Who? You heard me. Yakima. Canutt. Yes.
One of the greatest stuntmen and stunt coordinators in the history of cinema. No joke. Bar none. He's the man.
Enos Edward Canutt was born 29 November 1895. He was raised with five siblings in Colfax, Washington (the eastern part of the state)
on a ranch that had been started by his grandfather and passed on to his father. This was probably the beginning of his love of horses
and first learned to ride while working there.
Canutt never got past elementary school (attended in a suburb of Seattle), but his destiny would be entwined with those horses. By
his early teens, he was riding unbroken horses and at age 17 was competing in rodeos and wild west shows. He excelled. He won the
"All-Around Cowboy" award at the Pendleton Oregon Round-Up four times (1917, 1919, 1920, 1923apparently making him "World All
-Around Champion"). In 1917, he was briefly married to Kitty Wilkswho just happened to have been the 1916 "All-Around Champion
Cowgirl." The marriage did not go well and there were no children. They divorced in 1919.
You can call me Yakima
It was also during that time that Enos became Yakima. The story goes that he was out drinking with two friends who were from
Yakima, Washington after some riding at Pendleton (incidentally, the Pendleton Round-Up is still an annual rodeo). His buddies asked for
some tough horses to ride in order to show their skills. They were both thrown. Thinking to defend their honor (or something) he rode as
Eddie from Yakima. He was thrown, too, but the moniker stuck and he was forever known as Yakima or Yakgiving him the coolest
cowboy name ever.
As for many young men in those days, World War I intervened and Canutt joined the US Navy (1918). He trained in Bremerton,
Washington, but never saw actionthe war ended before he was to ship out. He continued working the rodeo circuit. It was during
those days when he met Tom Mix, a well-established star of silent westerns, who hired him as a stunt man (Canutt specialized in saddle
-bronc riding and bulldogging). This was his introduction to the movie industry. Unfortunately, it didn't quite take and his experience was
He never quite gave up, though, and throughout the 1920s did both rodeo work and worked in film, mostly doing stunts or doubling for
other actors. His first starring rolethough he'd previously acted and even got credited in a few pictures came in 1924 (
Branded a Bandit) and with it came such stage fright he nearly gave up on the business. Fortunately for everyone he was
persuaded to stick it out and he continued to work. By 1930, he'd acted in some three dozen films.
Because of an illness that left his voice somewhat raspy and not really suited for heroes after the advent of sound, Canutt ceased
playing lead roles and more often played sidekicks or villains. Regardless, he had constant work as a stuntman and stunt coordinator,
which was good for the studio in an era when B movie westerns often paid the stuntmen more than the actors. And Canutt was
In those early days of cinema, one would be hard pressed to find the action or western equivalent to the famous "Odessa steps" sequence
from Potemkin. Stunts and brawls and large scale action scenes simply weren't orchestrated in that way or with a lot of precision.
Canutt brought that kind of planning to the Hollywood picture. Rather than a couple men flailing badly timed and aimed fists culminating in
wrestling (also poorly staged), he would choreograph the fights so that they looked real. He was the one who pioneered the way of
shooting at an angle over the shoulder of the one being punched so that it looked like it connected even though it was perfectly safe. A
lot of his work honing the best way to stage a fight came during work with John Wayne (who remained a lifelong friend).
Yeah. He helped teach the Duke how to fight. Some say Wayne even patterned some of his onscreen mannerisms on Yakima.
Canutt also carefully staged those classic western saloon brawls so they flowed and looked like more than a bunch of guys running
around jumping on each other. He learned how to properly stage stampedes and runaway wagons. He used and perfected his rodeo and
trick riding skills to do many horse-based stunts. Jumping from horses, falling from horses, falling with horses (sadly, in those days and for
decades to come, they still used holes and trip wires to make mounts fall). He was the first one to do the stunt where the horse rides up to
the wagon or stage or team of horses and the rider leaps from the horse to the other vehicle or team. Well, someone had to come up with
Perhaps his most iconic stunt came in John Ford's Stagecoach (1939)a film where Canutt supervised the stunts as well
as did stuntwork as an Indian, a cowboy, and a woman. As an Indian, he rides up alongside a speeding stagecoach and jumps
onto the lead horse in the team pulling it. Wayne shoots him and he falls to the tongue of the stage. Another shot and he drops to the ground
and is dragged along the ground until he lets go. Later in his career he was even able to catch the bar on the rear of the stage and climb
Needless to say, this was dangerous work (and still is). But Canutt cared a lot about safety and prided himself on doing whatever he
could to eliminate the unexpected and ensure that he or other stuntmen were not injured. In fact, almost no one was seriously injured in all
of his films (and when you seen the volume of work he did, it's breathtaking).
One of the things he did was work with rigging. Objects and stuntmen would be rigged so that more control could be exercised over
the stunt. One such innovation was a special breakaway stirrup that made sure the rider was released from the horse at the right time and
wouldn't get tangled up in the saddle. He also set up rules and guidelines to follow, many which would become industry standards.
(Jumping ahead for thematic reasons) When Canutt was given an honorary Academy Award in 1967, it was for "achievements as a
stunt man and for developing safety devices to protect stunt men everywhere." It is said it was his safety record and the things he helped
put in place to make the job less life-threatening that he was most proud of.
How much did the industry respect his prowess? Some scripts would be turned in without details about the stunts. They'd just put in
"Action by Yakima."
Home and Career part II
In 1931, he married again. This time to Minnie Audrea Rice, to whom he would remain wed to until his death on 24 May 1986 (she passed in
2006 at the ripe old age of 98). They had three children, a girl and two boys. Both sons would enter the same field as their father and even
worked on some of the same movies.
As the 1930s wound down, stuntwork was taking a physical toll on Canutt. He even broke six ribs will filming 1936's San
Francisco. While he had been coordinating stunts officially or unofficially for some time, he shifted more fully into that role rather than
doing the actual stunts (though he still occasionally did stunts up into the 1960s). He also began to do second unit direction. The second
unit specializes in nondialogue shots/scenes, often doing small parts like crowd shots, establishing shots, inserts. But another thing they
often handle (which is where Canutt comes in) is large action scenes: big fights, car chases, action sequences. These are the sort of
things a good stunt coordinator would be well prepared to do and Yak was the go to guy.
What is almost certainly the accomplishment of his career in second unit was the famous chariot race in 1959's Ben-Hur, a
sequence that was said to have taken two years from the planning to execution. The National Board of Review gave him and another
second unit director, Andrew Marton, a special citation for their work on directing the race. And it was a family affair with both of his
sons working on the productionin fact, his son Joe was Charlton Heston's stunt double for the race. During the filming, Joe's
chariot runs over a crashed one and he is thrown onto the tongue of the vehicle. Joe was able to climb back up into position and continue
the scene. The accident looked so good, it remained in the picture (with an intercut of Heston climbing back into the chariot).
Joe got a cut on his chin. It was the only injury suffered during the filming of the whole sequence.
Riding into the sunset
Canutt retired from work in the mid '70s. In 1971, he got a Special Western Heritage Award for "more than 50 years of outstanding
contributions to Motion Pictures" from the National Cowboy Museum in Oklahoma. In 1975, he was inducted into the Rodeo Hall of Fame
for his four championship titles. In 1984, he was one of the recipients of the Golden Boot award, an award designed to honor, not just the
actors, but directors, writers, andyesstuntmen who have done so much to make the western such a vibrant and enduring
part of our shared cinematic history. (Remember: those 'in the know' have been declaring the genre "dead" for over 20 years but they
keep on making 'em and people keep on watching 'em).
In 1979, Canutt penned his life story: Stunt Man: the Autobiography of Yakima Canutt. It was reprinted in 1997 but has since gone
out of print (currently selling for over $60 US from second party sellers on Amazon). And someone apparently wrote a children's book
about him aimed at grade 3 level readers. Stef Donev published The Fun of Livign Dangerously: The Life of Yakima Canutt (and that
is how it's spelled on Amazon: "Livign"). This, too, seems out of print but available used copies are quite cheap.
So can we quantify his legacy? How about this. Look at the immense amount of work he did in his years in Hollywood. He did stunt
and/or was stunt coordinator on at least 192 films. He acted in 180 movies. He did second unit on 51 films. He directed 16. Even wrote or
contributed the story on a few. Produced three, too. That's one hell of a body of work.
In terms of his lasting legacy on the art of cinema, his impact is immeasurable.
That's Yakima Canutt.
Yakima Canutt and other entries (the incomparable) imdb.com
Yakima Canutt http://www.b-westerns.com/canutt.htm
(the best place to read about the old B westernslots of pictures and posters)
Bio for Yakima Canutt on MSN Movies http://entertainment.msn.com/celebs/celeb.aspx?mp=b&c=338294
Yakima Canutt Biography | Encyclopedia of World Biography http://www.bookrags.com/biography/yakima-canutt
See his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame: http://www.famousstar.de/star_Yakima_Canutt.html