Hollywood stuntman and Austin resident Gary Kent has lived a thousand lives. The 86-year-old grew up riding horses on his family’s ranch in Walla Walla, Wash., and doubled for the likes of Jack Nicholson and Bruce Dern. His adventures working as a stuntman on the Spahn Ranch in California helped provide inspiration for Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.” Brad Pitt’s character is loosely based on Kent as well as a few other stuntmen from that era — and, yes, he really did meet Charles Manson.
READ MORE: Austin stuntman Gary Kent has lived a life right out of the movies
We caught up with Kent earlier this fall during the DVD release of “Danger God,” a documentary about Kent’s life directed by journalist Joe O’Connell. The film also is available to rent on Amazon Prime Video. Kent retired as a stuntman in 2003 but continues to act and work behind the scenes on films. His memoir, "Shadows & Light: Journeys With Outlaws in Revolutionary Hollywood," was published in 2009, and he is writing his second book.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
American-Statesman: How did you get connected with Quentin Tarantino? How did he hear your story?
Gary Kent: Quentin used to do what was called QT Fest here in Austin, where, once a year, he would show some of his favorite films. I had not met Quentin, but I got a call on my phone (from) Lars Nilsen from the Alamo (Drafthouse) theater, who I also did not know at the time.
He said, "Gary, Quentin Tarantino's in town, and you're one of his favorite stuntmen; we’re showing ‘The Savage Seven’ (which is a film I did back in the old days) and he’d like you to come to the screening." I didn't believe him at first, but then Quentin got on the phone and said, "Yeah, come on," so I went down and I met him briefly at that screening.
Several months later, he was filming a movie here in Austin.
I was looking for an address to an art screening and I couldn’t find it, so I pulled into (a hotel parking lot) and the guy said, "Leave your car here and go inside, they’ll know where it is," so I went inside. I heard someone say, "Gary," and I turn around and it was Quentin sitting at a table all by himself. He said, "Come over, sit down," I said, "I can't, my car." He said, "Forget your car, I'll take care of it," so I sat down and had pie and coffee.
We were discussing two Westerns I did with Jack Nicholson back in the day, and he knew every line from both films, he knew everybody on the crew, including craft services — he knew my name — he was just an encyclopedia. I was really, really impressed.
At that semi-luncheon, I told him about the Spahn Ranch and my experiences on the Spahn Ranch and, sure enough, there they are in the film — not word for word — but very similar to the story I had told Quentin.
So, what was it like to work on the Spahn Ranch?
Well, you know, it was kind of a dilapidated, run-down kind of place where George Spahn rented out horses to people on the weekends. Families would come and go for trail rides and picnics. Movie companies shot there because there were no TV antennas or overhead electrical wires, so you could shoot period pieces there and Westerns or things that took place in the '20s or '30s.
We shot four or five films there, but the interesting thing was when we shot there, there were all these — mostly girls, the Manson family — (who) would come hang around. Once in a while, we’d hire one or two as an extra, but mostly they would just come down — including Charlie — and perch on the wooden sidewalks, or on the rocks, and watch us shoot and then beg for lunches.
What was your reaction when you found out that Charlie was Charles Manson, and he and the Manson family were behind a series of violent crimes in the area?
When we found out, we were just shocked. The show business community was just paralyzed with fear because of Sharon Tate. They thought someone was after actors and actresses. Then they became a public fascination; they still are to this day, I guess because of the celebrity connection.
What did you think of “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”?
You know, I liked it a lot. I'm not a huge fan of some of Quentin’s films, but they're always interesting and always kind of different in their way, but to me, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is, if not his best, then certainly one of his best.
How did you become interested in the film industry?
I was always in love with film.
I was raised on a ranch in Walla Walla, Wash., until eighth grade, and then we moved to the coast. (In) Walla Walla, our only entertainment was a movie. Once a week, I would hitchhike into town and go to the movies. In those days, you would see a double feature, then there'd be a short and a bunch of previews, so going to the movies was an all-day event. I would just spend my entire Saturday or Sunday at the movie theater.
I loved Burt Lancaster and all those pirate films — swinging around and sword fights and chasing people. I thought, "That's what I want to do; all that action. How can I do that?" and I had no idea but that was my goal — to somehow be an imitator of Burt Lancaster.
How did you become a stuntman?
I was in college majoring in journalism at the University of Washington in Seattle. At the end of the Korean War, they called me to active duty and I could stay because I was in college but I wanted to go — I wanted to see the world.
The Blue Angels had just been transferred from Pensacola, Fla., to Corpus Christi and they needed a J.O. — a journalist — to write up publicity, so off to Corpus I went. I didn’t get to see the world; I got to see Corpus.
At the time, I was working at the little theater in Corpus Christi because the admiral wanted the sailors to intermingle with the civilians so we would be more popular and there wouldn't be as much of a separation between Navy and civilians. So I did a lot of work with theater, and then when I got out of the Navy, I went to Houston and started acting at the Alley Theater, which was pretty well-known at the time. When the Alley broke up briefly, all the actors went to New York except me.
I had just seen Marlon Brando in “On the Waterfront” and I thought that was just tremendous, that's what I wanted to do, so I took a Greyhound bus to Hollywood with an overnight bag.
I saw a Frank Sinatra movie shooting on Gower Street and heard a guy saying with a megaphone, "Stuntmen, stand by your cars," and I didn't really know what that meant, but here they were: these guys who look like gladiators standing by their cars. "OK, start your engines," "action," and the cars started crashing and rolling, doing all kinds of stunts and stuff.
I forgot all about acting. I just wanted to do stunts.
How did you get your first stunt job?
I lied. I knew after I saw those guys on Gower Street rolling their cars (that) I wanted to do stunts, but I didn’t know how to do it, or how to get in, or anything. I was having lunch with a friend of mine, Art Names. He was going to do sound on two Westerns going to Utah, and he knew they were looking for a stuntman.
I said, "I’m a stuntman."
And he said, "Well, go call this guy Jack Nicholson."
Jack was producing and starring in it. I met with Jack and he interviewed me and hired me for the job, so off to Utah I went as a stuntman — not knowing what the heck I was doing.
I was falling off stage coaches without any pads. I didn’t know you dig up the ground and lay sand down. I didn’t know you wear rubber gins. I was just doing it. But luckily, we were in Kanab, Utah, and the Daniel Boone TV company came to Kanab, and they had four of the best stuntmen in the business.
Jack told them, "I’ve got a great stuntman, he doesn’t use pads, he doesn’t dig up the ground," and they immediately knew I didn’t know beans. But they said, "Send him over," and after they put me through the ropes and teased me, they started teaching me the real ins and outs of doing stunts.
I had four of the best teaching me what to do, so by the time I got back to Hollywood, I was a legitimate stuntman.
What’s the most dangerous stunt you ever did?
The most dangerous that happened to me was, we were shooting in downtown L.A. and I was doubling Bruce Dern on a movie called “Pysch Out.” I had to get up on the top of the modern art building in downtown Los Angeles — three stories up — and break through a skylight, hang down from the rim by my fingers, then swing myself about 8 feet over this balcony where there was a wooden railing.
There was nothing down beneath me. They couldn't put pads down because they had the camera down there shooting straight up.
I was actually rehearsing, and once I got down to hanging by my fingers, I couldn’t get back up. So I yelled, "Roll the camera!" I knew, I better go now or I’m not going to make it. I would have fallen three stories on my head, on top of the camera. I did make it, but just barely. I got hurt pretty bad on a couple of stunts, but that was the closest, the scariest thing I did.
How do stuntmen train to stay in shape?
In the old days, there were no stunt schools, but my buddy Chuck Bail (who plays the professional stuntman in “The Stunt Man” with Peter O’Toole) had about 10 acres of land outside L.A. in Simi Valley. He had horses, a high vault tower, a boxing ring, and we would go out there on the weekends and just work out and teach each other how to do things.
There'd always be a stuntman there who knew how to do car rolls or high falls or who knew how to set up fights and stuff, so we would work out every weekend and practice things that we would need to do on the set.
What was the last film you appeared in as a stuntman?
I was in a picture called “Bubba Ho-Tep,” a very, very funny movie if you haven’t seen it. Don Coscarelli directed it with Bruce Campbell and Ossie Davis. I was stunt coordinator on that and doubled Bruce in the movie; that was in 2003. And I broke my leg.
We broke for lunch and I was talking down this hill and I caught my foot on a root that was sticking out and I pulled my leg back up behind my back and fell on my own leg and broke it. I wish I could say it was doing a really dangerous stunt; it wasn’t — it was going to lunch.
I’ve actually done a lot of movies since then as an actor, but after I broke my leg, (I thought) I’m getting a little old to be doing stunts. It’s really not fair to the company or the stunt guys. I was old enough. I had done enough.