For almost as long as motion pictures themselves have been around, the world has marvelled and held their mouths open aghast at the work of those willing to risk life and limb to thrill their audience with feats of breath-taking bravery that helped make the magic of moviemaking seem all that more real. While the past twenty years have seen amazing advances in computer-generated images and special effects which can make it seem as if anyone is dangling from a sky-high aeroplane, scaling the sheer face of a treacherous cliff or leaping from the top of a skyscraper without ever leaving the safety of the studio interior, the film pioneers from decades earlier enjoyed no such luxuries.
The stunt performer has for too long lived in the shadows. Unbelievably, while almost every other aspect of filmmaking is recognised with an Academy Award nomination, stunt performers are still all too often left to lurk in the shadows, while the stars they double for bask in the limelight and reap the rewards of others’ hard work. No doubt this is due to a lingering desire to protect the illusion of filmmaking and help the audience believe it is the actors themselves doing all that spectacular daring-do. Until well into the 1960s, stunt performers rarely received any kind of public recognition, and if their name appeared on screen, it was usually hidden somewhere amongst the closing credits.
There were, of course, always exceptions. Hal Needham broke out from the stunt arena to the director’s chair, helming several hit films starring the late Burt Reynolds in the seventies, including the box-office phenomenon Smokey and the Bandit (1977) and the semi-autobiographical Hooper (1978), his notoriety even inspiring a stuntman action figure and toy play sets. Likewise, Australian stuntman Grant Page also became a popular household name in his home country, playing himself in the 1979 musical fantasy film Stunt Rock and making several appearances on popular Australian variety shows.
Female stunt performers have been particularly overlooked and under-appreciated over the years. In the early days of Hollywood stunts, it was not uncommon for a male stuntman to don a wig and a dress whenever a scene called for a female star to fall off a roof or roll out of a speeding car. Fortunately, the tide in that area is slowly turning and women are at last receiving the credit they fully deserve for the daring feats performed in front of the camera in the name of entertainment.
One such name that is finally being recognised for her impressive stunt career is that of Marneen Fields, a North Dakota native who in August 2018 was honoured at the International Action on Film Festival in Las Vegas, Nevada, where she received the Legendary Stunt Award in acknowledgment of a career which began in 1976 and came to an unfortunate and abrupt end in 1991, not because of a stunt gone wrong but at the hands of an erratic young drunk driver who ploughed into the side of her car while she was on a routine drive through Studio City, California, almost severing the vehicle in two and causing massive internal injuries that came close to ending her life.
Fortunately for Fields, though the car accident put an emphatic full-stop on her stunt work, her acting and fledgling singing careers continued unabated, and have been the focus of her life since recovering from the many operations and healing time needed to return her to full strength and health.
A Utah State University alumna and former Class One advanced all-around gymnast, Marneen’s entry into the daring world of stunts came via her late older brother Bobby Fields, an NFL linebacker who once tried out for the L.A. Rams, who in 1976 introduced his sister to Paul Stader, one of Hollywood’s busiest stuntmen who had been performing since the 1930s, working on everything from the early Tarzan movies and superhero serials to classics like Russ Meyer’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970) and most of the Planet of the Apes sequels. By 1976, Stader was still performing and running his own stunt school in Santa Monica, which was where Marneen studied and developed her stunt skills, initially giving herself six months to see where the path would lead. Fortunately, within that six months, she had already received both her first stunt and acting roles, on the 1977 TV movie The Spell, a Carrie-inspired horror thriller starring Lee Grant and a young Helen Hunt. In the film, Marneen not only stunt doubles a poor girl who falls backward from the top of a rope to her death in the high school gym, but was also cast as one of the cliquey students who verbally bullies the poor plain jane with the vengeful psychic powers. As Marneen recounts today:
“When I landed the job on The Spell I had been a student at Paul Stader’s Stunt School for almost six months. I remember this because I told myself I would give my stuntwoman career six months, if I hadn’t gotten my SAG card within that time I would return to college at Utah State University and continue being a gymnastics coach in life. Within almost six months to the day, I landed The Spell and remained in Hollywood doing stunts and studying acting. At Paul Stader’s Stunt School they trained me in how to do backward high falls from the rungs of ladders and platforms, but not from a swinging, hanging, dangling, slippery rope. My job was to stunt double the aerial acrobat who was doing twirls from the top of the rope with a harness, then loses her grasp and falls. She did her twirls and then we brought in a small mattress pad for me to land on my back on. I climbed the rope, got into the same position on the rope she was in without the harness, spun myself around a few times, then fell backward from the rope letting go with my hands. When falling backward from any high surface the main thing to remember is to keep your eyes on your feet so your head is in the correct position for the landing. The body follows the head when flipping or falling and if you look back and not down at your feet, you can land on your neck and break it. Being a Class One advanced all-around gymnast, I was known for getting my stunts in one take without injury. This job was no exception, the fall was executed perfectly.”
Work on The Spell was quickly followed by jobs on the fantasy TV shows Wonder Woman, The Man from Atlantis, and an impressive stunt on Clint Eastwood’s classic action film The Gauntlet (1977), where she doubled actress Samantha Doane as a tough biker chick who gets slugged off a moving train by Eastwood’s Ben Shockley character. It was a striking and dangerous stunt but one which the fledgling performer took to with the enthusiasm and professionalism she would proudly display throughout her entire career.
Marneen continues to explain: “I landed the job on The Gauntlet after receiving a call from Clint’s stunt double and coordinator, Buddy Van Horn. He had been given my number and asked if I would be prepared to do this rather risky stunt. Though I was apprehensive about it, it was far too good an opportunity to turn down. I had about two weeks to get ready before I was due on location in Arizona, so I spent that time practicing in the playground at the local beach, where I would stand up on the moving swings and leap off of them while they were still in motion then roll into the sand.
“For the leap from the moving train carriage, all I had for protection was a small boy’s football girdle and some knee pads strapped under the pair of grotty old blue jeans which the character wore. All movie stunts are serious and carry potential risks, but this one filled me with a strong level of anxiety in the lead-up to its execution. The screenplay called for me to be standing with my back to the open train carriage, causing me to exit going off blind. When Clint throws a punch at my jaw, I had to turn to my right and leap from the train, while trying to make it look as if my body had gone limp from the punch. The scary part was, because the train was in motion until I spun around and made the commitment to fall, I had no real idea of exactly where I would land. Clint and Van Horn had blocked out my scene with me and gone over the approximate area where I was expected to fall. I was warned by both that I must make sure my body moved in the same direction as the train at all times (hard to do when you’re going off backward with a half twist), or I could be thrown back under the train track wheels and squashed to death. Fortunately for me and posterity, the stunt came off without a hitch, though I was a bit bruised and winded and worse for wear once I hit the hard desert floor, and I only just missed landing on a rusty old Coke can which had been placed on the sand by the props department.
“About a week after I got back from filming in Arizona, I received a personal phone call from Fritz Manes, who was Clint Eastwood’s childhood friend and producer. Fritz told me he was leaving me a drive-on pass at the Warner Brothers Studios front gate and to come by the office to pick up photographs he had for me. When I arrived at the studio and opened the door to Malpaso Productions, there was Clint Eastwood, standing alone in the reception area of the outer office. I kid you not; he was in a state of complete calm and deep thought, and I imagined he was meditating or it was his way of running and remembering lines. I wondered how he would react since I had entered without knocking first, but he was fine as he shook my hand and I reminded him I was the girl he had punched off the moving train.
“‘Yes, Fritz isn’t here right now,’ Clint replied. ‘But he has some photos for you. Come in here, Fritz left them on his desk.’
He handed me a huge manila envelope with my name written in black swastik pen on it. Once again, he shook my hand and complimented me on the great stunt I did, as he opened the envelope and showed me the still photos which captured my entire sequence in a set of 8×10 shots, which I still possess and treasure to this day. Clint Eastwood was the most talented director and producer I ever worked with, no doubt. After my stunt had been completed, and I lay winded and nearly knocked out on the hot desert floor, pain tearing at my left heel, I looked up and wondered how I would get out of that sand trap as the train had vanished. A few moments later, the train came rolling slowly back down the track, Clint hauled himself off the train as soon as it came to a halt, ran over and picked me up in a giant hug. ‘I LOVED IT!’ he exclaimed. In 2010, Clint contacted me and was nice enough to send me a copy of a 1988 issue of Star Magazine, which ran an article on me with the headline ‘Clint Eastwood’s Hug Changed My Life’.”
With the success of The Gauntlet at the box-office, Fields’ stunt career expanded exponentially with work on a notable roster of episodic television shows, many of which developed large cult followings like Battlestar Galactica, Fantasy Island, The Fall Guy, Quincy M.E., Lou Grant and many others. On the big screen, she played a passenger who got thrown out of a train derailed by a swarm of killer bees in Irwin Allen’s The Swarm (1978), doubled for Shirley Jones [pictured below] in Beyond the Poseidon Adventure (1979), another Irwin Allen disaster epic, and was cast as a member of the US Olympics team that got tossed about in mid-air in Airport ’79: The Concord (1979). She also got to grapple with Freddy Kruger (Robert Englund) and his razor-sharp steel-fingered glove when she stunt-doubled Kim Myers in A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1985). Other notable directors which Fields worked for include Stanley Kramer on The Runner Stumbles (1979), Joe Dante on The Howling (1981) and Joel Schumacher on The Incredible Shrinking Woman (1981), while the range of female talent she has doubled for include such names as Priscilla Presley, Jane Seymour, Dee Wallace, Melanie Griffith, Karen Black, and Michelle Phillips.
While keeping busy with the stunt work that kept her constantly in demand, Fields continued to pursue straight acting roles, playing a heartbroken diner waitress in the ‘80s TV crime show Riptide and a co-starring role as the unfortunate victim of a chemical lobotomy in the cult horror film Hellhole (1985). But it was her career as one of Hollywood’s genuine pioneering stuntwomen that came squarely into focus on August 24, 2018, at the Palms Hotel in Las Vegas. As part of the 14th annual International Action on Film Festival, Marneen received a rousing standing ovation and a chorus of cheers and whistles as she took to the stage to be presented with the Legendary Stunt Award in recognition of her huge body of work.
To paraphrase a famous quote from Neil Armstrong, it was both a small step and a giant leap, both for Marneen personally and for stunt performers in general. With such notable names like Helen Mirren recently declaring that stuntmen and women deserve their own category at the Academy Awards, one can only hope that stunt performers may finally be ready to receive the widespread respect and credit due, both for those who continue to work in the field today and those like Marneen Fields–once coined “Hollywood’s Original Fall Girl” by J.P. “Bill” Catching and the Stuntman’s Association – who helped blaze the trail for them.
Today, Marneen Fields divides her time between Los Angeles and Melbourne, Australia. Apart from her ongoing career as a singer/songwriter, she remains busy developing screenplays and working on her autobiography Cartwheels & Halos, which she hopes to see published in 2019.
For a complete listing of Marneen Fields’ film and television credits visit her IMDB page at: https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0276312/