Hollywood Stuntwoman Recalls Trial Balloon Work With Hal Needham

The group of authors who repeatedly defied death in order to make it to a booth at the 2013 LA Times Festival of Books is very small. FishbowlLA was lucky enough to spend some time Sunday chatting with one of them.

Julie Ann Johnson was at the event with her co-author, three-time Pulitzer nominee David L. Robb, to promote their recent release The Stuntwoman: The True Story of a Hollywood Heroine. Though the bulk of the book is about how she was blackballed from the industry for blowing the whistle on unsavory working conditions on the set of Aaron Spelling‘s TV series Charlie’s Angels, we asked her about her experiences with the legendary Hal Needham, author of a similar 2011 tome and the recipient of a recent honorary Academy Award.

XLIBRIS/Columbia Pictures

Johnson talked to us about the stunt she and Needham did for the 1976 movie Nickelodeon, starring Burt Reynolds and Ryan O’Neal. It is one of several collaborations with Needham she covers in Chapter 18 (“A Piece of Cake”). The scene required Needham to dangle Johnson, doubling respectively for Reynolds and Jane Hitchcock, high up in the air from a hot air balloon:

It was a great scene; the studio even used it in the poster for the film. But it almost got Julie and Hal killed – again…

Halfway up, the basket started rocking in the high wind. Julie was being tossed around like a puppet hanging from a string in a wind tunnel. Then, when the balloon got about one hundred feet up in the air — stretching the three cables tight – one of the cables holding the balloon to the ground snapped, falling uselessly to the ground. This sent the balloon —and Julie— careening across the sky until the other two cables took hold. Then the second cable snapped.

Johnson told us that instead of the four days scheduled to film this stunt, high winds and other treacherous conditions wound up pushing the span of the assignment to four weeks. Her book includes a forward by Kathleen Nolan, SAG’s first female national president and someone Johnson doubled about a dozen times.