A weekly look at SoCal life covering news, arts and culture, and more.
Hosted by John Rabe
Arts & Entertainment

Hollywood Jobs: Meet the man behind some of Hollywood’s most dangerous car stunts (video)

Jim Wilkey supervises student stunt drivers at a stunt driving school at the Camarillo Airport.
Jim Wilkey supervises student stunt drivers at a stunt driving school at the Camarillo Airport.
Ashley Bailey/KPCC
Jim Wilkey supervises student stunt drivers at a stunt driving school at the Camarillo Airport.
When Jim Wilkey isn't wrecking cars in the movies, he teaches stunt driving courses at the Camarillo Airport.
Ashley Bailey/KPCC
Jim Wilkey supervises student stunt drivers at a stunt driving school at the Camarillo Airport.
Jessie Graff is a stunt woman who's dabbled in driving cars and motorcyles for Hollywood productions. She learned how to check the fluids in a car while attending a stunt driving class taught by fellow stunt driver Jim Wilkey.
Ashley Bailey/KPCC
Jim Wilkey supervises student stunt drivers at a stunt driving school at the Camarillo Airport.
Jim Wilkey has been a stuntman for more than half his life on Hollywood productions. His most famous stunt was flipping the big rig in the Batman movie "The Dark Knight."
Ashley Bailey/KPCC

Listen to story

Download this story 3MB

There’s an entire industry in Hollywood based on crashing, flipping and rolling cars and trucks, and Jim Wilkey knows all about it. He's a stunt driver who’s been behind the wheel in more than 200 action sequences in some of your favorite movies and TV shows.

Out at the Camarillo Airport, Wilkey weaves between orange cones in a black Ford Mustang along an unused portion of the runway. He makes a sharp turn, and the car drifts sideways into a slot the size of a parking space. None of the cones that marked it come close to tipping over.  He's about two inches away from the nearest one.

"You could reach out and hang your hat on it," he said.

That kind of precision comes with time — and Wilkey has had a lot of it. He’s 64 years old and has worked as a professional stuntman in Hollywood for more than half his life.

“I try to limit most of my activity now to the driving stuff," he said. "I’m getting a little long in the tooth to be falling out of buildings on fire.”

Wilkey doesn't talk much about what he does for a living. But when it comes up in conversation, the first question he usually gets is, “Have you ever been hurt?”

“I've fractured my back a couple of times, got a plate in my neck, broke my arm twice, several ribs, compound fracture in my left leg,” he said. “And then little stuff: broken noses, busted knees. I mean, if you do this stuff long enough, you’re gonna get nailed.”

You’ve probably seen Wilkey drive before. His most famous stunt was five years ago in the Batman movie “The Dark Knight.” He’s the one driving the big rig when it flips end-over-end onto its back in the middle of a city street.

“Batman rides under the truck with a cable and wraps the back wheels of the tractor of the trailer with the cable, and then he wraps it around a pole, and then the cable comes tight and flips the truck end over end, and then the Joker climbs out of there, and the Joker and Batman have a face-off,” Wilkey said.

He also doubled as the Joker.

“In fact, they only had one Joker wig, so Heath Ledger and I had to keep switching the wig back and forth,” Wilkey said.

Wilkey said he actually got to flip the truck twice. They had to do test run to make sure it would work.

“That was such a unique piece of business. You know, it’d never been done before, and I just happened to be the guy that drew the straw and got to do it.”

Wilkey says he’s lucky to be one of a handful of drivers who gets the jobs involving big rigs. Like ”The Rookie” from 1990 with Clint Eastwood.

WARNING: The videos below include adult language.

In a chase scene, Wilkey drove a car carrier that landed it on its side in the middle of a freeway. He also rolled a bus down a ravine in 1993’s “The Fugitive,” with Harrison Ford.

“Die Hard,” “Inception,” “Terminator Salvation”: Jim Wilkey’s resume goes on and on. He said he taught himself how to drive for the most part. But now he teaches others how to do so – safely — at a stunt driving school at the Camarillo Airport.

Some drivers come out to learn just for fun. But some are actually trying to make it in the business, like Jessie Graff. She’s a stuntwoman who’s dabbled in driving cars and motorcycles in Hollywood productions. She came to Jim Wilkey to perfect her skills.

“My taekwondo instructor, master Simon Rhee, he saw Jim drive and jumps out of the car and goes, ‘That man has a black belt in driving!’ So, like, that’s a traditional way of measurement for me of skill level,” Graff said.

Stuntman Steven Stone says he met Jim three years ago. He helps out at the driving school from time to time.

“He’s taught me how to shuffle-steer. He’s taught me how to do 180s, reverse 180s, box 90s, flying 90s, how to drift. … How to look at focal points, where I look with my head, and the car will go,” Stone said. “Just learn how to feel the car and let the car do the work.”

Wilkey grew up as a cowboy on ranches. He was a heavy equipment operator in the Navy Seabees. Then he hauled glass in a semi truck out of Newhall. He even helped build the slopes around Magic Mountain. His first “Hollywood” gig was for westerns in the early '70s.

 “I started hauling horses and wrangling and stuff out of the different barns," he said. "I’d get out on the set, and I wanted to do stunts, but I didn’t know anybody.”

Wilkey eventually married into the business. His grandfather-in-law was legendary stuntman Yakima Canutt. But he says it was his stuntman father-in-law – Tap Canutt – who gave him the best advice.

“He said, 'Listen, kid, you got to get rid of the cowboy image, because westerns are phasing out,” Wilkey said. “You need to trade in the cowboy hat and the boots for a pair of Adidas tennis shoes and a pager. Back then, everybody had pagers.  This is before cell phones.”

Wilkey pulls out his cell phone. He shows off videos of a couple chase scenes he’s been working on – like jackknifing a truck trailer into a Winnebago.

“I mean, technology is getting better all the time, which I hate to see in a lot of ways, because it’s just going to eventually cost us work,” he said.

He’s talking about computer-generated imagery.

“If it’s all CGI, then it becomes a cartoon, which is I guess the younger generation don’t mind the cartoons, because they were all raised on it. Video games and all that stuff. It becomes a video game,” he said. “But I think there’s still a huge demand for ‘We want to see it real.’”

Wilkey said the “real” thing can be scary – like flipping the truck in Batman.

“It’s hours and hours of boredom interjected with a few moments of sheer terror is kinda the way we like to describe it,” he said.

Stuntmen have to retire when their bodies wear out. But at 64, Wilkey doesn’t plan to retire soon.

“It’s all fun. Where else ya gonna go act like a big kid and play cops and robbers and get paid for it?”

Wilkey has four kids, but none of them are in the business. He says he would have helped them get into stunts if they wanted to, but never pushed them, because it’s not an easy job.

So, he said, “I guess it ends with me.”