EXCLUSIVE: Tolerance and inclusion are ringing through the air this week, and all of Hollywood is struggling to create jobs in the creative ranks for women and people of color, or pay a high price. But there is still one showbiz segment that still holds itself out as a throwback to the 1950s – the stuntmen’s groups, which continue to exclude women as members in their all boys’ clubs. While the groups may call themselves “fraternal organizations,” they’re really enclaves of stuntmen who hire one another for jobs, and that makes the exclusion of women an important issue. These stuntmen are all members of SAG-AFTRA and work under the terms and conditions of its contract.
“Almost all the groups try to hire within their own groups first,” a veteran stuntwoman told Deadline. “The men often hire their wives or girlfriends, many of whom are not even stuntwomen.”
She, like many stuntwomen interviewed for this story, believe that the exclusion of women from the stuntmen’s groups limits their job opportunities by making it more difficult for them to learn the skills and make the connections needed to become stunt coordinators. “They mentor the younger guys in their groups and let them assist them,” she said. “So it’s harder for women to learn the ropes. It hurts women who want to get into coordinating and running stunts.”
Men outnumber women “99 to 1” as stunt coordinators, she said – only exaggerating slightly – and when those male coordinators hire stunt performers for jobs whose gender is not identified in the script, the jobs more often than not go to men. “It’s hard to get the guys to think that a few of those cops or soldiers could be women,” she said.
And when stunt coordinators can’t find the right stuntwoman – or the right girlfriend – to double for an actress, it’s not unheard of for them to hire one of their buddies and put him in a wig and dress for the job. And that’s not even a violation of the SAG-AFTRA contract, which only stipulates that “stunt coordinators shall endeavor to increase the employment of qualified women and minorities for such stunts.” Given all the commotion that followed Deadline’s revelation that the Warner Bros Television series Gotham planned to “paint down” a white stuntwoman to appear black, it’s suprising that sticking a wig on a stuntman doesn’t create more of an outcry.
Founded in 1961, the Stuntmen’s Association of Motion Pictures has never had a female member. Founded in 1970 by legendary stuntmen Hal Needham, Ronnie Rondell and Glenn Wilder, Stunts Unlimited has allowed a few women to join in the past, but currently has no female members. Founded in 1980, the International Stunt Association has also had a few female members in the past, but the last one left earlier this year.
Admission to all the stuntmen’s groups is by invitation only, and a prospective member has to have a sponsor, but even then a woman is not guaranteed admission; she still has to be approved by the group. “I had a sponsor at Stunts Unlimited,” said another veteran stuntwoman, “but I got turned down. They didn’t tell me why, but I heard it’s because they believed that ‘women cause too much trouble.’”
“It’s separate but equal, except it’s not really equal,” she said. “In my opinion, stunt groups look a lot like hiring halls. The main reason to join the stunt groups is to get work, and it is common knowledge in the stunt business that members generally hire, or suggest the hiring of other members belonging to their respective groups. This is problematic for woman since most of the work comes from groups that have no women members. Those guys just don’t get it. They don’t even see what the problem is.”
“They’re a culture onto themselves,” said veteran stuntwoman Julie Johnson, who has battled sex discrimination in the stunt industry for years. “I just don’t see them opening doors to women.”
Indeed, Hollywood’s oldest and largest stunt group doesn’t see any need to change its longstanding tradition of excluding women.
“We’re a fraternal organization,” said Stuntmen’s Association president, J. Mark Donaldson. “Do you need to have women in the stuntmen’s organizations? Personally, I don’t think you need to, anymore than you need a man in any of the female stunt organizations.”
The stuntmen’s groups, however, aren’t just boy’s clubs; they’re also de facto hiring halls. The vast majority of stunt coordinators are men, and when a stunt coordinator is hired for a show, he’s expected to recommend that the producers hire members from within the ranks of his own stunt group first. “In a perfect world, that’s what you would hope for, but it’s not a requirement,” Donaldson said.
On its website, the Stuntmen’s Association lists 102 men – and no women – as members. Donaldson, however, insists that his group does have a woman member – veteran stuntwoman Kaye Wade – even though she’s not listed as such on the website. “She’s the wife of one of our members,” he said. “She will be the first to tell you that she is the only female member of the Stuntmen’s Association.”
Wade, now retired, told Deadline that while she is an honorary member of the Stuntmen’s Association, she has never been a real member of the group. “They don’t let women in,” she said. “It’s a men’s fraternity.” On her website she wrote:” “I had the distinct recognition of becoming an Honorary Member in June 1999 of the Stuntmen’s Association of Motion Pictures. There are only six women, including me, with this prestigious award: Lucille Ball, Barbara Stanwick, Kathleen Nolan, Marie Windsor, Julie Andrews and me – Kaye Wade. I feel I’m in extremely good company. I am the first stuntwoman to be given this distinct honor.”
Asked why, if Wade is a member, as he claims, she isn’t listed on the group’s website, Donaldson said: “That I can’t tell you.” Asked if she’s going to be included on the website’s list of members, he said: “I have no idea. I don’t know if it makes a whole lot of difference.” He pointed out that the website lists Lucille Ball as an “honorary member,” even though she’s been dead for 26 years.
According to its website, Stunts Unlimited “is the ultimate goal for any stunt person coming to Hollywood.” Any stunt person, that is, as long as that stunt person is a man. Its 50 members include not a single woman. Like the other groups, it currently has no women members, although its website lists two retired stuntwoman as “honorary members.”
The International Stunt Association had two women members in the last 15 years, but of the 38 members listed on its website today, none are women. ISA, at least, has been trying to become more inclusive. “ISA has asked a couple of women to join recently,” a longtime stuntwoman told Deadline.
Brand X Stunts is another all-male stunt organization. Its website lists 33 members – and 10 honorary members – all of whom are men.
By default, the Hollywood’s stuntwomen have had to form their own groups. The Stuntwomen’s Association of Motion Pictures lists 28 women as members, while the United Stuntwomen’s Association lists 23. USA also lists five men – including director Quentin Tarantino – as “honorary members” who have been “longtime supporters of stuntwomen.” But because they are rarely hired as stunt coordinators, they rarely get the opportunity to hire female stunt performers.
The Black Stuntmen’s Association, which has fought for inclusion since the 1960s, is the only stuntman’s group whose website lists stuntwomen among its current members.
Stuntmen are Hollywood’s unsung heroes who risk their lives every day to make films and TV show more exciting, and many have died doing so. It would seem that they only thing they fear is change.