Stunt Rider

Nobody Got Buried and We All Got Paid
post by
Lee Klancher
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When Boone’s Farm decided to promote their wine with a television commercial that featured a motorcycle-riding grandmother, stunt coordinator Bob Harris suggested they use professional racer John Hateley to double granny. Hateley was a logical choice because he was Hollywood-based and also one of the fastest and most versatile professional racers in America.

When Hateley and his blue CZ race bike arrived at the Disney ranch, the director was not impressed with the diminutive, boyish 19-year-old Harris had cast for the commercial.

“Hey kid,” the director sneered, “What can you do?”

“What do you want me to do?” Hateley replied.

“I need a wheelie. Let me see you do a wheelie.”

“How far?”

“Just go out on the road and do a wheelie.”

Hateley complied.

“I rolled off in low gear, popped up the front wheel, short-shifted it into second gear and shifted it into high gear and disappeared over the horizon,” Hateley said. “Then I turned around the bike out of sight and came back on the back wheel. I set it down and said, ‘How was that?’”

“Paint the bike red,” the director said. “He’ll do.”

The Boones Farm commercial was a big hit, and Hateley’s wheelie in a wig earned him a Screen Actor’s Guild card and regular stunt work that led to appearances in more than 50 feature films and hundreds of commercials and television shows.

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Look up John on IMDB or any of the other online movie database systems, and you’ll see a long list of credits. What you won’t find, however, is the beginning of his Hollywood film career.

When he was all of three years old, his mom took her brother Bill to one of the local studios for an interview. One of the casting agents spotted John, and recruited him to play the youngest of the seven sons who appeared in Bob Hope’s The Seven Little Foys (1955).

That launched more than a decade of work as a child actor, and Hateley appeared in the Dennis the Menace series as well as a number of western films and television series such as The Virginian and Bonanza.

The directors and actors Hateley worked with didn’t make much of an impression on him. What he recalls most fondly was the work got him out of school and gave him opportunities to cause havoc on the movie lots.

“I was one of those kids who had way more energy than brains,” Hateley said.

His favorite trick was to slip away from his mother and raise hell on the set. When he was nine years old, he ditched his mom and climbed to the top of a rickety 200-foot catwalk. A search was mounted, and Hateley was located when someone looked up and spotted the small boy high above the set.

“The whole soundstage panicked and screamed,” Hateley said. “I was fine. I was a kid. I was a monkey.”

He stole blanks from a western set and used the powder from 15 to 20 shells to light off a fireball of sound and smoke that made a group of moms jump out of their skin. At Disney Studios, he hid behind a bush on top of a hill and emerged quietly to roll a six-foot-high rubber boulder down into a crowd of mothers walking along the sidewalk.

“The moms were supposed to be keeping the kids under control,” Hateley said. “They didn’t dare take their eyes off me.”

The work as a child actor tailed off in the early 1960s (“I really don’t know why . . .” Hateley said). Beginning in 1962, Hateley put his energy into motorcycle riding and racing. At age 9, John raced at the Acton TT track. His father, Jack, founded Triumph of Burbank in 1964. That gave young John access to bikes, and Hateley showed an immediate affinity for riding. In 1966, he won the District 37 100cc TT Championship at age 14.

His race career took off quickly. His father forged a birth certificate to get him into professional classes at age 15, and Hateley soon began running wheel-to-wheel with the fastest professionals in Southern California. Hateley is fluid and graceful on the track, a rider who combines innate athleticism with energy and aggression.

In 1970, he was the AMA West Coast Amateur Dirt Track and TT Champion, and he was the AMA Pro Rookie of the Year in 1971. In the same year, he finished second at the Ascot Half-Mile, and rode the Daytona 200 for the first time.

Hateley landed the job on the Boone’s Farm commercial in 1972, at a time when his racing career was reaching on to the national circuit (and the same year he started running his trademark #98). For about 10 years, he picked up movie work when he could fit it in between races.

He rode for the factory Triumph-Norton team in 1975. In 1976, he earned points at Hangtown and rode for KTM in the Grand National Championship. This made him the first rider in history to earn points in National Motocross and Grand National events.

Hateley was one of the fastest professionals in the country, but he raced in a time when that didn’t bring the full-time salary and high-dollar racing budgets enjoyed by modern professionals. In the early 1970s, you could campaign a $1,000 motorcycle in several of the higher-level classes and run with the pack, and travel to the races was typically done in a van. Most of the racers worked to pay the bills, often at a dealership as that allowed them access to cheap or sometimes free parts. Like playing major league baseball in the early days, racing was something you did in spite of the pay.

Hateley met long-time friend Gene Hartline during this time. Hartline would spend his winters racing in southern California, and the two competed with a pack of vagabond riders from the era.

“We just kind of collectively appeared,” Hartline said. “I did it for better than nine years. We’d do sixty to eighty thousand miles a year. I wasn’t anywhere near the racer that John always was but I’d make enough money to buy a tire and some gas and get down the road to get dinner at some puke and choke truck stop.”

As the years passed by, Hateley’s reputation as a professional stunt rider steadily grew. He was one of the few riders working at the time who was a full-time professional rider. His versatility as a racer translated well to the film industry, as he could do pretty much anything the directors suggested.

In 1978, he and Hartline worked on Deathsport, a film starring David Carradine and Playboy model Claudia Jennings. The film was forgettable (Hartline dubbed it “space age bullshit”) but the two racers learned a lot on the set.

Deathsport was a laugh and a giggle because we really got our feet wet,” Hartline said. “We rode these Yamaha 400s that were built with aluminum shields and lazer blazers and rocket lights. We were jumping these things and flying over things and blowing them up. You know—B movie stuff.”

Working in the film industry appealed to Hateley. He quit racing full-time in 1982, at a time when he realized that racing was not going to be a lifetime career and Hollywood had perhaps more to offer than the greasy spoon vagabond lifestyle offered by professional racing. The money was good and the studios supplied bikes, clothing, and expense accounts. Hateley was in the right place at the right time, and due to his connections with stunt coordinators and his high level of riding ability, he became the motorcycle stunt man of choice for high-level motorcycle stunts done in the mid-1980s.

Hartline took a similar path. While he was wasn’t quite as fast as Hateley, he was capable of riding competitively at the professional level. While testing the then-new Z-1 for Kawasaki he landed a job riding a motorcycle into a cave while wearing a bear suit for a commercial.

He sweated off six pounds wearing the bear suit in the California heat, but that stunt led to another Hollywood gig in which he spent several weeks riding Kawasaki Jet Skis in Hawaii.

“I saw lots of good-lookin’ chicks, we got real nice lunches and all that,” Hartline said. “The movie stuff was a kick in the ass. I was a guy that was too lazy to work and too nervous to steal. The movie business had my name all over it.”

The two worked in a number of movies as stunt men and occasional extras, including Megaforce (1982), a science fiction film starring Barry Bostwick that was produced by lunatic director and former stunt man Hal Needham. The action centered around a band of mercenaries who tore up the desert on dirt bikes and dune buggies. Needham needed roughly 50 drivers to pull off his film, and he hired a number of notable riders including Doug Domokos (the wheelie king), stunt man and former motocross star Mike Runyard, and well-known tuner Bud Ekins.

The crew spent three months filming at a dry lakes bed in Nevada. The film used real M48 military tanks and armored personnel carriers, and night and day scenes featured rockets, explosions, and hand grenades. The stunt riders were required to wear spandex uniforms and park their machines in formation when on the set.

“I’ve worked on a lot of war movies,” Hartline said. “Megaforce was as much like going to war as I can remember.”

“There were some real crazy situations that happened during the filming,” Hateley said. “Hal Needham was one of the early ballsy stunt men that would try anything and didn’t care if he hurt himself or someone else.”

At several points during the filming, Needham would become frustrated when his vision wasn’t being carried out. He often would jump on or in the vehicle to show the stunt driver how to do things. This often ended badly, and did so on the second day of the film when Needham hit one of the two-foot-deep furrows left by the tanks.

“Hal jumped on one of the bikes,” Hateley said, “and went flying down the road who knows how fast and clipped one of these things and got off so hard that it took the production assistant’s an hour and a half to find his Rolex watch.”

That delayed filming for about a week while Needham healed up, and kicked the film off on a crazy foot. Putting it together was fraught with mishaps that included faux-electric dune buggies that nearly asphyxiated the drivers (one driver passed out cold behind the wheel with his foot on the throttle and drove around in circles until someone rode up next to him on a motorcycle to cut the engine).

In one of the many night scenes, several dozen vehicles were supposed to meet in the middle of a dusty town. The stunt men sat shivering in black spandex on a cold dark night in the desert, waiting to be told to fire up their machines and funnel into the town.

“Finally we get the signal to go,” Hartline said. “Hal Needham in his insanity bought a water truck and wet the whole thing down. It was glare ice.”

When the vehicles stormed into town, lights blazing and on the gas, they slipped and spun on the ice-slicked dirt road into a massive pile-up of bikes, bodies, and dune buggies.

Domokos flipped over backwards into a cactus, J.N. Roberts jumped a dune buggy more than a hundred feet in the dark, and literally hundreds of hand-fired rockets filled the skies.

“We’d cut all these rockets loose,” Hartline said. “These rockets would go a mile. If you were in the wrong spot, somebody would hit you in the back.”

“There was a Mormon kid from Salt Lake who landed the job as a driver because he was friends with Donnie and Marie Osmond,” Hartline said. “He was the only one who really got banged up.”

“Nobody got buried and we all got paid,” Hateley added.

After Megaforce, Hateley continued to appear regularly on the silver screen. He performed motorcycle stunts in Raw Deal and Inner Space, and doubled Fred Ward as a Baja motorcycle racer sent back to the western days in the Michael Nesbit-produced film Time Rider. Hartline was the stunt coordinator for Time Rider, and had by that time established himself in that position.

He also stunt coordinated Eye of the Tiger, a 1986 action film in which Gary Busey goes fist-to-helmet with a motorcycle gang. Hartline hired a number of motorcycle-riding women for the film, one of the most talented of which was artist and District 37 champion Candace Hartman. Hateley was doubling the lead baddie in the film, and the two motorcycle riders instantly hit it off.

“I look over my shoulder and there’s John and Candace kind of talking in the doorway,” Hartline said. “Then pretty soon they are having lunch every day. Then they start pulling up to work at the same time.”

Not long after working together on Eye of the Tiger, the two married. According to Hartline, the relationship with Candace changed John’s life.

“John was a complete juvenile delinquent,” Hartline said. “He was in more trouble on any given day than any ten kids you grew up with. He was always blowing things up and doing all kinds of shit he wasn’t supposed to do, making everybody around him crazy.”

“He could have been anything from Dillinger to St. Francis,” he said. “He tied in with the right kind of a gal.”

As Hateley’s family grew with the addition of his two sons, he took a bit more care in the stunts that he chose to do. Many of the stunts designed by directors and stunt coordinators were simple crashes that required little or no talent to pull off.

“After I got married and had kids, and my brain started to work a little clearer, there was stuff I turned down,” Hateley said. “I had already used up my luck.”

As he became more experienced, he learned to work with the stunt coordinators to reduce the risks by reducing speed or increasing clearances a bit. He also learned to never give 100 percent in the first take. That way, when the director asked for more on a further take, the rider could up the action with a reasonable level of risk. Which didn’t mean that the business ever could be considered safe.

Hateley had a close call with Sean Connery’s stunt double while filming a motorcycle chase scene for Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. The double was in a sidecar rig and Hateley was chasing him on a faux German military motorcycle. Steven Spielberg, the director, wanted Hateley to wheelie up to the sidecar and buzz the double with the front wheel. Speilberg kept urging him to get closer, and Hateley got so close he dropped the front wheel in the sidecar. Sean Connery’s double had to lean forward to avoid getting hit.

“I luckily had enough throttle left to crank it and yank the wheel back out of the sidecar or it would have been a big ‘ol wreck,” Hateley said.

Hateley continued to get steady work in the fickle movie business, and Hartline urged him to take jobs other than motorcycle work. He and Hartline drove old Buicks down snow-covered mountain roads near Truckee, California for Cobb, and the pair teamed up again to be part of the helicopter chase scene down the Capitol drive in Little Rock, Arkansas during the filming of Stone Cold starring Brian Bosworth.

“We had a ball down there. This others guys would do the Hollywood bit around town,” Hartline said. “We would go to the local speedway and for four bucks we’d get a BBQ sandwich and a beer.”

Hateley landed a pogo stick job in a Miller Beer commercial, and picks up work as a stunt stand-in (as he did on The Perfect Storm, which he described as one of the most dangerous sets he’s ever worked on).

To this day, Hateley is most in demand when the job requires someone precise and professional with a throttle and a gear shift lever. He ran camera bikes for Fast & Furious (2009) and for the LA Marathon. He really enjoys for working with the wheelchair marathon racers, a mad group of adrenaline junkies who hit top speeds of 57 miles per hour and try to draft his camera bike.

“I get done with covering that 26-mile run,” Hateley said, “and I feel like I’ve completed the Baja 1000.”

Hateley’s precision on the bike applies to his personal manner. His meticulous ways are legend among the racers and riders who know him well. When he finishes riding his motorcycle at his home, for example, he cleans the light coat of dust off the concrete pad outside his garage with a leaf-blower.

Hartline understands his old friend as well as anyone, and put it simply.

“Give him a bottle of Windex and a roll of paper towels,” he said, “and he’s set for the afternoon.”

Hartline added that a defining characteristic of his meticulous friend is his unique ability to run nearly any type of motorcycle race competitively.

“There wasn’t but a few very select handful of guys in history who were as versatile as John on a race bike,” he said.

Hateley recently raced a friend’s spare bike in a half-mile event at the LA Fairgrounds in Gene Romero’s West Coast Flat Track series. Hateley confided to Hartline that when he sat on the line with riders less than one-half his age, he wondered what he was doing out there. When Hateley pulled out for his practice session, all the concern melted away and he ran as fast and smooth as ever.

“He’s a racer. If you want a definition of what that is, he’s it,” Harline said. “He’ll race you to the bathroom, shit.”