Hollywood's stunt force -- They may put the action in films, but Bob Brown says they ''aren't crazy''

To the few pedestrians on the street, it must have looked as if the man jumping from the 16th story of an office building in Westwood, Calif., was hell-bent on killing himself. Bob Brown actually wasn’t committing suicide, but he was doing something almost as crazy. The man now appearing on over a thousand screens as stunt double for T-1000 actor Robert Patrick in Terminator 2, Brown was trying to set a personal-best record by plunging 180 feet, 20 feet more than he’d ever attempted before. And not simply by jumping the distance halfway normally. No, Brown, 32, a world-champion high diver and trampolinist, dove backward through a breakaway-glass window and executed a 2 1/4 somersault with a full twist before landing on a massive air bag below.

Of course, he wasn’t doing this just for his own amusement. One of the leading stuntpeople in the business, Brown took the fall for the benefit of The Ultimate Challenge, the new Fox reality-based show that chronicles feats of daredevilry. His chancy dive — and the existence of the Fox show and syndicated TV’s new Stuntmasters — indicate how radically the stunt game has changed. Hollywood’s hunger for action films has made stunts much more ambitious, breathtaking, and dangerous and has bred a new kind of person to perform them. Dick Butler, former president of the Stuntmen’s Association, says that when he got started 30 years ago, ”there were the crazy Johns who’d take a swig of booze, fall off a horse, and miss their spot at the hitching rail. You can’t get by with that now. Gags are much more deadly these days.”

And stuntpeople, maybe, are a tad less colorful. Rowdy wildcatting has been replaced by a cool, methodical, highly professional approach. Many of today’s stuntpeople are athletes who come into the field with a background in trampoline, track and field, motocross, and gymnastics. ”We’re physical technicians,” says Brown, who did a series of 160-foot jumps off the roof of a 17-story Century City hotel for the recent movie Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man. ”We’re not daredevils, and we’re not crazy.”

Brown’s preparation for the Ultimate Challenge fall was in fact a model of sanity: He practiced the somersaults and twists off a trampoline and a 30-foot scaffold for over four months. But a stunt for Terminator 2 — flying out the window of a three-story building at 35 to 40 mph on a motorcycle, then getting jerked off the bike by a cable attached to his lower back — did cause some to question his sanity. ”People speculated I’d get hurt badly,” Brown says, ”but it’s something I felt I could do because I was working with good people.”

The small world of elite Hollywood stuntpeople — about 95 men and 5 women work regularly and earn over $200,000 a year — is a protective, close-knit one, bound by the shared experience of danger. It is also a world that insists on taking responsibility when things go wrong. If an accident happens, a stuntperson usually blames himself. It’s part of the code.

”If you get hurt, it’s usually nobody’s fault but your own,” says Jon Epstein, who doesn’t toss off that principle lightly: Four years ago he broke his back on the set of Firewalker when a special-effects man released him too early from a rope. After two months in a brace and five more months of rehabilitation, Epstein gradually reentered the stunt biz. In hindsight he blames himself. ”I should have been more sure of who I was working with,” he says. ”It’s up to each one of us to walk away from a stunt we don’t think is safe or hasn’t been set up right.”

More recently, Jay Currin was killed while filming the summer release Bikini Island. In a 55-foot jump from a cliff in Malibu last September, Currin landed on a corner of his air bag. The consensus among the stunt community was that Currin had ”miscalculated” and failed to land on target.

There is one area, however, where stuntpeople aren’t taking the fall but are increasingly pointing a finger. The growing demand for stunt-packed movies has led to a rise in low-budget, nonunion action films, which aren’t subject to the rigorous safety and special-effects standards enforced on union sets. ”When a production company tries to do something cheap,” Epstein says, ”that’s when things go wrong.”

There’s a sharp double edge to such nonunion movies: They’re often the best, or only, way for newcomers to break into the stunt business, yet the complicated stunts being performed require the expertise of the highest-paid people to pull them off safely.

In May 1989, while in the Phlippines shooting Cannon Films’ Delta Force II, starring Chuck Norris, five men were killed after their helicopter crashed into a hillside and exploded. According to published accounts, the helicopter had a spotty maintenance record and the site had been judged unsafe by another stuntman. After the crash, some of the injured were transported in trucks instead of ambulances.

”Cannon was utterly pathetic, and they are to this day, in how they treated this,” charges stuntman Charlie Brewer, whose brother Geoff was killed in the tragedy. A multimillion-dollar civil suit, filed against the film company by the families of the victims, is still pending.

Two years earlier, four people were killed in a strikingly similar scenario involving Missing in Action III — another Cannon film starring Chuck Norris with an ill-fated helicopter scene shot in the Philippines. Cannon executives did not return phone calls for this story.

Despite their aura of confidence, many stuntpeople pray before executing a stunt and make sure their dues to the Screen Actors Guild, which provides their insurance, are paid up. Yet stuntpeople swear they rarely think about death. Bob Brown doesn’t even have a will drawn up. And sometimes he jokes about his funeral arrangements. If anything happens, the song he wants played at his service is the one he says best exemplifies the stuntman’s life: Bon Jovi’s ”Wanted Dead or Alive.”