As a second-unit director for action sequences, Yakima Canutt (1896-1986) made scores of films during the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, but his best-known work is the chariot race in Ben-Hur (1959), starring Charlton Heston and Stephen Boyd.
Yakima Canutt, was one of five children of John Lemuel Canutt, a rancher, and Nettie Ellen Canutt. He grew up in eastern Washington on a ranch founded by his grandfather and operated by his father, who also served a term in the state legislature. During Canutt's professional career, many thought him descended from various Native American tribes, but his ancestry was Scotch-Irish and German.
Canutt's formal education was limited to an elementary school in Green Lake, Washington, a suburb of Seattle. He gained the education for his life's work on the family ranch, where he learned to ride horses. By the age of thirteen, he rode unbroken horses, and within three years he began to compete in area rodeos. After his parents divorced, Canutt devoted his full time to the rodeo circuit. In 1916 he married Kitty Wilks, who was also a rodeo performer. They had no children, and their stormy marriage ended quickly. He became proficient at saddle-bronc riding and bulldogging and was named a world champion for the first time in 1917. Canutt won that designation three times more before he abandoned rodeo riding for work in the motion picture industry.
Canutt claimed that he received his nickname, "Yakima," while performing in a rodeo in Pendleton, Oregon. After drinking with two friends from Yakima, Washington, he competed in the bronc riding. His two companions demanded difficult horses to show the others how expertly riders from Yakima could perform, but both riders were thrown. To support his friends' claims, Canutt also asked for a difficult horse so the fans could have another chance to see how well persons from Yakima could ride—even though he was from Colfax. But he also was thrown, and a picture of him in the air above the horse ran in several newspapers. Thereafter he was called Yakima, which was frequently shortened to Yak.
Canutt joined the U.S. Navy in 1918 and trained in gunnery in Bremerton, Washington. He was released when World War I ended in November of that year. In 1919 he returned to the rodeo circuit and traveled to Los Angeles, California, for the first time. There he met Tom Mix, a Western movie actor, who offered him a job in films. Canutt's first exposure to moviemaking was unpleasant, so he returned to the rodeo. In 1923 Ben Wilson offered him an opportunity to appear in eight motion pictures. Canutt experienced such stage fright in the first film, Branded a Bandit (1924), a silent Western, that he doubted he would be able to continue. However, reassurances from Wilson and others convinced Canutt to remain in the business, and he completed nearly twenty motion pictures before 1930. In these silent features, he played the lead role, and since he was an experienced horseman and athlete, he did not use a "double" or stuntman, during action scenes. Probably his best-known film from this era is The Devil Horse, produced by Nat Lavine in 1926.
In the 1930s Canutt moved more completely into planning and performing stunt work. His voice was unsuited to the movies, so once sound revolutionized the industry, he felt more comfortable doing the "gags" or stunts, in action scenes. At that time, stuntmen often made more money than the lead actors in the B Westerns. On 12 November 1931 he married Minnie Audrea Rice. They had three children, including two sons who followed Canutt into stunt work.
Canutt continued to appear in non-speaking roles, but mostly he doubled for lead actors, especially John Wayne in the westerns and Clark Gable in his major films. In Gone with the Wind, Canutt doubled for Gable driving the horse and wagon through Atlanta as the city burned. He was also the ruffian who accosted Scarlett (Vivien Leigh) on a bridge before she was rescued by Big Sam (Everett Brown).
Canutt's best-known work of the 1930s is in Stagecoach (1939), directed by John Ford. Dressed as an American Indian, he mounts the lead horse in a "six-up" or team of six horses, pulling a stagecoach at high speed. Wayne shoots him, and Canutt drops to the tongue of the stagecoach. Wayne shoots again, and Canutt drops to the ground. He is dragged by the coach until he lets go and passes between the horses and under the stagecoach. In later films, he perfected the gag sufficiently to complete the circle; that is, he jumps from the seat to the rear team, leaps eventually to the lead team, passes under the vehicle, grabs a bar on the rear of the coach, climbs over the top, and resumes his seat in the driver's box.
Canutt sustained serious injuries while performing stunts, including six broken ribs while filming San Francisco (1936). These caused him to restrict his activities to directing and intensified his determination to make stunt work as safe as possible. As a second-unit director for action sequences, he made scores of films during the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, but his best-known work is the chariot race in Ben-Hur (1959), starring Charlton Heston and Stephen Boyd. Canutt improved upon the previous version of the film, made in the 1920s by Reeves Eason, and took greater safety precautions. In 1966 Canutt won an Academy Award for his stunt work, and the citation included his inventions that had increased the safety of stuntmen. In 1976 he was inducted into the National Cowboy Hall of Fame.
The many injuries, some of them life threatening, that Canutt suffered while doing stunt work made him conscious of the safety of the stuntmen and stuntwomen he directed. In his autobiography, Stunt Man: The Autobiography of Yakima Canutt (1979), he claimed more pride in his safety record than in all of his other accomplishments. He died of natural causes in Los Angeles on May 24, 1986.
Canutt, Yakima, Stunt Man, 1979.
Wise, Arthur and Derek Ware, Stunting in the Cinema, 1973.
New York Times, May 27, 1986.