The Autobiography of Yakima Canutt
With Oliver Drake
Walker Publishing Company
Having been a fan of the movie serials for most of my life, I was familiar with Yakima Canutt; considered by many to be the most famous stunt man of them all. Sometime in 1979, film critic Leonard Maltin reviewed Canutt’s autobiography, “Stunt Man,” co-written with biographer Oliver Drake. I recall at the time wanting very much to pick up a copy and read it. Alas, that never happened and decades later, the only place to find a copy was on E-Bay if one was willing to pay an exuberant, over inflated price. I pretty much resigned myself to never realizing that old wish. Then, much to my amazement and delight, my daughter Michelle gave me a beat up old library copy she’d gone on-line to purchase it for me as a Christmas gift several years ago.
Enos Edward Canutt was born on Nov. 29, 1895 in Yakima County, Washington and grew up to become a champion rodeo rider. His knowledge and love of horses eventually led him to Hollywood where, in the early 1920s, he became a silent western movie actor.
By the time the “talkies” arrived, Yak, as he was known, had become one of the premier stuntmen in films and a good friend of rising star John Wayne. Both were employed by the new founded Republic Pictures and Yak would double in such popular serials as “The Lone Ranger” and “Zorro Rides Again.” While attending a live stage musical in Los Angeles, Yak and serial director William Witney were taken by the dancers’ intricate choreographed routines. They began to speculate on how such pre-planned steps could enliven the fight sequences in their serials and would soon create some of the most memorable and dramatic fights ever staged.
Still Yak’s renown was his horse stunts and while working on John Ford’s memorable “Stagecoach,” he developed the famous “transfer” wherein he jumped off the stagecoach onto the horses, continue to leap frog to the front pair, then fall to the ground as the team and coach ran over him only to catch the rear of the coach and pull himself back on board. To this day it remains one of the most well known western stunts ever devised.
By the 40s, Yak had suffered so many bodily injuries, he eventually gave up stunt work to become a 2nd Unit Director; the guy who actually directs the big action sequences for movies. All of which led to his setting up and directing the famous chariot race in the 1959 version of “Ben-Hur” with Charlton Heston. In 1969 Heston presented Yak with an Honorary Academy Award for his lifetime achievement in stunt work, being credited for making the profession safer over the years with his overriding concern for the well being of his crews and their animals.
Yak passed away on May 24th, 1986 at the age of 90. His autobiography is a treasure of wonderful memoirs of this incredible man’s life and all the films he was a part of. I truly hope some day the publisher does a new edition so that more film buffs like myself can read this truly wonderful book.