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Stuntman Hal Needham boasts in his autobiography that he “broke 56 bones, my back twice, punctured a lung and knocked out a few teeth.”
Those are the trophies from a life spent falling off horses, crashing cars, and plummeting from buildings for the sake of the movies. Now he can add a less painful one to the list — an honorary Academy Award.
Needham, 81, is one of four Hollywood figures selected late Wednesday to receive an honorary Oscar from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences at the upcoming Governors Awards, joining documentarian D.A. Pennebaker, American Film Institute founder George Stevens, Jr., and DreamWorks Animation chief Jeffrey Katzenberg.
The awards will be presented on Dec. 1 during a ceremony at the Hollywood & Highland Center, just next door to the Dolby Theatre (formerly the Kodak Theatre) where the Oscars will be presented in February.
The honorary Oscar statuettes are presented by the Academy’s Board of Governors for what the organization describes as “extraordinary distinction in lifetime achievement.” Last year’s recipients were James Earl Jones, makeup artist Dick Smith, and Oprah Winfrey.
Needham began working as a stuntman on such films as 1957’s The Spirit of St. Louis and went on to do stunt work in such classics as The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), Little Big Man (1970), and Blazing Saddles and Chinatown (both 1974). Popular Mechanics once ranked his six greatest stunts.
As demands increased for more death-defying stunts (well before the advent of digital technology), Needham was credited with improving stunt safety and won an Academy scientific and engineering award for designing the Shotmaker Elite camera car and crane for capturing high-speed action sequences.
After his days of getting pulverized came to an end, he shifted toward directing, often for films starring Burt Reynolds, his longtime friend (Needham lived for many years in Reynolds’ guest house). His directorial debut was 1977’s Smokey and the Bandit, though he also did some stunt work on that one. He also directed 1981’s Cannonball Run and its 1984 sequel, Stroker Ace (1983), and the 1986 BMX racing drama Rad, among others.
Pennebaker, 87 (pictured, left), is best known for the iconic Bob Dylan documentary Don’t Look Back (1967), and was nominated for an Oscar for 1993’s The War Room, about then Gov. Bill Clinton’s successful presidential campaign. He began his career in 1953 with the short film Daybreak Express, about a ride on a New York City elevated train set to the music of Duke Ellington. (Turner Classic Movies presents it for free here.)
In 1960 he edited Primary, a study of Sen. John F. Kennedy’s Wisconsin race against Sen. Hubert Humphrey, and politics and music became Pennebaker’s signature subjects as he pioneered the naturalistic cinema verite style of documentary filmmaking. His other films include 1970’s Alice Cooper, 1973’s Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars about David Bowie, and 2000’s Down From the Mountain, a concert film about the folk musicians from the Grammy-winning O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack.
As founding director of the American Film Institute, George Stevens, Jr., 80, influenced Hollywood in countless ways by creating a steady flow of new filmmaking talent into the industry through the organization’s Center for Advanced Film Studies, which became the AFI Conservatory. He also co-founded the Kennedy Center Honors in 1977, an event he continues to produce.
Stevens, son of Academy Award-winning director George Stevens (Giant, A Place in the Sun), received his own Oscar nomination for producing the documentary short The Five Cities of June, which chronicled newsworthy events happening simultaneously around the world in the early summer of 1963. He also executive produced 1998’s The Thin Red Line, which was nominated for best picture and directed by Terrence Malick — a graduate from the first class at AFI’s film school in 1969.
The fourth award is not only an Oscar statuette, but the Jean Hersholt Award, recognizing humanitarian good deeds. Katzenberg, 61, has been a longtime chairman of the board of the Motion Picture and Television Fund, which provides care for the elderly or ill film and television workers, and he has helped to raise $200 million for the organization, in part through events such as his famed “Night Before” Oscar party.
His other philanthropic endeavors include, as listed by the Academy, serving on the boards of the California Institute of the Arts, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, AIDS Project Los Angeles, the Geffen Playhouse, The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and the USC School of Cinematic Arts.
December’s ceremony will be produced by Cheryl Boone Isaacs and the Don Mischer Production team of Mischer, Charlie Haykel and Juliane Hare. Though the event will not be televised, segments of it will air during ABC’s Academy Awards broadcast on Feb. 24, 2013.
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