Timing is everything for a stuntman, and just in time for the 30th anniversary of 'Raiders of the Lost Ark,' Vic Armstrong, who doubled for Harrison Ford on the iconic film, shares the story behind some of those classic scenes in his new memoir, 'The True Adventures of World's Greatest Stuntman.'
The British-born Armstrong, who'd already doubled for Roger Moore in 'Live and Let Die' and Christopher Reeve in 'Superman,' was such a dead ringer for Ford that Steven Spielberg and even Ford's own son mistook him for the star at one point. He went on to double Ford in the next two Indiana Jones films, and design and execute some of the series' most famous stunts.
Armstrong told Moviefone his thoughts about working with Ford and Spielberg again on a fifth Indy film and why 'Raiders' has stood the test of time.
Moviefone: How rare is it that your whole family -- your father, your wife, your brother and your sons -- is in the stunt business?
Vic Armstrong: The film business does tend to blossom in families, but the amount of active ones working on the set is quite unique, I guess.
Before you met Harrison, did you ever think, Wow, I could double for that guy?
No, I hadn't. My brother, funnily enough, had worked for him on 'Hanover Street,' and he said, "Oh, there's an actor who looks just like you." And I went, "Oh, OK." I never really thought about it.
And then people started suggesting you work on 'Raiders.'
Yeah, they were already shooting it and people suggested, "Hey, we've got a ringer for him."
There were at least two other stuntmen doubling for Harrison, weren't there?
Yes, Terry Leonard [who did the famous truck chase] and Martin Grace [the Well of Souls statue-riding scenes]. On all films, you more often than not have several doubles, because there's two or three units shooting at the same time, so it's quite commonplace.
The scenes you did on 'Raiders' were mostly the fights?
Yeah, most of the fights and more and more on the other two films. I joined them a little way into the shoot, in Tunisia. They'd done all the rolling the ball in the studios with Martin Grace. I did the bit where the rolling ball exits the tunnel. That was in Kauai, and was one of the last things we shot.
The scene where Indy shoots the swordsman instead of dueling with him: I've always heard that Harrison suggested it because he was suffering from dysentery. But in your book you say it was Spielberg's idea because had a deadline he didn't want to go over. So what really happened?
I wasn't there, I was shooting down in Nesta in what they call Star Wars Valley, near the Algerian border. That was the version told to me by Dave Tomblin, the first A.D., who's dead now, so we'll never know. [Laughs] Harrison would be the man that would know. [Here's a clip where Spielberg confirms the dysentery version.]
How many movies did you double for Harrison on?
I did the three 'Indiana Jones' films, 'Return of the Jedi' and 'Frantic.'
So you didn't do 'Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls?'
No, I was in New York on 'I Am Legend.'
Did you regret not being involved?
In some ways, but there were nearly 30 years between them and it felt, and still feels, like a different movie. There was the trilogy that was very locked together and the other one, the overall concept, was quite different.
Why do you think 'Raiders' stands up so well?
I think they just got the ingredients absolutely right. You look at Bond, it's got longevity because it's got the right ingredients. I just think it was the timing of it. They got all the elements, like the Saturday morning serials, and rethinking what action is all about and giving it some more realism. All the stars aligned.
I think one of the reasons it holds up so well is that there isn't a lot of CG.
Exactly. That's one of the things I always say, is that CG is very much like morphine: Used correctly, it's wonderful, it does its job. Abused and overused, it's a killer. We used a bit of CG in 'Raiders,' to add to a few scenes and with the melting heads, but the action was pure action. People did feel they went and saw this real robust man going out there and doing really heroic things and you felt the jeopardy for Harrison or Indy. It felt real, which later films, with too much CG, you get a sense of disbelief because it doesn't feel real.
What's the scariest stunt you ever did?
The jump onto the tank [with a horse in 'The Last Crusade] was frightening, but mainly because you didn't want to fail. A stunt man's main fears, funnily enough, are not necessarily about being hurt, because you've normally rehearsed it to a certain degree, so you're reasonably confident. The biggest terror we have is failure, because when you're doing a stunt, it's normally the big highlight of the day. There's lots of other things involved and you're usually going to destroy something. If you don't get it in one take, then normally it's quite a big deal to re-rig it and set it up, and it's costly to do it all again. You've usually blown half the town up, so you feel a lot of responsibility.
In your book, you say Spielberg was terrified of heights and wouldn't walk across the rope bridge in 'Temple of Doom.'
Yeah, and I still don't know if he ever did get across it. Every day, it sort of became a little bit of a joke with all of us teasing him. He'd walk out onto it and he'd go, "Mmm, I'll do it tomorrow." It was a daunting thing. It wasn't just him, a lot of the crew wouldn't go across either.
That's interesting he puts all these things that scare him into his movies; he was also afraid of the snakes in 'Raiders.'
Absolutely. I think that's how his movies are so good; he looks at the world through the eyes of a kid and I think that's why he does emphasize it, because he's well aware of what that fear is.
They're talking about making a fifth Indiana Jones film. Would you want to be part of that?
I'd love to. I wouldn't double Harrison, because I'm too old now. There's far younger people to do that. But I'd love to be involved. It's a huge part of my career. It came at the perfect timing for me. I was the right age, I was right physicality and everything else and it just came together nicely. I would dearly love to be involved with another one.
What are you working on right now?
I've just finished 'Spider-Man.' Whole family is on that. Georgina, my daughter, has a nice little cameo with Andrew Garfield and my other daughter, Nina, was in it. My son, Scott was the lead stunt man and my brother Andy was stunt coordinator on the main unit. My nephews they've all been on it too, so it's a family affair. Armstrong Action. There's some great flying stuff with Garfield. You see the physical effect G-forces have on him when he changes directions on his web. And then you use CG to get you out of sticky places: We have airbags underneath and thicker cables to fly him on then we used to on the old days with 'Superman.'
What's your favorite film that you worked on?
Probably films that were less successful, but had more fun on, like 'Air America,' where we were living in Thailand and flying around on Huey helicopters. Out of the iconic films, probably the one I really, really enjoyed was 'The Last Crusade.' By then we were on our third Indy, so you're with people you know really well, the clothes fitted and we knew the flavor of the thing we wanted to do. It was just great, great fun. We had a blast.