Joe Powell, stuntman – obituary
July 27, 2016
Joe Powell, who has died aged 94, was known as the “daddy of British stuntmen” for the gut-wrenchingly high-risk feats he performed in classic adventure films such as Where Eagles Dare and The Guns of Navarone.
For The Man Who Would Be King, John Huston’s adaptation of a Rudyard Kipling story filmed in the Atlas mountains, Powell, “doubling” for Sean Connery, had to plunge 100 ft from a collapsed rope bridge into a perilous ravine: if he had missed the target area covered with boxes to cushion his fall, he would have plummeted a further 2,000 ft. The co-star Michael Caine walked away saying: “I’m not going to watch this one.” Huston was delighted, saying it was “the darnedest stunt I ever saw”.
During the course of his career Powell suffered a few broken ribs, and a broken hip after a horse fell on him, but he did not allow himself to be unduly troubled by nerves. “The thing is,” he explained, “you don’t have time to be scared – if you stop to think about what you are doing you wouldn’t do it… I didn’t have any training so when I performed a stunt the audience were literally seeing someone fall off a cliff – it made it more realistic.”
Joseph Augustus Powell was born on March 21 1922 at the Shepherd and Flock public house, Shepherd’s Bush, where his father, Joseph, a former quartermaster sergeant in the Life Guards, was the landlord. Joe was brought up in Camden where his father had the tenancy of a pub called the Camden Head, then in Chelsea where, after the death of his father, his mother Ada (neé Blunt) ran the Prince of Wales in Dover Street.
Joe was one of five siblings; his only brother, Eddie, also became a stuntman. Whiling away his spare time while his parents were running the pub, he joined first the Cubs and then the 1st Battalion Royal Fusiliers Cadet Corps. He enjoyed soldiering, and soon after the outbreak of war, when he was still only 17, he joined the Grenadier Guards. To break the monotony of drill and PT he took up boxing with the regimental team, but as the war progressed he was selected for No 4 Special Service (Commando) unit, taking part in the 1942 raid on Dieppe, during which he was briefly knocked out, and in the D-Day invasion.
With the war in Europe over, Powell was sent to Germany, where he learnt to ride. He had little idea of what he was going to do apart from vague thoughts of becoming a professional boxer. But in 1946 a chance meeting at a bus stop with the actor Dennis Price led to Powell visiting the studios where Price was filming a Napoleonic-era musical with Stewart Granger called The Magic Bow.
Powell was struck by how comically unrealistic Napoleon’s “crack soldiers” were and determined that here might be an opening. “I’m going into the film industry,” he told his friends, “to bring realism into action films.”
Demobbed in the rank of sergeant, he managed to get a job as an extra at Pinewood. He was sparring at the Polytechnic Boxing Club in Regent Street and through a friendship there he ended up as a founding partner in a stunt team set up by Captain Jock Easton MC, who was just out of the SAS.
For Powell’s first big stunt, in The Small Voice, filmed at Ealing Studios, he played a motorcycle policeman pursuing a criminal gang in a car. He had to simulate being shot at, swerving off the road at 40 mph and crashing into a tree. The stunt was so lifelike that the prop man assumed Powell really had been injured.
Powell appeared in nearly 100 films, including Captain Horatio Hornblower (1951), Moby Dick (1956), Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (1965). It was not unusual for him to be blown up, machine-gunned or otherwise “killed” multiple times in one picture, as when he played German soldiers in Where Eagles Dare (1968). He always insisted that he had not trained to be a stuntman, though one special skill he had was falling from heights.
As well as the rope bridge fall in The Man Who Would Be King, there was a dramatic plunge 90 ft down from the side of a sinking ship (Titanic) in A Night to Remember in 1958, filmed in Glasgow docks. Then in 1961 for The Guns of Navarone he took the role of a German shot by Gregory Peck and dropping 90 ft from a cave into the sea by the island of Rhodes. It went without a hitch, though he was heavily bruised.
Living through a golden age of films with military themes, Powell applied his own Army experience to his projects. In 1964 he took on a rare acting role in one such film, as Sgt Windridge, in Cy Endfield’s Zulu. The film contained some unusual stunts; Powell also trained the Zulus and helped choreograph the battle scenes.
In 1962 he worked on The Longest Day, the film based on Cornelius Ryan’s book about D-Day, which depicted events in which he had been involved. Visiting the set one day with the producer Darryl Zanuck, Lord Lovat was heard to say: “There’s Powell, one of my sergeants.”
Powell appeared in three Bond films and the spoof Casino Royale. In 1969, in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, he stood in for Telly Savalas as the criminal mastermind Blofeld in a terrifying bobsleigh chase.
In retirement Powell kept up his keep-fit enthusiasm. Looking back on his career he was particularly proud of the fact that he had helped stunt performers to gain acceptance into Equity, the actors’ union. He had a lifelong love of the sea and was in the crew of the replica ship Mayflower II when it sailed to America in 1957.
He was twice married, first to Marguerite, known as “Clem”; she died of cancer. His second wife, Juliet, also died, and he is survived by four sons and a daughter; another daughter predeceased him.
POWELL, Joe (Joseph Augusta Powell)
Born: 3/21/1922, Shepherd’s Bush, London, England, U.K.
Died: 6/30/2016, London, England, U.K.
Joe Powell’s western – stuntman:
Africa: Texas Style - 1967