By David Robb
May 18, 2018
Jimmy Nickerson, a veteran Hollywood stuntman who performed and/or coordinated stunts on more than 70 films and TV shows spanning 30-plus years, has died. He was 68. He died May 4, but no other details were available.
A 1985 inductee into the Hollywood Stuntmen’s Hall of Fame, Nickerson’s long list of stunt credits includes Rocky, Rocky II, Raging Bull, Lethal Weapon, Gladiator, Waterworld, Fight Club, True Lies, Last Action Hero, Batman & Robin, Con Air, Volcano, Crimson Tide, Dante’s Peak, Star Trek: First Contact, Fantasy Island, M*A*S*H and Dynasty.
Born on September 18, 1949, in Pittsburgh, Nickerson was 7 when his family moved to San Fernando, CA. There he began riding horses and was on the pro rodeo circuit by 15. He also found success as amateur lightweight boxer, racking up an 18-1 record by age 18. Those skills were serve him well as he began his stunt career on such TV Westerns as Lancer, Gunsmoke, Bonanza and The Big Valley.
After working on fight scenes for the first two Rocky films and Raging Bull, Nickerson was Hollywood’s go-to boxing coordinator. He later was the subject of a 1991 Sports Illustrated profile titled “Tough Guys Do Dance,” which focused on his work choreographing fight sequences. But stunt work was his calling, and he returned to it.
Nickerson was one of the last surviving key players in one of the worst car crashes in movie history. It happened in 1980 on the set of The Cannonball Run, when he was the driver of an Aston Martin that crashed head-on into another car in the desert outside Las Vegas. The stunt called for him to weave through a line of speeding oncoming cars, but the Aston Martin had bald tires, defective steering and a faulty clutch. When he tried to get it running on the day of the stunt, another car had to push it to get it started, and even then he couldn’t get it going faster than 8 mph.
Director Hal Needham had a mechanic work on the car for a while, and stunt coordinator Bobby Bass then took it out for a test run. He said it was fine, but it wasn’t, and it didn’t even have seat belts. It was a disaster waiting to happen.
When it came time to film the stunt, Nickerson still didn’t think it was ready. He wanted more repairs but was told that the parts from Los Angeles had not arrived and that he’d have to “make do.”
Nickerson’s passengers that day were Cliff Wenger, a special effects man who would be operating a smoke machine while hiding on the floor in the backseat, and Heidi von Beltz, Bass’ 24-year-old girlfriend, who was doubling for Farrah Fawcett. As the Aston Martin sped toward the oncoming line of cars, the last thing she remembered hearing was someone yelling to Nickerson on the walkie-talkie: “Faster! Faster!”
The Aston Martin swerved past the first oncoming car but crashed head-on into the second, slamming von Beltz into the windshield and breaking her neck. She survived, paralyzed from the next down, and would later win a $4.5 million wrongful injury judgment. Nickerson suffered a serious head injury, a shattered hip and compound fractures of the left arm.
Wenger was thrown from the car but suffered no serious injuries. James Halty, the driver of the van that hit them, was wearing a seatbelt and harness and suffered a few cracked ribs. Of all those directly involved in the crash that day, he was the last survivor. Wenger died in January at age 91. Von Beltz died in 2015, Bass committed suicide in 2001, and Needham died in 2013.
In the wake of the accident, the industry adopted new safety guidelines that made seat belts mandatory on all stunt cars.
Nickerson, who also directed three features in the 2000s including boxing pic From Mexico with Love, is survived by his wife of 24 years, Deborah; his daughters Kimberly Reddick and Natalie Nickerson; and one grandson.
NICKERSON, Jim (James Nickerson)
Born: 9/18/1949, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S.A.
Jimmy Nickerson’s westerns – actor, stuntman:
Lancer (TV) – 1970 (Dunn)
Alias Smith and Jones (TV) – 1971 [stunts]
Bite the Bullet – 1875 [stunts]
The Long Riders – 1980 [stunts]
Guns of Paradise (TV) 1991 (wagon driver)