Breaking Barriers: Black Stuntmen Honored at African American History Museum

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Via:  NBC News

Greg Wayne Elam knows what it’s like to face adversity.

In 1976, he was a strapping 29-year-old stuntman trying to make his mark in Hollywood. While on the set of the film “King Kong” he was charged with scaling a 60-foot telephone pole, dressed only in a loincloth. Elam gradually inched his way up the narrow structure, only to learn that the stabilizing safety device that the stunt coordinator had assured him would be at the top, was not there.

He had two options: plunge to the ground and risk losing the gig (not to mention, life or limb) or hold on for dear life. He chose the latter.

“I had on a G-string, it was the month of February and the wind was blowing and that pole was shaking,” remembers Elam, 69, with a chuckle. “I just held on tight. About two hours went by; it had gotten to a point where I didn’t have any circulation left in my legs. I couldn’t feel my legs at all.”

As if the situation couldn’t get worse, the crew filmed his scene from various angles and then went on to shoot others without signaling to Elam that he was cleared to come down. Fellow black stuntmen Ernie Robinson and Richard Washington ultimately came to his rescue on the set, helping him down with a crane-like device known as a scissor lift.

img_2553“They weren’t hiring black stuntmen in Hollywood back then, so when we did get work they would challenge us on the set,” recalls Elam, of Orange County, California, who went on to snag high-profile stunt work for popular black stars Michael Jackson, Richard Pryor and Gregory Hines among others. “We just took the challenge until they recognized us as stuntmen. We fought for the right to have equal opportunity. We didn’t do it for glory, we did it because it was the right thing to do.”

Elam and fellow members of the Black Stuntmen’s Association (BSA) – many of whom had also endured overt racial discrimination in the film and television industry: such as threats of physical harm, name calling and being shut out of jobs altogether – were formally honored at the Sept. 24 grand opening of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.

 

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