The “no” that started the movement was uttered one day in 1965 on the set of the television drama, “I Spy.”
On the show, Bill Cosby played a secret agent. Never before had a black man held a leading role on an American television drama. Casting Cosby was viewed as revolutionary — and controversial.
But another revolution began the day Cosby came face-to-face with his stunt double — a white man who had been painted black. They not only painted the man, they used a hue of makeup that didn’t even come close to Cosby’s brown skin color, as Cosby recalled to an audience at the 2008 Black Stuntmen’s Association reunion at Fitzgeralds Hotel in Las Vegas.
The makeup was black. “I mean pure D. black, ” Cosby told the audience, evoking laughter. It was so black the man’s lips looked bright red. Then they put a wig on his head and started to cut the wig, to approximate Cosby’s afro.
In a conversation with director Sheldon Leonard, Cosby learned that the stuntman had been paid $750 to perform a car stunt — big money in the 1960s.
“I said, ‘I know some cats in the projects that would do that for seventy dollars,’” Cosby recalled as the audience laughed. “I said ‘don’t ever again, please, please, take a white man and put him in my position. You can find somebody. If I hadn’t gotten into comedy you could’ve found me for $750.”
Willie Harris, president of the Black Stuntmen’s Association, will never forget what Cosby said on set fifty years ago: “No white guy is going to double me painted down.”
“And that’s how they found Calvin Brown,” Harris says, referring to the nation’s first recognized black stuntman. “We all followed Calvin Brown.”
Harris spent about eight years as a Hollywood stuntman, until a barroom brawl scene in the film “Top of the Heap” ended his career. “I got kicked in the back,” he says. “Busted my fourth and fifth vertebrae. Busted my right knee.”
Harris is hard to miss in the real world. Standing six-feet-eight-inches, he has the kind of big-man presence that makes people do a “who-is-that?” double take. But on screen, stuntmen are among Hollywood’s most invisible people. We watch them jump from tall buildings, tumble down flights of stairs and get blown up on screen. And we, moviegoers, have no idea who they are. Their history has been largely invisible too.
But Harris has a plan. If he has his way, you will certainly know the hidden history that made it possible for black stuntmen and stuntwomen to work. Harris has lived that history. His body still bears the marks of his former profession.
Harris hadn’t come to Southern California to make a name for himself in Hollywood. In 1968, after a stint in the U.S. Air Force, and after a dream of playing in the NBA faded away, he just needed a job, any job, to feed his family. He settled in Compton. Hollywood was twenty miles away — and much further away in his mind.
A friend of his knew Calvin Brown well. She knew he had broken into the world of stunt work and that the pay was lucrative. The friend suggested that Harris talk to Calvin Brown. One day when Harris was at her house she called Brown and he stopped by.
Brown talked to Harris about becoming a stuntman, and about another stuntman named Eddie Smith, who held group meeting at Athens Park in Los Angeles. Every week a group of men would get together, drag out some old mattresses and learn how to do stunts.
“I didn’t know nothing about Hollywood,” Harris said. Or stunts. But soon he was one of them, learning how to do high falls, fight scenes, and driving for speed scenes. Through Smith, who had connections in Hollywood, guys in the group began working as extras earning $35 or $40 a day. Membership in the Screen Actors Guild meant better-paying assignments — and the opportunity to accept stunt work if they were hired — but SAG membership was expensive.
One night, Harris got lost trying to give a friend a lift from Compton to Hollywood and needed directions.
“I saw all of these lights and things and I said ‘I’m going to stop,’” he recalls. It turned out the lights were part of the set of the movie “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice.”
“So, I’m standing there and this white guy walks up to me and starts talking,” Harris recalls. He asked if Harris played basketball. Harris explained he did not. “He said, ‘What do you do?’ I said ‘I can do pretty much anything. You got a job for me’?”
The man introduced himself. He was the actor Elliott Gould. Harris had no idea back then who Gould was, but the two had a good conversation and Gould offered to help Harris get into SAG. Back then membership required a letter from a director. Gould enlisted the help of Robert Altman, who wrote on Harris’s behalf. But another problem arose when he went to sign up for SAG membership.
“They wanted $236; well, I didn’t have thirty-six cents,” Harris says. But Gould did, and he gave Harris the money. Today Harris still doesn’t know why Gould, who he is still in touch with, was so kind to him. “Best luck of my life,” says Harris.
After winning three Emmy Awards for “I Spy,” Cosby moved on to “The Bill Cosby Show,” where he played Chet Kincaid, a physical education teacher at a high school in Los Angeles. In one episode of the show Mr. Kincaid steps into the boxing ring with a formidable opponent. Casting agents picked Harris to box with him. It was his first job.
“I didn’t know how to box,” Harris recalls. “You talk about scared? I never took boxing lessons in my whole life. I said, ‘Lord, don’t let me hit the man.’ But I guess I did something right.”
Harris went on to work on shows like “McMillan & Wife,” “The Carol Burnett Show,” “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour,” and in films such as “They Call Me Mr. Tibbs” and “The Elevator.”
“Racism was rampant in Hollywood,” says Harris, who was born in the South. “Hollywood was just as bad as Mississippi,” he says, minus the hoods and the cross burnings.
The film industry marginalized and minimized the lives of African-Americans — onscreen and off. In 1940, Hattie McDaniel, an African-American actress, played the role of Mammy, a maid in the classic film “Gone with the Wind.” McDaniel faced criticism for accepting roles that some considered demeaning. “I’d rather play a maid than be one,” McDaniel answered her critics.
McDaniel won an Oscar for her portrayal of Mammy, but on Oscar night in Los Angeles, she and her date were directed to seats in the back of the Coconut Grove, far from the other cast members — segregated.
Two decades later, the challenges Harris and his colleagues faced were not new, but they were less publicized, and remain largely unknown.
Sitting at a restaurant in Inglewood, California, Harris reflects on this journey along with Alex Brown, a founding secretary of the Black Stuntmen’s Association. For the pair, who have known each other more than forty years, this is more than Hollywood history. Today, Harris walks with difficulty. But his smile is as big as his presence. He and Brown are like two former athletes, reminiscing about their days on the court or on the field.They both look like they still have some playing days left in them.
“It’s fortunate we’re able to still give some enlightening facts” about the history of black stuntmen, Alex Brown says.
Cosby opened the door; Calvin Brown walked through. Then others, including firebrand Eddie Smith, who first held the meetings for the others to practice stunts, held it open for others.