (1957), which led to working with director John Ford and actor John Wayne, and stunt doubling for Burt Reynolds, among others.
Of the thousands of television and film credits that comprise Needham's resume, Smokey and the Bandit is held near and dear to the hearts of Pontiac fans worldwide, and catapulted Hal Needham to A-list director status. With a shelf life longer than a box of Twinkies, Smokey and the Bandit is just as popular a film today, on its 30th Anniversary, as it was in 1977. HPP recently spoke with Hal regarding his exploits during the production of this legendary film. As hoped after seeing him onscreen over the years, Mr. Needham was very down-to-earth, easygoing, and a pleasure to speak with.
The man himself, Hal Needham,...
The man himself, Hal Needham, on the set of Smokey and the Bandit.
HPP: What drove you to become a stuntman?
Hal Needham: Being poor and not being able to do anything else. I was a sharecropper's son back in the hills of Arkansas. Things weren't too good back in the Depression. I used a mule's backside for a compass up and down the cotton rows-I picked a lot of cotton. When I had a chance to become a stuntman, I took advantage of it.
HPP: What were some of your early jobs?
HN: Oh, well, my first movie job was The Spirit of St. Louis (1957), the story of Charles Lindbergh's life, starring Jimmy Stewart. From there on I did...You're asking a tough question and I'll tell you why. I've done 310 movies and over 4,500 television episodes, so it's kind of hard for me to keep them straight in my mind. I've done so many shows I can't even remember all of them (laughs).
HPP: Tell us about Stunts Unlimited.
HN: It was started by myself, Glenn Wilder and Ronnie Rondell Jr. At the time, there was a stuntman organization called The Stuntman Association. Though we all belonged to it, we just didn't like the way things were run. We were young and ambitious, so we took 14 guys with us and started Stunts Unlimited and it went on to become the best stunt organization in Hollywood.
HPP: What led you into writing and directing?
HN: Money! I was a stuntman for 20 years at the time, had doubled Burt Reynolds for 18 and had lived in his guesthouse for 12. I came up with the idea of Smokey and the Bandit, so I wrote it, took it home, gave it to him and I had no idea he was gonna do it. I was just trying to get a feel for whether he liked it or not. But he said "Hal, I got a space in my schedule," and then he said, "You wanna be a director?" I said, "Okay!" "If you find somebody to give you the money, I'll star in it and you can direct it." The rest is history.
HPP: Where did the idea for the plot come from?
HN: I was down in Georgia with Burt, working on Gator and at that time you could not buy Coors beer east of the Mississippi. Stories about smuggling Coors beer are legendary. Talk to the people and they'll tell you, "Yeah, we used to make a Coors run every weekend across the border." Anyway, the driver captain came down, and he said, "Hey Hal, I bought some Coors. Can I put a couple cases in your room?" I don't drink beer, but I said okay. So I stuffed six bottles in the fridge and went about my business. They'd disappear one or two at a time, so I kept replacing them. Finally I set a trap and caught the maid stealin' my Coors beer. I said, "What on Earth are you doing?" She said, "Well, you can't buy Coors down here and my boyfriend really likes it, so I was just takin' it home to him." Then she told me the story about how she couldn't buy Coors east of the Mississippi, so I just gave her both cases and said, "Thank you very much." That gave me the idea for Smokey and the Bandit. I thought, "What a good idea; bootleg a little Coors, get in a truck, lots of fast cars and a lot of cops chasin' em."
Stunt people kicking up dust...
Stunt people kicking up dust in the Bandit T/A. It was scenes like this that gave Smokey and the Bandit a dedicated following that continues to gain fans from every generation. To many people, the Bandit T/A is the baddest car of all time.
HPP: Originally, didn't you have Jerry Reed in mind to be the Bandit?
HN: Yes and no. I had talked to Reed because I intended to do the movie for maybe a million dollars, a million and a half, kind of an el cheapo. And he kind of half-assed agreed to do it. But then when Burt came along I said, "Jerry Reed, you are now the Snowman."
HPP: How had you known Jerry?
HN: He and Burt and I worked on W.W. and the Dixie Dance Kings (1975), Gator (1976) and I think a couple more movies.
HPP: How did Sally Field get cast in the movie?
HN: That was really the decision of the studios. Although I had worked with Sally a few times, I had nothing to do with hiring her. As a matter of fact, I didn't have a lot to do with hiring a bunch of folks because remember, I was a newcomer and was just happy to be along. So it was really the studio that put Sally in there.