Stuntman and Second Unit Director. Nationality: American. Born: Enos Edward Canutt in Colfax, Washington, 29 November 1895. Family: Sons: actors/stuntmen Tap and Joe Canutt. Career: Ranch hand, then joined wild west show at age 17: became rodeo "world champion"; 1919—first film appearance as actor/stuntman; 1927–35—second unit director for Mascot; 1935–48—head of Republic stunt unit. Award: Special Academy Award, 1966. Died: In Hollywood, California, 24 May 1986.
Films as Actor/Stuntman:
Lighting Bryce (Hurst—serial)
The Heart of a Texan (Hurst)
The Forbidden Range (Hart)
The Days of '49 (Jaccard and Marchand—serial; released as feature California in '49 , 1924); The Desert Hawk (De La Mothe); Ridin' Mad (Jaccard); Sell 'em Cowboy (Alias Texas Pete Owens) (Hayes); Branded a Bandit (Hurst); The Riddle Rider (Craft—serial)
The Cactus Cure (Hayes); Romance and Rustlers (Wilson); Scar Hanan (The Man with the Scar) (Wilson, Linden, and Cunliff) (+ co-sc); Risin' Comet (Wilson); A Two-FistedSheriff (Wilson and Hayes); White Thunder (The White Rider) (Wilson); Wolves of the Road (Hayes); The Strange Rider (Hayes); The Human Tornado (Wilson)
The Devil Horse (Jackman); The Fighting Stallion (Wilson); Desert Greed (Greed of Gold) (Jaccard); Hellhound of the Plains (Wilson)
The Outline Breaker (Jaccard); Open Range (Smith)
The Vanishing West (Thorpe—serial)
The Three Outcasts (Smith) (+ co-sc as Enos Edwards); Bad Men's Money (Mad Man's Money) (McGowan); Captain Cowboy (McGowan); Riders of the Storm (McGowan); A Texan's Honor
Firebrand Jordan (Neitz); Ridin' Law (Webb); Bar L Ranch (Webb); The Lonesome Trail (Mitchell); Canyon Hawks (Neitz); Westward Bound (Webb); The Texan (The Big Race) (Smith)
Hurricane Horseman (The Mexican) (Schaefer); Pueblo Terror (Paradise Valley) (Neitz); Battling with Buffalo Bill (Taylor—serial); The Fighting Test (Horner); The Vanishing Legion (Eason—serial); The Lightning Warrior (Kline and Schaefer—serial)
Cheyenne Cyclone (Smashing Through) (Schaefer); Two-Fisted Justice (Durlan); Wyoming Whirlwind (Schaefer); The Last Frontier (Bennet—serial; released as feature The Black Ghost, 1932); The Devil Horse (Brower—serial); The Shadow of the Eagle (Beebe—serial); Hurricane Express (Schaefer and McGowan—serial); The Last of the Mohicans (Eason and Beebe—serial); Raider of the Golden Gulch (Smith) (+ co-sc)
The Telegraph Trail (Wright); Law and Lawless (Schaefer); The Three Musketeers (Schaefer and Clark—serial; released as feature Desert Command, 1948); Via Pony Express (Collins); Wolf Dog (Clark and Fraser—serial); FightingTexans (Randy Strikes Oil) (Schaefer); Sagebrush Trail (Schaefer); Scarlet River (Brower); Battling Buckaroos (His Last Adventure) (Drake); Fighting with Kit Carson (Schaefer and Clark—serial); The Mystery Squadron (Clark and Howard—serial)
The Lucky Texan (Bradbury); West of the Divide (Bradbury); Texas Tornado (Drake); Blue Steel (Bradbury); The Man from Utah (Bradbury); Randy Rides Alone (Fraser); The Star Packer (Bradbury); Man from Hell (Collins); Fighting Through (Fraser); 'Neath the Arizona Skies (Fraser); Carrying the Mail (Franum and Emmett—short); The Lost Jungle (Schaefer and Clark—serial); Monte Carlo Nights (Nigh); The Trail Beyond (Bradbury); Burn-'em-Up Barnes (Clark and Schaefer—serial); Law of the Wild (Schaefer and Eason—serial); Mystery Mountain (Brower and Eason—serial); Outlaw Rule (Luby); Blazing Guns (Heinz); The Desert Man (Emmett—short); Pals of the West (Emmett—short)
The Lawless Frontier (Bradbury); Circle of Death (London); Paradise Canyon (Pierson); The Dawn Rider (Bradbury); Westward Ho (Bradbury); Lawless Range (Bradbury); Cyclone of the Saddle (Clifton); The Farmer Takes a Wife (Fleming); The Phantom Empire (Brower and Eason—serial); Rough Ridin' Rangers (The Secret Stranger) (Clifton); Dante's Inferno (Lachman); The Fighting Marine (Eason—serial)
The Oregon Trail (Pembroke); King of the Pecos (Kane); The Lonely Trail (Kane); Winds of the Wasteland (Wright); The Vigilantes Are Coming (The Mounties Are Coming) (Wright and Taylor—serial); Wildcat Trooper (Wild Cat) (Clifton); Ghost Town Gold (Kane); The Clutching Hand (Herman—serial); The Black Coin (Herman—serial); Roarin' Lead (Wright and Newfield); Rose Marie (Van Dyke); Ten Laps to Go (Clifton); The Lawless Nineties (Kane); The Trail of the Lonesome Pine (Hathaway); San Francisco (Van Dyke); The Charge of the Light Brigade (Curtiz); The Big Show (Wright)
The Bold Caballero (The Bold Cavalier) (Root); The Riders of the Whistling Skull (The Golden Trail) (Wright); Hit the Saddle (Wright); Trouble in Texas (Bradbury); Gunsmoke Ranch (Kane); Come on Cowboys (Kane); The Painted Stallion (Witney, James, and Taylor—serial); Range Defenders (Wright); Prairie Thunder (Eason); Riders of the Rockies (Bradbury); Riders of the Dawn (Bradbury); Zorro Rides Again (Witney and English—serial); The Mysterious Pilot (Bennet—serial); In Old Chicago (H. King); Rootin' Tootin' Rhythm (Rhythm on the Range) (Wright); S.O.S. Coastguard (Witney and James—serial); Ali Baba Goes to Town (Butler)
The Secret of Treasure Island (Clifton—serial); The Lone Ranger (Witney and English—serial); Heart of the Rockies (Kane); Santa Fe Stampede (G. Sherman); The Girl of the Golden West (Leonard); Heroes of the Hills (G. Sherman); Pals of the Saddle (G. Sherman); Dick Tracy Returns (Witney and English—serial); Overland Stage Raiders (G. Sherman); Storm over Bengal (Salkow)
Man of Conquest (Nicholls); Wyoming Outlaw (G. Sherman); The Kansas Terrors (G. Sherman); Cowboys from Texas (G. Sherman); Zorro's Fighting Legion (Witney and English—serial); Gone with the Wind (Fleming); Jesse James (H. King); The Lone Ranger Rides Again (Witney and English—serial); Dodge City (Curtiz); The Night Riders (G. Sherman); The Oregon Trail (Beebe—serial); Captain Fury (Roach); Daredevils of the Red Circle (Witney and English—serial); The Light That Failed (Wellman)
Pioneers of the West (Orelbeck); Ghost Valley Raiders (G. Sherman); The Ranger and the Lady (Kane); Under Texas Skies (G. Sherman); Frontier Vengeance (Watt); Young Bill Hickok (Kane); Virginia City (Curtiz); One Million B.C. (Man and His Mate) (Roach and Roach Jr.); Shooting High (Green); Deadwood Dick (Horne—serial); Boom Town (Conway); Oklahoma Renegades (Watt); Prairie Schooners (Through the Storm) (Nelson)
Prairie Pioneers (Orlebeck); The Great Train Robbery (Kane); Gauchos of Eldorado (Orlebeck); White Eagle (Horne—serial); Western Union (F. Lang); Jungle Girl (Witney and English—serial); Kansas Cyclone (G. Sherman); Bad Man of Deadwood (Kane); King of the Texas Rangers (Witney and English—serial)
Shadows on the Sage (Orlebeck); Spy Smasher (Witney—serial)
Hidden Valley Outlaws (Bretherton); Zorro's Black Whip (Grissell and Bennet—serial); The Tiger Woman (Perils of the Darkest Jungle) (Bennet and Grissell—serial)
Sunset in El Dorado (McDonald)
The Showdown (D. & S. McGowan); Rocky Mountain (Keighley)
Films as Stuntman and 2nd Unit Director:
The Galloping Ghost (Schaefer and Eason—serial)
Dark Command (Walsh)
They Died with Their Boots On (Walsh)
In Old Oklahoma (Rogell)
Flame of Barbary Coast (Kane); The Topeka Terror (Bretherton); Dakota (Kane); Manhunt of Mystery Island (+ co-d—serial); Sheriff of Cimarron (+ d); Federal Operator 99 (+ co-d—serial)
Cyclone (Springsteen); Under Nevada Skies (McDonald); Angel and the Badman (Grant)
Twilight on the Rio Grande (McDonald); That's My Man (Will Tomorrow Ever Come?) (Borzage); Northwest Out-post (End of the Rainbow) (Dwan); Wyoming (Kane)
Red Stallion in the Rockies (Murphy); Hellfire (Springsteen); The Doolins of Oklahoma (The Great Manhunt) (Douglas)
Devil's Doorway (A. Mann)
Last of the Comanches (The Sabre and the Arrow) (De Toth); Ivanhoe (Thorpe); Hangman's Knot (Huggins)
The Far Horizons (Mate)
Old Yeller (Stevenson)
In Love and War (Dunne)
El Cid (A. Mann)
How the West Was Won (Hathaway, Ford, and Marshall)
Where Eagles Dare (Hutton)
Rio Lobo (Hawks)
Breakheart Pass (Gries)
High on the Range
G-Men Never Forget (co-d—serial)
The Lawless Rider (d)
Equus (Lumet) (technical consultant)
By CANUTT: book—
On CANUTT: articles—
Classic Film Collector (Indiana, Pennsylvania), Summer 1967.
Filme Cultura (Rio de Janeiro), November-December 1969.
Ecran (Paris), May 1978.
Classic Images (Indiana, Pennsylvania), May 1984.
Classic Images (Indiana, Pennsylvania), October 1984.
Obituary in Variety (New York), 28 May 1986.
Cineforum, vol. 31, no. 304, May 1991.
Rhodes, S., "Hangin' On," in Filmfax (Evanston), February/March 1994.
* * *
In 1966, Yakima Canutt was given a special Academy Award "for creating the profession of stuntman as it exists today and for the development of many safety devices used by stuntmen everywhere." Canutt helped legitimize the stuntman, and though he had peers such as Harvey Parry, Gil Perkins, and Dave Sharpe, it was Canutt whose work was best known and most widely publicized, largely through his 40-year association with John Wayne. Canutt graduated from stuntman for the stars to second unit director, staging action scenes for the likes of John Ford (Stagecoach), William Wellman (The Light That Failed), Raoul Walsh (Dark Command), and Howard Hawks (Rio Lobo), as well as big-budget spectacles like Ben-Hur, Spartacus, and El Cid.
Canutt came from a rodeo background, and was a star on the Wild West Show circuits as a teenager. A newspaper labeled him "The Cowboy from Yakima (Washington)," and the nickname stuck. Canutt's rodeo speciality was bareback bronco riding, helping him win five world championship cowboy titles. He entered silents doing unbilled stunts, but quickly became a cowboy star in a series of silent westerns, performing his own daring stunts. His voice prevented him from succeeding in talking pictures, and he opted for full-time stunt work, with occasional bit parts, mostly as Indians or heavies.
Canutt doubled for many stars, including Clarke Gable, Errol Flynn, Tyrone Power, and Henry Fonda. He first worked with John Wayne in a 1932 Mascot serial, The Shadow of the Eagle, and through a series of B-westerns for Monogram, helped develop Wayne's physical persona, teaching him how to fake punches for the screen. He went to Republic in 1935 with Wayne, and through a score of westerns doubled Wayne while playing small roles in which he inevitably tangled in knockdown, drag out fisticuffs with the star.
When Wayne was boosted to the big time with Stagecoach, he recommended Canutt to director John Ford. Canutt was hired to direct second unit action on the film, as well as perform some of his most celebrated stunts. In addition to saddle-and-horse falls, Canutt did the famous transfer stunt (his personal favorite), shot on the flats at Victorville, California. Playing an Indian, Canutt jumps from his galloping horse onto the stagecoach team's lead horses then works his way over six charging team horses towards the carriage. Wayne shoots him, he falls between the horses, is dragged along the ground at full speed, then finally drops to the ground as stage and horses pass over him. As second unit director, Canutt staged the sequence of the stagecoach in the river crossing. Miraculously, Canutt emerged unhurt, although he did suffer injuries doubling for Gable on San Francisco (six broken ribs while saving a panicked stuntwoman) and Boom Town (a punctured lung when he was tossed from a wagon into a bass drum). Canutt also doubled for Gable as Rhett Butler in the burning of Atlanta sequence for Gone with the Wind, and played a bit as a renegade who terrorizes Vivien Leigh.
Canutt had staged action for directors as early as his starring role in The Devil Horse with Rex, King of the Wild Horses, and after Stagecoach, he concentrated in this area. He handled second unit for Raoul Walsh on the westerns Dark Command (featuring a spectacular cliff jump by Canutt and three other stuntmen) and They Died with Their Boots On (in which Canutt doubled Flynn for Custer's Last Stand and helped supervise the battle sequence). Republic hired him as a director in 1944 and assigned him B-westerns with Sunset Carson, Rocky Lane, and Clayton Moore. After four years of low budgets, Canutt signed as second unit director with MGM.
Canutt found his forte as a second unit action man, and in this capacity was responsible for some of the best action sequences of the 1950s and 1960s. He specialized in medieval epics (Richard Thorpe's Ivanhoe, Anthony Mann's El Cid) and biblical spectacles (William Wyler's Ben-Hur, Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus). His most memorable set pieces include the jousts in Ivanhoe and El Cid; the sieges in El Cid and Basil Dearden's Khartoum; the revolt of the slaves in Spartacus; the attack on the Nazi fortress in Brian Hutton's Where Eagles Dare; and especially the celebrated chariot race between Charlton Heston and Stephen Boyd in Ben-Hur.
—John A. Gallagher
As a second-unit director for action sequences, Yakima Canutt (1896-1986) made scores of films during the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, but his best-known work is the chariot race in Ben-Hur (1959), starring Charlton Heston and Stephen Boyd.
Yakima Canutt, was one of five children of John Lemuel Canutt, a rancher, and Nettie Ellen Canutt. He grew up in eastern Washington on a ranch founded by his grandfather and operated by his father, who also served a term in the state legislature. During Canutt's professional career, many thought him descended from various Native American tribes, but his ancestry was Scotch-Irish and German.
Gained Skills on Family Ranch
Canutt's formal education was limited to an elementary school in Green Lake, Washington, a suburb of Seattle. He gained the education for his life's work on the family ranch, where he learned to ride horses. By the age of thirteen, he rode unbroken horses, and within three years he began to compete in area rodeos. After his parents divorced, Canutt devoted his full time to the rodeo circuit. In 1916 he married Kitty Wilks, who was also a rodeo performer. They had no children, and their stormy marriage ended quickly. He became proficient at saddle-bronc riding and bulldogging and was named a world champion for the first time in 1917. Canutt won that designation three times more before he abandoned rodeo riding for work in the motion picture industry.
Canutt claimed that he received his nickname, "Yakima," while performing in a rodeo in Pendleton, Oregon. After drinking with two friends from Yakima, Washington, he competed in the bronc riding. His two companions demanded difficult horses to show the others how expertly riders from Yakima could perform, but both riders were thrown. To support his friends' claims, Canutt also asked for a difficult horse so the fans could have another chance to see how well persons from Yakima could ride—even though he was from Colfax. But he also was thrown, and a picture of him in the air above the horse ran in several newspapers. Thereafter he was called Yakima, which was frequently shortened to Yak.
Early Film Appearances
Canutt joined the U.S. Navy in 1918 and trained in gunnery in Bremerton, Washington. He was released when World War I ended in November of that year. In 1919 he returned to the rodeo circuit and traveled to Los Angeles, California, for the first time. There he met Tom Mix, a Western movie actor, who offered him a job in films. Canutt's first exposure to moviemaking was unpleasant, so he returned to the rodeo. In 1923 Ben Wilson offered him an opportunity to appear in eight motion pictures. Canutt experienced such stage fright in the first film, Branded a Bandit (1924), a silent Western, that he doubted he would be able to continue. However, reassurances from Wilson and others convinced Canutt to remain in the business, and he completed nearly twenty motion pictures before 1930. In these silent features, he played the lead role, and since he was an experienced horseman and athlete, he did not use a "double" or stuntman, during action scenes. Probably his best-known film from this era is The Devil Horse, produced by Nat Lavine in 1926.
In the 1930s Canutt moved more completely into planning and performing stunt work. His voice was unsuited to the movies, so once sound revolutionized the industry, he felt more comfortable doing the "gags" or stunts, in action scenes. At that time, stuntmen often made more money than the lead actors in the B Westerns. On 12 November 1931 he married Minnie Audrea Rice. They had three children, including two sons who followed Canutt into stunt work.
Canutt continued to appear in non-speaking roles, but mostly he doubled for lead actors, especially John Wayne in the westerns and Clark Gable in his major films. In Gone with the Wind, Canutt doubled for Gable driving the horse and wagon through Atlanta as the city burned. He was also the ruffian who accosted Scarlett (Vivien Leigh) on a bridge before she was rescued by Big Sam (Everett Brown).
Canutt's best-known work of the 1930s is in Stagecoach (1939), directed by John Ford. Dressed as an American Indian, he mounts the lead horse in a "six-up" or team of six horses, pulling a stagecoach at high speed. Wayne shoots him, and Canutt drops to the tongue of the stagecoach. Wayne shoots again, and Canutt drops to the ground. He is dragged by the coach until he lets go and passes between the horses and under the stagecoach. In later films, he perfected the gag sufficiently to complete the circle; that is, he jumps from the seat to the rear team, leaps eventually to the lead team, passes under the vehicle, grabs a bar on the rear of the coach, climbs over the top, and resumes his seat in the driver's box.
Became Action Sequence Director
Canutt sustained serious injuries while performing stunts, including six broken ribs while filming San Francisco (1936). These caused him to restrict his activities to directing and intensified his determination to make stunt work as safe as possible. As a second-unit director for action sequences, he made scores of films during the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, but his best-known work is the chariot race in Ben-Hur (1959), starring Charlton Heston and Stephen Boyd. Canutt improved upon the previous version of the film, made in the 1920s by Reeves Eason, and took greater safety precautions. In 1966 Canutt won an Academy Award for his stunt work, and the citation included his inventions that had increased the safety of stuntmen. In 1976 he was inducted into the National Cowboy Hall of Fame.
The many injuries, some of them life threatening, that Canutt suffered while doing stunt work made him conscious of the safety of the stuntmen and stuntwomen he directed. In his autobiography, Stunt Man: The Autobiography of Yakima Canutt (1979), he claimed more pride in his safety record than in all of his other accomplishments. He died of natural causes in Los Angeles on May 24, 1986.
Canutt, Yakima, Stunt Man, 1979.
Wise, Arthur and Derek Ware, Stunting in the Cinema, 1973.
New York Times, May 27, 1986. □