Yakima Canutt is one of the most important men in film history. He practically invented the profession of the Hollywood stuntman, and most of the procedures and practices that he pioneered are still in use today. Born Enos Edward Canutt, he became a rodeo champion and trick rider for wild west shows, billed as the Cowboy from Yakima, eventually this got shortened to just Yakima Canutt.
His film career began when he was hired by Fox to double for star Tom Mix in 1917. Eventually he started branching out into bit parts and began getting billed in 1920. By the mid twenties he became a cowboy star himself, starring in The Human Tornado (1925), The Fighting Stallion (1926), Riders of the Storm (1929), and The Lonesome Trail (1930). Then came the sound era, and Canutt's voice wasn't suited for heroic parts, so his days of being a star were over.
Not deterred he began playing villains and doing stunt work again. 1932 was a true hallmark in his career. Hired to play a henchman in the Mascot serial The Shadow of the Eagle (1932), he and the star of the serial became good friends. Canutt would end up being the man's stunt double until he quit stunting and went to work behind the camera. This actor would also help Canutt develop the modern form of on screen fighting called the Pass System, still in use today. The actor's name? A little nobody called John Wayne, that's all.
When Wayne was signed to star in westerns for Lone Star Studios, Canutt did double time, doubling for Wayne in the more hazardous stunts, and playing henchmen and main villains in films like The Lucky Texan (1934), 'Neath Arizona Skies (1934), Randy Rides Alone (1935), and Paradise Canyon (1935). Star Packer (1934) is a real treat as Canutt plays Wayne's Indian sidekick. Canutt also played main henchmen in the Weiss Brothers serials released by Stage and Screen, The Clutching Hand (1936) and The Black Coin (1936).
1936 was a major turning point in Canutt's career. Hired by the newly formed Republic Studios, he would head up all the stunt work for their westerns and serials. Though he built up a great team of stuntmen and women, Canutt would usually handle the major doubling of stars for the features and cliffhangers. During this time Canutt would perfect many of the safety guidelines stuntmen still use to ensure the safety of themselves and their horses.
During the thirties Canutt doubled for just about everyone at Republic; John Wayne, Gene Autry, and Robert Livingston in westerns; Ray “Crash” Corrigan, Ralph Byrd, and Robert Livingston in serials. He also found time to occasionally perform as henchmen in serials outside of Republic, such as playing the head Mole Man in Columbia's Secret of Treasure Island (1938).
His most famous stunt is in Republic's Zorro's Fighting Legion (1939), in which Canutt, doubling star Reed Hadley, drops down among a team of horses pulling a stage coach, does a back flip among their thundering hoofs, and then grabs the rear of the coach as it passes overhead so he can climb aboard. This would prove to be one of Canutt's last major stunting jobs. The many injuries he received over the years finally caused Canutt to retire from actively stunting.
But his career was far from over. He began putting most of his energy into coordinating stunts and handling second unit directing, eventually earning co-director status on mid-forties serials like Zorro's Black Whip (1944) and Manhunt Of Mystery Island (1945). His talent at coordinating large action pieces reached it's apex with the exciting chariot race in Charlton Heston's Ben Hur (1959).
After his retirement from films, Canutt began getting recognition for his work. The Academy Awards honored him with a special Oscar for his contributions to film in 1966. Canutt was inducted into the Cowboy Hall of Fame in 1975 for his many rodeo titles won in his youth. Canutt published his memoirs, Stuntman: the Autobiography of Yakima Canutt in 1979.