Stuntwoman Heidi von Beltz, paralyzed in a 1980 movie-set accident, tells her remarkable story

By Dana Kennedy
Updated April 12, 1996 at 04:00 AM EDT

It’s like someone put you in a cannon and shot you into a brick wall and you went slithering down and then someone said, Okay, get up and walk.

”This is a pretty easy day,” explains Heidi von Beltz, a former stuntwoman and actress, as she pedals another mile on her motorized leg bike in the workout room of her rented house in Malibu. Sweat pours down her face as she works her hand bike; she grimaces while doing vertical sit-ups in her standing frame.

Today, von Beltz, six feet tall, tanned, toned, and striking at 40, is working out for only 4 hours, instead of her usual 10. ”Like I’m supposed to sit around on my butt all day?” she says of her vigorous exercise routine. ”Forget it!” Her goal, which has not changed in the 16 years since a stunt-car crash on the set of The Cannonball Run, one of the worst accidents in the history of movies, made her a quadriplegic, is to get up and walk. But even the super-disciplined von Beltz can be forgiven for slacking off today — she’s got a million things to do.

For one, Melanie Griffith is in town with Antonio Banderas. The women — Griffith calls von Beltz ”my best buddess” — have been friends for more than 25 years and want to see each other before Griffith and Banderas fly off to Budapest, where he’s filming Evita. And this is the week von Beltz is finally going to start walking with braces at a rehab center in Beverly Hills.

But what’s really complicating matters are the publicity demands — radio interviews, TV shows, and signings — surrounding von Beltz’s new book, My Soul Purpose. It’s a gritty, gossipy account of her life — and the accident that helped tighten Hollywood’s stunt standards — that is by turns nightmarish and uplifting. (She wrote the book with journalist Peter Copeland at the personal request of Random House chairman Harry Evans.) Packed with anecdotes about Hollywood royalty, many of whom von Beltz counts as close friends, Purpose is also perhaps the most irreverent book ever written on what von Beltz calls ”the worst thing that can happen to you except death.”

And that’s about the only negative thing von Beltz says about her accident, which left her paralyzed below the neck. She now calls the crash a blessing in disguise — and not just because her lawsuit against the movie’s producers led to required seat-belt use in all stunt cars and caused the Directors Guild to prohibit directors from altering stunts on location, as did Cannonball‘s Hal Needham. ”I’m the happiest I’ve ever been,” says von Beltz, who hopes to someday turn her Malibu property into a center to help people with spinal injuries walk again. ”I was always so active that I would never have sat down long enough to learn what I’ve learned. I can’t imagine going through this life and not knowing what I know now. I just had to break my neck to do it.”

Von Beltz combines that can-do attitude with a party-till-you-drop philosophy — she routinely hosted champagne bashes in her hospital room after her accident, attended a glitzy party aboard a sailboat while lashed to the mast in her wheelchair shortly after being discharged, and insisted on being strapped in her speedboat for races with friends off Malibu. Her zest and somewhat gurulike aura (she tried, so far successfully, to wean the pregnant Griffith off cigarettes last month by sending her to a hypnotist and then giving her pep talks) may be why her showbiz friends number in the hundreds. Among them: Bruce Willis (the flirtatious von Beltz saw him on Moonlighting and sent him a glossy photo of herself and a couple dozen roses), Jamie Lee Curtis, ICM president Jim Wiatt, producers like Michael Douglas’ partner Steve Reuther (who was a quadriplegic after a car accident himself and recovered fully after 10 years of therapy), Hollywood veterans like writer Buck Henry and playwright George Furth.

Over the years, they’ve flocked to her house on a cliff above Zuma Beach for frequent barbecues and other shindigs. ??We’re all a bunch of moths around her,?? says von Beltz’s other best friend, actress Kathleen Quinlan. ??She’s such a bright light, and she gives it away. I’ve never seen her feel sorry for herself, and I’ve never felt sorry for her. She’s a real butt kicker. We call her the queen of Malibu.??

Before she became queen of Malibu, von Beltz was a kind of Hollywood princess, the daughter of Brad von Beltz, a B-movie and TV actor once under contract to Universal Studios, and his wife, Patty, a homemaker. By the time she was in her teens, Heidi, the youngest of three kids, was a champion skier, budding model, and actress who ran with a fast crowd. ??We were about 15 or 16, and we were really wild,?? recalls Griffith, who was then living with Don Johnson while von Beltz was dating a man in his 30s (she later had brief flings with Jack Nicholson and the then-unknown Harrison Ford). ??Heidi was an awesome specimen — gorgeous and athletic. She could do anything — she was a total daredevil. That’s why I think there must be a reason for what happened to her. She’s a living example of how you don’t have to be a victim.??

For von Beltz, whose natural athleticism drew her to stunt work between modeling and acting gigs (she guest-starred on Charlie’s Angels and Starsky and Hutch), the high life suddenly ended on the Las Vegas set of The Cannonball Run in 1980. She was doubling for Farrah Fawcett as a passenger in an Aston Martin when the driving trick went wrong and the car crashed into a van. ??When they ran up to the car,?? says von Beltz, ??they found my head literally hanging down on my back. That’s how disconnected it was — it was hanging by a thread. My neck had exploded — part of it was missing.??

Von Beltz was taken to a local hospital, where doctors strapped her to a bed for 16 days (today doctors advocate starting movement as soon as possible after such accidents to prevent scar tissue from forming and further cutting off nerves) and told her parents her injuries were among the worst they had ever seen. They gave her five years to live and recommended institutionalization.

Her parents, both students of New Age metaphysics and Christian Science, refused to accept the prognosis. ??Brad said there were only solutions, not problems,?? Heidi says about her father, who prefers ??Brad?? to ??Dad.?? ??Our mind-set was that I was going to get well and walk again.?? But, adds Patty, ??we were babes in the woods. I’d never even known anyone in a wheelchair before. We had no idea what to do.??

In 1980, there were few tools or techniques for quadriplegics who hoped to walk. ??They tell you to learn to love your wheelchair,?? von Beltz says ruefully. She uses hers as infrequently as possible; often it is her 65-year-old father who carries her around.

More than one person has questioned the family’s belief that Heidi is not a permanent cripple but more like an athlete recovering from a sports injury. Doctors, even friends, have wondered whether they’re in denial. ??Denial??? says Patty, Heidi’s warm, wisecracking mother. ??Sure, we’re in denial. Everyone always told us not to give Heidi false hope. Why not? What’s wrong with false hope? That’s part of how we cope. That and sick humor. But more important, who’s to really say what Heidi can accomplish???

Certainly, von Beltz’s progress has sometimes been glacial (Griffith even learned to catheterize her in the early days when she was incontinent), but she’s come a long way. Initially, von Beltz could not sit up without blacking out, had so much trouble breathing she briefly used a respirator, and had virtually no movement from the neck down. Today, she can sit up, she can move muscles in every part of her body, she has feeling all over, she can control her bodily functions, and she can stand without help in a frame or brace. But she still needs live-in attendants and can’t lift her arms to feed or clothe herself.

The most trying time came in the early 1980s, when her parents persuaded her to sue the filmmakers for insurance money. The first case, which involved wild warring among her own lawyers, one of whom was Melvin Belli, ended in a hung jury; it later came out that two jurors had voted against von Beltz because they believed she had been living ??in sin?? with her boyfriend, stuntman Bobby Bass, at the time of the accident. Von Beltz was eventually awarded $7 million after the second trial, though a judge reduced the amount and she ended up with $3.2 million. (Some of the settlement is used to pay Heidi’s living expenses; the rest was used to invest in a small Malibu beachfront house, where the elder von Beltzes live, and which is often rented out for location shoots.) Patty says she never saw her husband cry until he had to take the stand and broke down in frustration over what he saw as petty legal maneuvering. ??I had a pretty easy life until this happened,?? she says. ??Since then, I’ve never met so many people who pissed me off.??

One person who was firmly on the von Beltzes’ side was actor Ray Liotta. A friend of Melanie Griffith’s second husband, Steven Bauer, Liotta met Heidi in 1981, less than a year after she was discharged from the Long Beach, Calif., rehab hospital where she’d been moved from Las Vegas. Living with her parents, she began a torrid 13-month affair with Liotta, even though she says her body at the time was ??so flaccid it was like a dead body. I was like liquid. I had no infrastructure.?? Liotta ??gave me my womanhood back. He gave me back myself and my independence.??

Liotta, who had left the New York-based soap opera Another World in 1981 to try movies in L.A., virtually moved in with the von Beltzes. He and Heidi first made love about a month after meeting. ??I was really worried about it,?? says von Beltz. ??First of all, my mother was practically in the next room. How weird was that? Then I tried to figure out how we’d do it. Once you’re on the bed, the next step is, who’s going to do what, and since you’re not doing anything, it’s up to the other person. But Ray was very tender and very sensual and made it seem like we were both involved. It turned out to be great and I could feel a lot more than I thought I could.??

Liotta went with von Beltz to New York City in 1982, where she was Griffith’s maid of honor in her wedding to Bauer. (Von Beltz also attended Griffith’s 1989 Aspen remarriage to Don Johnson.) But the two broke up, von Beltz says, when they realized the affair was getting in the way of their ambitions. ??Ray needed to work on his career, and I needed to concentrate on getting up,?? she says. Still, the breakup was ??the most devastating thing I’ve ever gone through. It was much worse than the accident. I loved him so much.??

Though they haven’t spoken in several years and Liotta (who declined to comment for this story) now lives with actress Michelle Grace, von Beltz says she still loves him and hopes they’ll reunite. She admits, however, that ??we may have grown too far apart by now.?? Von Beltz has not dated anyone else since. ??I can’t imagine fitting anyone in right now. I completely switched the focus of my life to getting up.??

Since November, von Beltz has been spending four days a week at the PEERS (Physical and Electrical Engineering Rehabilitation Systems) clinic in Beverly Hills, which is helping her reach her goal through a combination of physical therapy, electrical stimulation, and custom-designed braces. When von Beltz stood up in her new walking braces at the clinic in early March, Griffith was there to cheer her on.

??Will she walk without help again??? asks Dr. Paul A. Berns, the medical director of the program. ??We don’t guarantee anything, but a lot of it is up to the individual. And Heidi is about the most motivated individual I’ve ever seen.??

Von Beltz, of course, has ??no doubt?? she’ll walk again. For years, after devouring dozens of books about spirituality and medicine, she’s counseled others paralyzed in accidents, like jockey Willie Shoemaker and recently injured Boston hockey player Travis Roy. She also sent word to actor Christopher Reeve — though she hasn’t heard back. ??It’s not about paralysis,?? she says. ??It’s about taking whatever terrible thing happened to you and, by reprogramming your mind, witnessing a total transformation of how you thought things had to be.??

In the 16 years since her accident, von Beltz says she has never had a dream in which she was in her wheelchair. ??In my dreams, I’m just like I always used to be,?? she says. ??I’m out there running around.??