Tony King was so good at as his job that he routinely walked away without a scratch, even after being dragged by runaway horses, ejected from speeding cars, standing on racing trains, falling head first from 50-foot buildings, and burning in raging fires.
For King, it was all in a day’s work, which began as play in his backyard with friends and ended up on Hollywood’s big screen.
The opportunity to become a Hollywood stuntman doesn’t come along every day. As fate would have it, King and his buddies routinely watched and imitated stunts seen on The Hill or Universal Studios Live Stunt Shows. Perfecting their skills, they graduated to neighborhood performances before developing enough confidence to approach an area video store in the hopes of promoting new movie releases. The year was 1994.
Getting their feet wet with their first promotional video release, Terminator 2, which was a mild success, the group of 10 young men quickly moved along to the Mobsters.
“The promoter for the movie went out and found authentic cars and a real Hollywood special effects person, Kevin ‘Boomer’ McCarthy, for the promotional video release,” King recalled. “Then Hollywood stuntman John Michael Johnson agreed to fall 100 feet, and we were all - wow, we can do that.”
There was no looking back. King had been bitten by the stuntman bug. After receiving his Taft-Hartley, which made him eligible to join the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), King grabbed every job he could find, appearing in more than 20 motion pictures.
Life on the set
“My most memorable stunt was a chase scene in the 1996 movie The Second Jungle Book, where I was on top of a moving train,” King continued. “I had to do a lot of mental preparation prior to doing that stunt, because all I could think of was missing the jump and falling in between the cars. Just in case I lost my balance, a single wire was rigged across the top of the train. Thankfully, everything went fine that day and my fears of being mangled between train cars passed.”
Still, fear was King’s constant companion, one, it turns out, he was grateful for.
“I think fear tempered my actions,” King said. “I had a pretty good imagination so I tried to analyze every aspect of what could go wrong with a stunt. Then when I heard the words, ‘sound ... speed ... action,’ the adrenaline kicked in and I naturally sped into action like a rocket shot into space.”
King admitted to becoming a little starstruck when he realized he was in the same room with actor Roddy McDowall, during a scene where McDowall talks to chimpanzees in the film.
“I grew up watching television shows and movies starring this man, and now here I was working with him. It was so surreal.”
King not only performed stunts, but built and managed rigging, and was even the sounding board for those less experienced and more timid at heart. He recalls an incident where he reassured actor Sayed Badreya, star of The November Man.
“There was a scene where he’s ‘shot’ by a .50 caliber Barrett Sniper System, and has to put on 15 d-80-2 mini charges, otherwise known as squibs or bullet hits, in his left chest area,” King said. “Needless to say, he was uneasy and nervous at the thought. When the special effects guy hooked him up to the explosives, I told him I could help by putting padding used for elbows under the explosives.
“On ‘action,’ all 15 squibs went off at once, and Sayed fell over like a felled tree on to the safety mat. He had his shoes off and when I heard ‘cut,’ I saw his toes curl up so I ran over and checked him for injuries. He was okay, and sat up to thunderous applause. Afterwards, Sayed hugged and thanked me for ‘saving’ his life.”
Change of scenery
Once King married in 1998, his wife told him to get a “real job,” so he went to work for his stepfather selling and repairing machine tools, before moving on to a security company working in loss and prevention - all the while dabbling now and then in stunt work. Divorced in 2002, King ultimately decided to go into law enforcement.
Surprisingly, after years of dangerous stunts, it was that single decision that finally did him in. He medically retired in December 2012 due to a lower back injury, and relocated to the Mountain Area shortly thereafter to be closer to family. As of July 2016, he owns/operates The Old Corral Grocery and Tackle Shop on Road 222 near Bass Lake. He is also president of the Bass Lake Lions Club and a Sierra Historical Sites Association board member.
These days, the closest the 48-year-old gets to a tumble, with a fall the distance of about 12 inches, is while standing on a short stepladder to stock higher shelves.
A committed fan of achieving dreams, King believes in going for it and never giving up, no matter what. He then tells a story, to the best of his recollection, that came out of Universal Studios years ago.
“Burt Reynolds started out as a stuntman, and had to fall from the top of a river boat into the water below. The director kept having him do it over and over, until Burt became angry, called the director up to where he stood, and pushed him in the water. The director yelled out at Burt that he was fired, and that he would never work in the industry again. While waiting in HR to pick up his final paycheck, Burt turned to the man sitting next to him, who had also been fired. Burt asked him why, and the man said he was told he would never work in Hollywood because his nose was too long, and he had a chipped tooth. That man’s name was Clint Eastwood.”
King’s point? Keep fighting for what you want, no matter what someone, even “the top dog,” says. And so, he offers a few realistic words for those thinking of following in his footsteps.
“I loved going to work. I got to hang out with my buddies all day long and ‘play.’ I got to eat awesome food and talk to beautiful women … I used to love it when I heard the words ‘stunts you’re up’ over the radio. Stuntmen were admired and appreciated for their work by both the cast and crew, but stunt work is very hard to get into unless you know people on the inside.
“And with the latest technology providing Computer Generated Images (CGI) along with green screens, I believe the ‘A’ films will be using stuntmen less and less. However, there will always be stunt work in the lower budget movies. I once heard that for every 5,000 people who want to become stunt performers, only 100 actually make a living at it. I have no clue whether this is true or not, but I can say that everyone I was friends with in the business are all doing great. I won’t drop names, but 7 out of 10 made it to the ‘major leagues’ ... had I stayed the course, it would have been 8 out of 10.”