They’re honest. They have integrity and tenacity, and they’re forthright. Cowboys can be wild, he said, but they’re good people.
Longtime Castaic resident Billy Burton insists that it’s his “cowboy mentality” that’s given him his 50-plus-year career in the film industry as an extra-turned-stunt performer, stunt coordinator and second-unit director.
Those in the business consider him a living legend. He’s got several Taurus World Stunt Awards trophies and film and TV credits like “The Scorpion King” (2002), “24” (2002), “Mission: Impossible II” (2000), “Lonesome Dove (1989), “Predator” (1987), “To Live and Die in L.A.” (1985), “The Driver” (1978), “Blazing Saddles” (1974), “Mean Streets” (1973), “Vanishing Point” (1971) and more than 100 other equally impressive titles to prove it.
“I grew up on those old western movies where the good guy got the girl and the ranch, and the bad guy got the rope. I think we need more of that today,” Burton told The Signal during a recent interview at his home tucked away in the hills of Castaic.
Burton was born into the cowboy life in 1944 during World War II — a “war baby,” he said — on the south side of Culver City at a time when it was “nothing but horses and dirt roads.” He’s been riding horses as long as he can remember. His dad was a horseman and his mom raced horses, and living on a ranch had him operating machinery and driving various vehicles before he was even a teenager.
“I drove to high school when I didn’t have a driver’s license,” he confessed.
That was all part of growing up with livestock and land, he added. And there wasn’t much teaching, more just doing. It was that mentality, Burton suggested, that became his way of doing things. He’d see other people do it, take an interest in it, study it, and try it in practical settings. Then he’d do it over and over until he became proficient.
Burton’s older brother would be the herald that pointed him in the direction of the picture business. His brother had been working as an extra and phoned young Burton to let him know there was work.
“He said, ‘Bill, they’re taking guys off the streets.’ He says, ‘Why don’t you to come down and get into the movies?’ So, I came down and he took me to central casting.”
That was when Burton was about 21 years old, in 1965, when the western was the most popular type of production in Hollywood, he said. Studios would hire cowboys as extras because if they needed anyone to ride a horse, a cowboy could do it. Cowboys, he added, also made good stuntmen because of their more hands-on backgrounds working on ranches.
Burton’s first movie was 1966’s “Beau Geste.” He said he remembers going to Universal Studios to be made up and put into wardrobe for the film. Then, in full attire, he was sent to Burbank Airport.
“There we were, 200 extras, all in Arab costumes and makeup at the Burbank Airport,” Burton said with a laugh, “and they fly us into Yuma, Arizona, put us on a bus, we get there, they jumped me on a horse, and all day I’m riding up and down the sand dunes … I had the time of my life.”
At the end of that first day, as was protocol at the time, Burton said, the first assistant director negotiated the pay for the extras, taking into account the type of work they performed. Jack Lilley, another stuntman from the Santa Clarita Valley, who was sort of a steward on the show, negotiated for higher rates. Burton would earn more money than he ever imagined.
“And the rest is history,” he said.
The young cowboy would go on to double actors on horses, then perform stunts on horses.
“I’ve been a horseman my whole life. I still am,” Burton said. “And because I was a horseman, I was never without a job.”
One particular stunt Burton did is displayed in a photo on a wall of pictures in his home. In the 1975 Kirk Douglas film “Posse,” Burton had taken a horse off a cliff and fallen with him quite a distance into a very narrow river below. The photo captured Burton and the horse about halfway into the fall, just before they hit water.
But as westerns began to lose their luster in Hollywood, Burton and other cowboys would have to expand their expertise or become obsolete. Burton learned to perform stunts on motorcycles, and he taught himself how to slide cars.
“We’d go out to Hansen Dam and places like that, we’d get rental cars, and we’d square the tires off,” he said. “All good car men came from motorcycles. You could learn a lot from sliding motorcycles. It’s the same principles used to slide in the car.”
Asked if he had a favorite stunt, Burton said there were many. But he told the story of a particular one he did on the 1969 Kurt Russell film “The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes.”
“They come in and said, ‘Can you drive a motorcycle under a semi-tractor trailer making a left turn in the intersection?’” Burton recalled. “I said, ‘Sure.’”
Upon giving his answer, Burton got right to work. He first had to lower the handlebars on his bike so it’d fit under the truck. Then he calculated how low he’d have to position himself on the bike in order to make it underneath — his chin would practically ride against the gas tank of the bike.
On the night of the shoot, Burton said, he asked to see the truck cross the intersection at the speed it’d move in the shot. Then he asked to see it again, this time riding up to the truck on the motorcycle and stopping just before going under the trailer.
“Then I said, ‘OK, I’m ready.’”
Burton did the stunt in just one take.
He had plenty of other stories to tell, and said he’s probably most proud of the work he did as second-unit director on the John Travolta/Nicholas Cage 1997 film “Face/Off,” in particular, the boat chase scene in San Pedro Harbor, which, he said, he promised executives would make “Miami Vice” more or less look like child’s play. You be the judge.
But Burton doesn’t consider himself to be a daredevil. And he’s never been afraid to do a stunt. He said he’s too busy calculating how to get the job done. He’s always been focused like that, and picked up how to do things by watching others do it first.
That’s partly how he learned to direct, from legendary directors he looked up to like Richard Brooks (“Bite the Bullet,” “In Cold Blood,” “The Professionals”). Burton would apply what he observed as a stuntman on other sets to his work as second-unit director on many films where he’d shoot the stunt sequences.
“I’m always the student,” he said. “I’m a student of horsemanship, a student of movies. I’m still a student. I’m going to go to the grave a student, wanting to learn more. I think that had a lot to do with my success, because I was totally observing everybody and how to do things.”
Burton would earn many awards and accolades over the course of his career, including the 2019 Taurus World Stunt Awards Lifetime Achievement Award, and he’s a founding member of Stunts Unlimited, which, according to some stunt performers, is arguably one of the greatest action groups in the business.
According to retired Santa Clarita stuntman Rick Barker, known for his work on movies like “Armageddon” (1998), “Dumb and Dumber” (1994) and “Repo Man” (1984), “In my opinion, Billy is among the greatest old-time stuntmen that are still alive.”
Burton is still amazed at what he’s done, he said, starting out as a “lowly extra” and becoming a stuntman. While he worked hard, took pride in everything he did, and was the true professional — doing what had to be done — he also had a lot of fun.
“I played cops-and-robbers and cowboys-and-Indians my whole life,” he said.
He won’t say he’s retired, because, he said, if you take “re” off “retired,” you get “tired.” And he said he’s not tired. However, much of his time these days is not spent doing stunts on movie sets but training horses on his property — his property since he moved there in 1978 — where he practiced so many car rollovers and other stunts throughout the years.
“All I ever wanted to be was a cowboy,” he said. “And my cowboy mentality is what helped me succeed.”