*Interview* Jeff Pruitt: Part 1 – We Talk Stunts, Movies & A Hit Being Put Out On Him
How have you been keeping busy during lockdown?
At first, I was working out at the park and helping my brother with home projects. Then, my wife partially reopened her coffee shop (GROUND & POUND in Alpharetta, Ga.), so I’ve been helping her. I’ll be so glad when this is over; people are really getting stressed over it, and filming has been impossible.
Anyone who has seen you in action knows you are an amazing martial artist. What do you study, and how did you get into the martial arts?
Thanks so much. I actually started studying out of Mas Oyama books when I was 6 years old. I was a huge Green Hornet/Kato fan. When I was able to get into a class, I studied Tang Soo Do, but I always trained in Muay Thai style as well. Over the years, I trained with various people and styles.
I was always drawn to stunts as I was a huge fan of Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd, and I loved Samurai features. Eventually, while in college, I was able to use my background in martial arts, motocross, and cars to get into stunt work. After that, my martial arts have all been based on stunt work. I do enjoy MMA though, and if I were starting out today, that is exactly what I’d be doing.
Did you have any influences growing up?
I loved spy movies that had martial arts featured in them. When I saw Bruce Lee as Kato, I went martial arts crazy! I watched everything he was in; I was disappointed in HERE COME THE BRIDES when he didn’t do any martial arts, but I was so happy when they released the BIG BOSS in America. Bruce Lee had a huge effect on me at a time when most people didn’t even know his name.
How did you initially get into the stunt business?
My friends were mostly interested in point-fighting and kickboxing, but I would get them to work with me on stunts for the camera. I sent a tape to a Hong Kong producer who asked me to go to Hong Kong and work; but films began shooting in Atlanta (I’m originally from a small town in north Georgia), and I started working on them. I met stunt people who helped me, and the second assistant director on second unit introduced me to some people. Years later, in Hollywood, he would be the one who helped me break-in when he began directing action films.
I am sure over the years you have come across other actors and stunt people that think they know best?
People seem to know that I know what I’m talking about, and they trust me.
Only once did I have to get harsh with an actor. He is a famous character actor now, but back then he was playing a villain in a movie I worked on. The producer liked the grizzled look of one of the older veteran stuntmen and wanted him to be in a fight scene. During the scene, the actor started banging the man’s face as hard as he could into some metal bars. I told him that he needed to allow the stuntman to control the way his head struck the bars or he might crack his skull. The actor said he was a “method actor” and only did things for real. He said “if the 70-year-old stuntman couldn’t take it, they should find someone else”, and that “stuntmen were a dime a dozen”.
So when we were shooting the big finale fight scene, I went to the lead actor’s trailer. He’d told me that if I ever needed a favor from him, all I had to do was ask. So I asked. I told the hero lead that when we did the big fight, I was going to make it rough. I told him whenever the villain hit him, it would be his stunt double; but, whenever he struck the villain, it would be him doing it. I told him to hit the guy full-power to the body and slam him into the various objects I was going to set up. When I told him what the actor had done to the elderly stuntman, he said, “You got it.”
The big fight day arrives. We pummeled this villain for real; he was lifted off the ground with kicks to the body, and his face was used to break things. He tried to be tough, but he realized what we were doing. Finally, he took me aside and apologized for what he’d done. I told him, “Never apply method-acting to stunts. It gets people hurt… people like you”, and he agreed. After that, he was one of the nicest actors towards stuntmen that I’ve ever seen.
What would be the worst experience on set?
I was asked to coordinate and direct the second season of a TV series called THE NEW ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD in Lithuania. After I started shooting the action, the lead actor decided he didn’t want the main unit British directors to do any of his action scenes; he wanted me to do it all. The main unit directors banded together to cause problems for us; for example, they parked vehicles in our shots, causing us to move our unit and start over – it was getting nasty.
We were shooting things in a Hong Kong-style, similar to the way I’d shot Power Rangers, only without all the snap zooms. This meant things were done in short bits and needed to be properly edited together. The producer opted to make a deal with French film students to edit the show… What they did was simply use cut-a-ways to other faces during the fight scenes instead of editing together the elaborate shots. It was too much work for them.
I sent them Hong Kong films to show them how things worked and discussed how to put them together, but they said they refuse to watch any action films. They thought it was beneath them because to them it wasn’t “art”. They were only there to make money, and they said they didn’t care about how it looked.
This was being produced by Fred Weintraub (who produced Enter the Dragon). He used to sit on my lap on set and tell me I was “his genius”, but soon we began to have some conflict. I liked him, but he really was shady.
He got upset at me for not eating with the American producers. The Hollywood people had excellent meals every day, but the Russian and Lithuanian crews were eating what I can only describe as “Gruel”. It was terrible. So, I made a point of eating with the Russians and Lithuanians instead – and so did my American D.P. and Canadian stuntman.
I had a key for the studio restroom, but when I found out the Russians and Lithuanians were not allowed to use it, I broke the key off in the door so they could. When I confronted Fred about this, he told me they were “filthy people” and he wanted them kept separate from us. He and another producer then took me into a meat locker room and showed me some meat hanging up. Fred said, “Over here isn’t like Hollywood. A guy could wind up hanging on a meat hook.” I laughed at them and asked which one of them wanted to try to hang me on a hook. They backed off and made a joke of it, but I told them exactly how I felt about the way people were being treated, and that I wasn’t going to be like them. Ever.
The studio over there was being run by a guy called “The Commandant” – although, I was never sure if he’d ever actually been in the military himself. He seemed to like dressing up in uniform with medals, and all the crew were afraid of him. He was abusive as hell; I caught him shoving some of my crew around and berating them. One day, I walked over and tapped his forehead. I said, “Hey man, you need to stop playing Nazi.” He turned red and ran away. Everyone was shocked and afraid for some reason.
Years later, I met up with some of the Lithuanian stuntmen and they told me a story: the “Commandant” had come from a family that had gained their wealth by selling out Jews during WW2. So when I called him a Nazi, it really embarrassed him and no one was ever allowed to speak of this.
They told me that he’d asked the Russian mob guys to put a hit on me! He wanted me to “have a bad on-set accident”. There was one problem with the plan though; the hitman ordered to do it was one of the Lithuanian stuntmen that I’d been good to. He said the stunt guys loved me so much that he refused to do it. He kept making excuses until I was out of the country.
Sophia and the Canadian stuntman I’d brought with me both wanted to leave the show by this time, but I kept hoping it would turn around. Yet, when I would see an edit of the show and all of our work so poorly edited, I made up my mind to leave.
Sophia was playing a part in an episode featuring Richard Norton. The directors realized they couldn’t do anything to me so they decided to mess with my girl to get at me. The director told Sophia he wanted her to read her lines like a robot in a monotone voice. He demonstrated and she did exactly what he asked. He was trying to embarrass her by making it appear that she couldn’t act.
When I found all of this out, I was high up in the air on a boom lift re-rigging some wire stunts as we’d already been forced to move our location twice. When I wanted to come down, I overheard the director over a walkie-talkie order the boom operator not to lower me. He told the guy to tell me that they were shooting and he couldn’t start the boom engine. The truth was, they were not shooting. When he ordered the operator to lie to me, the guy looked up and saw me listening… He turned white as a sheet, so I told him not to worry about it.
I jumped from the boom to a tree and slid down to the ground. The director thought he had me stuck in a tree and was making jokes about “Leaving Mighty Mouse up in a tree”. When I walked up, the crew saw me – but he didn’t. I picked up his bottle of water and poured it over his head. I said, “You need to cool off, baby.” The whole crew burst out laughing. He was embarrassed, but what was he going to do about it? I didn’t care if they fired me.
Still… nothing happened. They refused to fire me and demanded that I stayed and finished the season. Then, I learned my father was dying of cancer and my family asked that I leave, so I told them we were going. Fred was so mad that he stopped our checks for the last episode that we’d already shot – we didn’t care.
The day I returned to the USA, I visited my father and he died in my arms. Within a week, I was coordinating BUFFY and I never looked back.
I’ve worked with my D.P. from the show and the stunt people and crew members since then. We all have our stories and laugh about how ridiculous it was. Really though, it wasn’t all Fred’s fault. He’d left the show in the hands of a producer, who was totally inept, while he went back to the States. If he had stayed around the entire time, I would have talked it over with him and maybe made things better for everyone. He was mad as hell when he finally showed up and saw me leaving, however, there was nothing he could do about it.
I remember hearing ages ago you were in line to lead Bloodsport: is there any truth in this?
I was working with Newt Arnold (who was set to direct Bloodsport), and they were talking about bringing me in to read for the Dux part, or at least to go with them and play an opponent. Unfortunately, I never got the chance to try because while jumping from a moving truck during a scene, I shattered my ankle. My foot went into a pothole when we were in motion – it was pretty bad. I recovered, but by then the movie was already done.
To Be Continued…