Greg Wayne Elam knows what it’s like to face adversity.
In 1976, he was a strapping 29-year-old stuntman trying to make his mark in Hollywood. While on the set of the film “King Kong” he was charged with scaling a 60-foot telephone pole, dressed only in a loincloth. Elam gradually inched his way up the narrow structure, only to learn that the stabilizing safety device that the stunt coordinator had assured him would be at the top, was not there.
He had two options: plunge to the ground and risk losing the gig (not to mention, life or limb) or hold on for dear life. He chose the latter.
“I had on a G-string, it was the month of February and the wind was blowing and that pole was shaking,” remembers Elam, 69, with a chuckle. “I just held on tight. About two hours went by; it had gotten to a point where I didn’t have any circulation left in my legs. I couldn’t feel my legs at all.”
As if the situation couldn’t get worse, the crew filmed his scene from various angles and then went on to shoot others without signaling to Elam that he was cleared to come down. Fellow black stuntmen Ernie Robinson and Richard Washington ultimately came to his rescue on the set, helping him down with a crane-like device known as a scissor lift.
“They weren’t hiring black stuntmen in Hollywood back then, so when we did get work they would challenge us on the set,” recalls Elam, of Orange County, California, who went on to snag high-profile stunt work for popular black stars Michael Jackson, Richard Pryor and Gregory Hines among others. “We just took the challenge until they recognized us as stuntmen. We fought for the right to have equal opportunity. We didn’t do it for glory, we did it because it was the right thing to do.”
Elam and fellow members of the Black Stuntmen's Association (BSA) – many of whom had also endured overt racial discrimination in the film and television industry: such as threats of physical harm, name calling and being shut out of jobs altogether – were formally honored at the Sept. 24 grand opening of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.
BSA memorabilia, props, photos and news articles are featured in the entertainment-themed “Taking The Stage” exhibit. Members of the group hope to meet President and Mrs. Obama who are both scheduled to attend and make remarks at the star-studded affair at the National Mall's newest landmark museum.
“The Smithsonian? This is just unbelievable,” gushes Stone Mountain, Ga.- based character actor Alexander Folk, 70, who bonded with BSA members during his brief stint as a stuntman in the 80s. “When we were working out and doing stunts together, never did we think in our wildest dreams that something like this would come. That’s where not giving up comes into play. This honor is a testament to the fact that your wildest dreams will come to pass if you don’t give up. This honor is long overdue.”
A group of 25 black stuntmen came together in 1967 to found the BSA, which celebrates its 50th anniversary next year, in an effort to generate jobs for African American stuntmen. It also provided a safe space for stuntmen – and eventually stuntwomen of all races too – to bond, vent, network and hone their craft.
When the BSA took legal action against the major motion picture studios 40 years ago their main goal was to eradicate the widespread practice known as “painting down” in which white male actors essentially wore blackface. Stuntmen dressed up as women often stood in for actresses, leaving many stuntwomen unemployed too.
BSA members filed Equal Employment Opportunity charges against the major studios in 1976 and ultimately secured a settlement agreement. As a result of their groundbreaking lawsuit, current BSA head Willie Harris says the major studios, including Paramount, Fox, Disney, and Warner Bros. were forced to pay stunt performers of color an undisclosed amount of money in damages.
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, a former Equal Employment Opportunity Commission chief, actually helped them secure the lawyer who argued the case.
“Even though the black stuntmen fought tirelessly to get the major studios to end this disgraceful and racist practice some 40 years ago, as recently as 2014, Warner Bros. was slammed for painting down a white [stuntwoman] on the set of the show 'Gotham.' This is Hollywood’s dirty little secret that they don’t want you to know,” said Nonie L. Robinson, granddaughter of late BSA Founding President Robinson, who is best known for his stunts on the “Miami Vice" television series, as well as the films “King Kong,” the original “Planet of the Apes" and "Greased Lightning.”
“When we started there were no black producers, cameramen, directors, makeup artists and lots of other positions,” asserts Harris, 75, of Las Vegas. “After our lawsuit the big studios had no choice but to start hiring them too. When the Civil Rights Movement was going on in this country, we were doing the same kind of fight in Hollywood and we won. We were the pioneers; we changed the industry for the better. Because of us, folks like Denzel [Washington], Samuel [Jackson], Will [Smith], Jamie [Foxx] Morgan Freeman and Tyler Perry now have access to better roles.”
Three years earlier, in 1973, the BSA took on American Honda Motor Co. Inc., accusing the company of refusing to hire black actors and stuntmen for its television commercials. The job discrimination lawsuit, which was endorsed by the United Auto Workers Union, asserted that over a three-year period, only three black performers out of 120 were used in 27 Honda motorcycle commercials aired on television. Honda reps formally denied any wrongdoing, but Harris says a spokesperson pointedly told their lawyer, “blacks didn’t show a good image on television.”
Harris says embattled actor and comedian of late Bill Cosby is widely lauded as being the first of the major black Hollywood stars – an exceptionally small number at the time – to demand that a black stuntman be hired to double for him on the set of his 60’s era television series “I, Spy.” Actors Harry Belafonte, Lou Gossett Jr. and Sidney Poitier also reportedly pushed for inclusion.
The BSA is also known for promoting equality for stuntwomen, ultimately becoming the first professional organization of its kind to invite women of all hues to join. “You can call it a movement, a struggle or a fight, but overall [the BSA] was about increasing opportunities for African Americans in the entertainment industry,” says veteran stuntwoman Jadie David, 66, who worked as actress Pam Grier’s stunt double during the blaxploitation film era. “It was called the Black Stuntmen’s Association, but their fight evolved to include people of color, women and all marginalized people in the entertainment industry.”
Robinson, of Los Angeles, will be joining the BSA “pioneers” during their trip to D.C. to shoot footage for a documentary she is working on, chronicling their “untold” and “courageous” story of breaking down “the barriers of race and gender in Hollywood against incredible and dangerous odds.”
“Many times they didn’t have the proper safety equipment or airbags; they literally put their lives on the line every day,” adds Robinson. “Once they got on those sets, they didn’t know if they would make it home [alive] or not. They paid a high price for inclusion.”
Robinson says famed music producer Quincy Jones is executive producer for the aptly titled “Breaking Bones, Breaking Barriers,” which Robinson is producing with Cecilia Peck, the film’s director and daughter of famed actor Gregory Peck. The full-length feature is set to be released in 2017 and will include interviews with BSA members, activists, journalists, Smithsonian reps and Academy Award-winning actors Gossett Jr. and Whoopi Goldberg.
In 2012, the BSA received an NAACP Image Award; state legislators in California, Mississippi and Nevada have also celebrated the organization. Most members agree, however, that being a part of a Smithsonian exhibit feels like a once-in-a-lifetime honor.
As for Elam, it seems he landed on his feet in more ways than one, when he managed to get down that telephone pole 40 years ago. He went into full retirement in 2010, after many years working as a stuntman, leading a highly-sought-after stunt training class and also working as the stunt coordinator for many films, including “Deep Cover,” “Hoodlum” and “The Color Purple.”
He has officially passed the torch; all three of his adult sons, Ousaun, Kiante and Kofi now work as stuntmen for some of the most elite black film stars: Samuel Jackson, Morgan Freeman, Will Smith, Don Cheadle and Jamie Foxx.
Harris says he and his BSA colleagues take pride in knowing that they helped pave the way: “We were the ones who opened the door.”