Stunt womanJeannie Epper

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Born in Glendale, Calif., Epper’s father was a movie stunt performer. Her mother was a stunt performer. Her brothers and sisters were stunt performers (though one sister dropped out of the biz). So it’s perhaps not a big surprise that she followed her family into the business, and in a big way. She doubled for Kathleen Turner in Romancing the Stone, for which she received the 1985 Annual Stuntman Award for Most Spectacular Stunt (Feature Film). She doubled Polly Holiday in Stir Crazy (1980) when she jumped from the skid of a helicopter onto a moving train. She doubled for a character caught in a fire for the TV Western series Lancer (1968-1970). The director told her to never let go of the doll in her hand. She barely got out alive. “When I woke up in the hospital, all my hair was burned off,” she said, “but I still had that little doll in my hands.”

Epper was the stunt double for Lynda Carter for the entirety of the Wonder Woman series (1975-1979. Photo: Bruce Lansbury Productions Ltd.)

But she was more than a performer. She was often hired by director Steven Spielberg, who called Epper “one of the greatest stunt coordinators” in the industry. Not one of the greatest female stunt coordinators, one of the greatest period. Yet especially before 1980, she rarely got screen credit for her work, even for 112 episodes of The Big Valley (1964-1969). But the insiders knew who she was, and respected her work. One of the reasons things improved for stunt performers was she spent her time and energy to make it so, for instance as co-founder (with 20 other stunt women) of SWAMP in 1968 — the Stuntwomen’s Association of Motion Pictures. (She was also an honorary member of the Stuntmen’s Association of Motion Pictures.) She mentored women wanting to join the business. One of the stunt women so encouraged is Debbie Evans, who remembered one job she worked: “The guy on the back of the motorcycle had on hockey pads. I’m in a short skirt, sandals, and a tank top.” Female stunt performers, Evans said, “have a place because of the work [Epper] did, the way she gracefully stood up for women.”

The “casting couch” wasn’t a big problem for Epper. “I had three brothers that would kill them,” she said. Also, “I’m the kind that would push them through the wall.” In addition to her award for Romancing the Stone (the scene was when she slid down a muddy path, which took several takes to get all the angles), Epper earned the Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Action Performance by a Stunt Ensemble in a Motion Picture for The Amazing Spider-Man (2012), the Faith Hubley ‘Web of Life’ Award from the High Fall Film Festival, and the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2007 World Taurus Stunt Awards, among others. “She’s as tough as old nails,” said stunt coordinator Andy Armstrong. “And she’s tougher than most men you’ll ever meet.”

Her last role, in The Rookie in 2019. (ABC)

“I like the adventure, the adrenaline, being able to do things a normal person can’t do,” Epper admitted. “I wasn’t tough off-screen,” she once said. “I was girly. I’m of slight build, really feminine, and I didn’t look like what you thought a stunt person would look like. But I was feisty — like a Chihuahua.” The work didn’t terrify her. “I’ve never been scared,” she said. “But I’ve always had respect for the stunt.” And for her three children, all of whom went into stunt work. Epper’s last role was in a 2019 episode of The Rookie. for that role, she was duct-taped to a chair, with a shotgun duct-taped with the barrel to her head and a string running to the trigger. She later developed an unspecified chronic illness and, during a hospital visit for that, contracted an infection. Jean Luann Epper died from the infection at her southern California home on May 5. She was 83.

 

From This is True for 12 May 2024

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