Legendary stuntmen are best of friends

Jack Lilley, left, and Walter Scott share stories and talk about their long careers and life together as friends in the stunt industry on a hot July morning outside Lilley’s Canyon Country home. Michael Picarella/The Signal

The two friends couldn’t really remember how and when they met. Their friendship’s been such a constant in their lives that they said they might as well have always known each other. 

Stunt legends Jack Lilley and Walter Scott, both Canyon Country residents, seated at a small table in the shade of fully grown trees on a recent hot July morning outside Lilley’s house, spoke with The Signal about their careers, their lives and their longtime friendship.

Cowboys, Lilley said, are a tight bunch — like family. 

“If they’re friends and you know him,” he added, “you’ll go out of the way to go and visit him.” 

Lilley, 88 years old, a second-generation stunt performer and a 2008 recipient of a star on Santa Clarita’s Walk of Western Stars, has an impressive list of film and TV credits, including “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” (1962), “Rawhide” (1959-1964), “Blazing Saddles” (1974), “Three Amigos!” (1986), “Army of Darkness” (1992) and “Planet of the Apes” (2001). 

Jack Lilley, retired stuntman and stunt coordinator, recalls the good old days in the stunt business on a hot July morning outside his Canyon Country home. Michael Picarella/The Signal

He came to Los Angeles from Texas as a kid when his dad got into the business of renting horses to movie studios. By the very nature of his work, particularly his work with horses on westerns, Lilley’s dad soon found himself doing stunts in those movies. Lilley, who helped with what he’d turn into the Movin’ On Livestock motion picture rental business that Lilley’s son Clay now runs out of New Mexico, followed in his father’s footsteps. 

But keeping horses in L.A. grew difficult as the city developed over the years. The Lilley family had to keep moving north to where there was more open space for the animals. 

Eventually, as Lilley got older and he married, he found his way to the Santa Clarita Valley. In 1958, Lilley and his wife, Irene, settled into the home where they currently reside, which happens to be the same house his wife’s grandparents built. She grew up there. And the couple still has horses and other animals on the property. 

Scott, who just turned 82 on July 20, like Lilley, also has an impressive resume. His film and TV credits include “Dirty Harry” (1971), the “Back to the Future” trilogy (1985-1990), “Die Hard with a Vengeance” (1995), “True Blood” (2008), “Django Unchained” (2012) and “Santa Clarita Diet” (2018). 

He said he got into stunts in the early 1960s when, coming from Blythe, California, he learned quickly that working as an actor, which was what he initially wanted to do, didn’t pay near as much as what stunt performers were making. 

“I met all these guys like Jack and other people around,” Scott said, “and I was about to get under contract at Warner Brothers for $125 a week. Well, these (stunt) guys were making $80 a day … And I said, ‘Well, I don’t know, I’m a pretty good cowboy.’ You know, every studio had five or six westerns.” 

Retired stuntman and stunt coordinator Walter Scott shares stories about his life in the movie business on a hot July morning outside the Canyon Country home of good friend and fellow stuntman Jack Lilley. Michael Picarella/The Signal

Scott, like Lilley, got into the business by way of westerns because of his cowboy background and abilities. 

“I grew up chasing wild horses and wild burros and wild cattle with my dad as a young man,” Scott said. “I learned my craft from my dad at home, like how to swim horses across the Colorado River, and head-and-tail horses together, and rope wild cattle, and bring them out of the brush.” 

At the time, those skills, Lilley and Scott agreed, were in high demand. 

The golden age of westerns took place between the 1930s and 1960s. According to a June 17, 2014, article by Noah Gittell in The Atlantic about the western genre, studios released up to 140 westerns each year between 1940 and 1960. 

Scott and Lilley said that while their riding, roping and wrangling abilities got them plenty of work on the number of westerns being produced, it was the bigger stunts that allowed them to profit. 

In the stunt business, according to Rick Barker, known for his work on movies like “Armageddon” (1998), “Dumb and Dumber” (1994) and “Repo Man” (1984), stunt performers would receive daily or weekly rates for essentially being on set. But they could get an adjustment or added pay, he said, for performing a particular stunt or stunts. That adjustment, Barker added, is based on the danger or difficulty involved. 

Scott recalled one particular movie from 1976 that he did as a stunt coordinator with director Clint Eastwood where the stunts paid especially well. 

“On ‘Outlaw Josey Wales,’ (Eastwood) gave me two or three days to go set up the last battle scene,” Scott said. “We rehearsed it all, and when he came to shoot it, we shot this whole battle in a half a day. Because it was all set up. Clint, when it was over, he’s shaking my hand and (saying), ‘Thank you, boys. You did a great job.’ And all the stunt guys are standing there, and I’ve got the list — I’m making out the adjustments for everybody. And (Eastwood) said in front of everybody, ‘Whatever he gives you guys, double it.’” 

Regular cowboy stunt work, however, didn’t last forever, and the stunt performer’s job took on different forms as the business changed. 

“You evolved,” Scott said. “The westerns died out. In the ’80s, there were no more westerns. We were all scrambling. You’re learning to drive the cars, you’re learning to do the 180s. We were all going out and renting cars and learning to drive and do other things.” 

Scott talked about his transition from doing westerns to doing a film like 1991’s “Backdraft,” where he knew nothing about fire but had to learn. He and others were learning on the fly, he said, as he did with that particular film. 

Asked if they were ever scared or hesitant about the work they did, both Scott and Lilley said they wouldn’t do a stunt if it was too dangerous. Stunt performers typically aren’t afraid, they added, because they know how stunts work. 

To illustrate the point, Lilley recalled a story about a particular stunt driver he and Scott knew who was once tasked with tipping a car on its side and having it end up in a general area for the camera to capture on film. The stunt driver responded. 

“He reached into his pocket,” Lilley said, “took out a coin and flipped it over. He said, ‘My head will hit right there.’” 

Lilley added that the driver did just what he said, landing exactly where he said he’d land. These guys were that good, Lilley continued, and they knew from experience what they could and couldn’t do. 

To know what was possible, however, it was the stunt coordinator that a director would rely upon to plan a scene. But that position didn’t exist until the 1960s, according to Lilley and Scott. With a stunt coordinator, they said, gone were the days when the director or first assistant would order a stunt performer to do something a bit too dangerous or sometimes just plain stupid. 

“(The stunt coordinator had) the authority to say, ‘No, you can’t do that that way. We do it this way, and we won’t hurt anybody,’” Scott said. “And most of your coordinators have to have been stuntmen so that they have the knowledge of how to do it.” 

But knowing the boundaries of stunt work and feeling safe about what they were doing didn’t mean Lilley and Scott were going to let their kids become stunt performers. In fact, as their kids got older and interested in the business, Lilley and Scott encouraged them to get behind the cameras instead. They were unsuccessful. 

Lilley has two sons, Clint Lilley and Clay Lilley, who both got into stunts. And Clint’s son, Cash Lilley, has been carving out a niche for himself in the business as well. 

Scott also has children who are stunt performers. His son, Wesley Scott, and his daughter, Ann Scott, both work in the business. Stunt work, it seems, is in the blood, and Lilley and Scott seemed proud when speaking of their accomplishments. 

During the conversation with The Signal, Lilley and Scott laughed, recounted old times and old friends, some who they said had passed on, and they talked about how so much in life has changed over the years. 

It’s a different world, they added. Even the neighborhood reflects a shift — Lilley’s ranch, which you could picture being out in the middle of nowhere at one time, is now surrounded by suburbia, several neighborhoods having sprung up around the place during the course of growth in the valley. 

The film and stunt business has no doubt changed, too — computer animation is filling in for many stunts these days, and skills like “falling a horse” are becoming a thing of the past. 

One thing, however, still remains constant: Lilley and Scott have been friends through it all, always there for each other — like going out of the way to bring the other onto a show he’s doing if the other was ever in need of a job. Their friendship is something they’ve never taken for granted. It’s something you can tell, to this day, the two cowboys absolutely cherish. 

Jack Lilley, left, and Walter Scott spend a couple hours together and share stories about their long careers and life together as friends in the stunt industry on a hot July morning outside Lilley’s Canyon Country home. Michael Picarella/The Signal

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