Stunt Performer Spotlight: Jimmy Graham
Tell about yourself and your story (bio).
Years ago when I was 9, I made a wish list of goals, and when I accomplished one I’d move on to the next. The first was to be a clown with a circus. In 1982 as I was working in NYC on the broadway show ANNIE, I got a letter from the Ringling Bros & Barnum and Bailey Clown College wanting me to come down as a student. Of course, I attended and graduated and became a bonafide Circus Clown with The Greatest Show On Earth for 5 years.
Performing with the best in the world and able to learn anything right in front of me, I became a bottom man for the Obloski’s from Poland, and the Shanghai Troope from China I learned Cowboy trick roping and from Charley Bauman tiger trainer I learned bullwhip, from Chi Chi White Cloud I learned knife throwing. All the while gathering as much skill as I could as a clown.
Before all of this, I went through grad school in North Carolina in Classical Theatre. After leaving the circus and being on the road, my wife, Brenda and I came to CA. The next goal was to try being a stuntman. So, one of the people I did theatre within NC was my good friend, Alex Daniels. He convinced us to come to CA and introduced us around town when we arrived in Los Angeles. Bob Yerkes was instrumental in introducing me to Jack Gill. Big Dave Efron taught me how to hustle and a really great technique for set etiquette. He took me, while in Canyon Country, to the set of Little House On The Prarie. Patiently he showed me step by step where to be and what to watch for and to learn everything from watching the professionals also wait patiently until the coordinator had a minute. Since learning western arts gave me a way to make some money here and there, I formed an act and worked with some of my friends from the circus, who was also in LA. Monte Montana helped introduce me to some agents and I met Alex Green, a bullwhip artist, and stuntman from Australia. He gave me some great advice and helped with the wild west show I was putting together.
So many folks came around me, in the beginning, to “teach”. I was very fortunate to have great stunt people around me to learn from. So, I decided to try making a living doing stunts.
What inspired you to become a stunt person?
Watching Smothers Brothers I saw Super Dave Osborn and was hooked and wanted to learn and do those crazy stunts but correctly.
What is your greatest skill as a stunt performer, is there a story behind it?
Pratt falls, and comedy stunts come naturally to me. In the circus, I did this fall called a 108 (One-Oh-Eight). When I first came to LA I’d throw a 108 for anybody that would watch. My good friend Tony Snegoff quickly told me, after seeing me doing it in a crowded restaurant, to only do that for good money. So, from then on it has brought me decent money in the motion picture world. Being able to perform and do comedy stunts is handy.
Once I was hustling Conrad Palmisano on Lethal Weapon 4 and he flat out told me that he only needed Asian stunt guys. Before I got out of sight he called me on my cellphone and asked if I could put together a funny ladder and paint bucket routine for next week. Wow, thank you, GOD! So, I called Gary Morgan and he was on board.
We rehearsed for a few days then show up on set having put together 20 minutes of comedy ladder swings and two-man highs and buckets dropping and falling off the ladder. We were laughing and the whole cast was laughing. So they put us in place in the middle where all of the chase action will have to go thru us. We were stoked. Gary said to me, well we are in the shot and they can’t cut us out. But, as the words left his mouth, Richard Donner, the director, walked over to us and said, “As lovely and funny as your routine is, I need you to just stand still when the action starts because it is very distracting and Danny Glover can’t ride his bicycle thru, sorry.” Conrad kept us on for two more days just as a thank you.
Tell your all-time favorite stunt story.
Quite a few years back, I was having a great year work-wise and meeting and stunting for new to me stunt coordinators. My goal as a stunt performer is to always do the job not for me to shine, but instead, make the coordinator look good for having hired me. Well, I was working for Gary Baxley for a pilot TV show and doubling an actor. One of the stunts was to climb out of a window on the second floor and drop into a dumpster filled with cardboard and a mattress. The first one felt good to me. Then 5 minutes later the director said we need to see it again and could I hold there and struggle a bit longer. So I go back upstairs and on action begin climbing out my feet first, backing out of the window and hang on to the ledge for 5 seconds trying to get back in and then drop into the dumpster. SLAM! The props dept had removed all of the cardboard and the mattress for padding and I landed on the metal bottom and a few bricks. My back was sprained and the ambulance took me off to White Memorial. The hospital released me pumped full of muscle relaxers and pain meds to drive my own vehicle home 7 hours later. I called my wife to come and get me as I was to be on bed rest for 20 days. The producer, Steven Spielberg sent a table arrangement of flowers, like what you'd see in the lobby of a fancy hotel in Las Vegas, to my home where I was laid up. I would have liked it more in the form of cash but it was a nice gesture.
While I was recovering I get a call from Greg Smrz. He needed me to do some acrobatics for a feature two or three weeks away. I say absolutely as I should be recovered by then. I was actually already coming up and downstairs and sitting in a chair. I began doing my stretches and light workout. The next week I was asked to come to the set and meet the producers and do a wardrobe fitting. I'm 5'10", 240 lbs. and have very muscular calves. Meeting Greg Smrz and Adam Sandler and Rob Schneider, they were taken aback at the size of my calves. It was then I found out I was doubling a young lady, Megan Kuhlmann. They all figured the camera had not seen her legs because she only wore sweats. So, my legs would be her legs for the camera.
Then, I went to the wardrobe and was given a costume to try on. It was a tiny pair of bikini bottoms and a halter top. Now, I am not the hairiest man alive, but I have a good crop. I took it and went behind a curtain and put it on, all the time saying to myself I get paid really well for this. When I came out with just this one, the customers gasped, and said, "You didn't shave?" So then I went to hair and makeup where they tried to shave my legs, arms, and torso. They asked if when I return next week I could take care of clearing all body hair. I went to Greg and he just laughed and laughed and agreed that I should get a healthy adjustment for clearing all body hair for the picture. I love this job!
What is the best part about being a stunt performer?
I was told by Lane Levitt, “Jimmy is a stunt guy that doesn’t look like a stunt guy.” Lane has taught me so much over the years and the best was when working for him on Space Jam, doubling Wayne Knight. We ran around to set up every stunt way before needed and that way we never got caught with our pants down. The director Joe Pitka was a great guy but a real bear if you weren’t ready when needed. Later, my friend, Bob Bralver took over the film as coordinator and we continued that mindset. Being ready and rehearsed was key to the success of that picture. The best thing is, I can continue to perform as a clown and do stunts. Last year Steve Hart made those two worlds collide with a 5 clown burn thru a VW Beetle.
What advice would you give other stunt people?
I have read so many of the books that stunt people have published and I would say read all you can and use the Golden Rule “Do unto others…” And one thing I learned on my first big stunt job with Jack Gill “Shut up and listen and learn from the folks that hired you.”
Anything else you would like to tell the community about?
Love everybody. Never lie about your skills. Be nice to the people on the way up the ladder, because you’re gonna see the same people when you come back down!