Heidi von Beltz, a stuntwoman who was paralyzed when a stunt went terribly wrong on the set of The Cannonball Run, died Wednesday at Tarzana (Calif.) Medical Center. She was 59 and had, with the aid of her sister, courageously battled quadriplegia for the last 35 years of her life.
Von Beltz was a stunningly beautiful 24-year-old stuntwoman, actress and world-class skier in 1980 when she got the call from her fiancée, stunt coordinator Bobby Bass, to come to the desert outside of Las Vegas to double for Farrah Fawcett on the ensemble action comedy starring Burt Reynolds.
The stunt, Bass told her, was going to be a piece of cake. All she’d have to do was ride as a passenger in the front seat of a car as it wove its way through a line of speeding oncoming cars. But the car, an Aston Martin, had no seatbelts, bald tires, defective steering and a malfunctioning clutch. When they tried to get it running on the morning of the stunt, another car had to push it to get it started, and then it couldn’t go faster than 8 mph. Director Hal Needham had a mechanic work on the car for a while, and Bass then took it out for a test run. He told von Beltz it was fine, but it wasn’t – and it still didn’t have seat belts.
When it came time to film the stunt, the car’s driver, Jimmy Nickerson, still didn’t think it was ready. He wanted more repairs but was told that the parts from Los Angeles had not arrived and that he’d have to “make do.”
“The last thing I remember before the crash was somebody yelling, ‘Faster! Faster!’ over the walkie-talkie,” von Beltz recalled. The Aston Martin then slammed head-on into the first in the line of onrushing cars, and she was hurtled into the windshield. When members of the film crew got to the scene of the burning wreck, they found her unconscious inside the car, her head hanging limply on her chest, her neck crushed. In that moment, everything changed: She was paralyzed from the neck down, and would remain so for the rest of her life.
In the wake of the accident, the industry adopted new safety guidelines that made seat belts mandatory on all stunt cars. “I’m very proud to have been a part of that,” she said, characteristically optimistic.
Von Beltz spent the next six months in the hospital before returning home to her apartment in Hollywood, where her whole family – father Brad, mother Patty, aunt Joanna, sister Christy and niece Allison – moved in with her and took care of her around the clock.
Her lawyer, famed San Francisco attorney Melvin Belli, filed a wrongful-injury suit on her behalf, and during the ensuing trial, Bass — who had abandoned her — testified that he and Needham thought the car was safe. The jury didn’t believe him and awarded her $4.6 million. “He knew the car didn’t have seat belts, but Needham didn’t want to stop. He wanted to save money,” recalled Von Beltz’s trial attorney, David Sabih. “It would have taken an hour or two to put them in. All the other cars had seat belts. He whitewashed it for Hal Needham.”
Needham, Hollywood’s most famous stuntman, had been the chief defendant in von Beltz’s civil suit, but he didn’t even mention the accident or the trial in his 2011 autobiography, Stuntman! He wrote about a “big mishap” that happened during filming of Cannonball Run, but it had nothing to do with von Beltz or the accident that left her a quadriplegic.
There was no mention in the entire book of Heidi von Beltz – just a funny story about a crane that fell over and crushed a Ferrari. There was no mention of the fiery crash that nearly killed her, crushed her spinal cord and left her in a wheelchair for life. There was no mention of the subsequent civil trial and verdict, in which a jury ordered Needham and his corporation, Stuntman Inc., to pay Heidi $4.6 million in damages – just a funny story about $12,000 worth of lights that got broken.
In 1996, von Beltz wrote her own book, My Soul Purpose, an inspirational account of her remarkable life and spiritual journey on a path that she believed would lead to her full recovery one day. “I am the happiest person I know,” she wrote. “I know my life is moving in the direction I choose. I have a wonderful family, terrific friends, and a busy schedule. I play hard and I always, always have a good time. Some people might find this hard to believe, considering what happened to me.”
After the accident, doctors gave von Beltz only a few months to live, but she was determined to prove them wrong. “I had run into obstacles before,” she wrote, “and I had changed course, or slowed down or sped up, but this looked like the end of the road. My doctors said I wouldn’t live until Christmas, and that during the few miserable, painful months before I died, I would never move again – not a finger or a toe.”
But she never bought into their dismal prognosis. “My story,” she wrote, “Is about beating the odds, triumphing over adversity. But that’s everyone’s story. I have a burden, but so does everyone, whether it’s physical or emotional or financial or whatever. I have what people call a ‘disability,’ but in some sense, everyone does. Frankly, if it had been up to me, I would have picked one a little less extreme, but no one asked. The important thing to remember is you are only as disabled as you think you are.”
“I’ve got much more to accomplish on this Earth,” she wrote 19 years ago. “And you know what? It’s a blast.”
It wasn’t always so. After getting out of the hospital, she and her family moved into a big house on the beach in Malibu, where they lived for more than 20 years. Those were mostly happy times, where she was surrounded by family and friends, including actors Melanie Griffith — her friend since high school — Kathleen Quinlan, Neil Patrick Harris, Buck Henry and Richard Bakalyan. Before the crash, she’d dated Jack Nicholson and Harrison Ford, and after the accident, she fell in love again with a then-unknown actor named Ray Liotta, who remained her lifelong friend.
Von Beltz’s mother died in 1997, and two years later, her father — actor Brad von Beltz, who never got over his wife’s death — killed himself. One of the last things he said to Heidi was, “Do you want to go, too?”
“No,” she told him tearfully. She wanted to live.
After his death, Von Beltz’s sister Christy Weston was left alone to care for her. They decided to move back to the Valley, where they’d grown up, and bought a ranch-style home on a tree-lined street in Woodland Hills with a swimming pool and a backyard big enough to stable their two horses. “After my dad’s death, we felt so alone, but we decided not to look back,” Von Beltz’s said. “We were optimistic about the future.”
The sisters took in boarders to help defray the cost of around-the-clock nurses and mounting medical bills. “Life seemed back on track,” Von Beltz said. But it didn’t last. With their money running out, they refinanced the house, then lost it to foreclosure in 2011. They fought the new owner in court, who told this reporter that he was going to kick Von Beltz out of the house regardless of her disability. “Her ass will be on the street,” he told this reporter at the time. They lost that fight and spent the past four years living in a small apartment in the Valley. In declining health – she’d been rushed to the hospital 10 times during the past year – Von Beltz lost contact with many of her old friends.
She went into cardiac arrest following abdominal surgery on Oct. 18, and was put on life support. “She touched so many lives, with her strength and her courage,” said her longtime friend Suzanne Lewis, who was with von Beltz when she died. “Everyone who met Heidi fell in love with her. She had a spirit that never gave up. She was a warrior princess. Now, at last, she’s running free on those beautiful legs.”