Mickey Gilbert: A Stuntman’s Stuntman
Above: Mickey Gilbert jumping between horses for Robert Redford in Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid.
By Stephen B. Armstrong
Few professionals in Hollywood have a filmography as impressive as Mickey Gilbert’s. Over a career spanning nearly seven decades, he’s been a stuntman, a stunt coordinator and a director, with credits that include The Wild Bunch, Blazing Saddles and The Last of the Mohicans. He’s appeared in several motion pictures filmed in Utah, too, including The Electric Horseman, City Slickers II: The Legend of Curly’s Gold and Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid.
On Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, Mickey served as stunt double for Robert Redford, one of the male leads in this classic western. He and Redford, as a matter of fact, attended the same high school in Van Nuys, California, in the fifties. But, as Mickey notes in his autobiography, Me and My Saddle-Pal: My Life as a Hollywood Stuntman, the two “didn’t know each other back then. We traveled in different circles.” A friendship arose between them during the making of Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, though, that continues today.
Mickey Gilbert found his way into movie work by way of the rodeo. “I rode bucking horses, roped calves and steer wrestled. I did that for a long time. When I got married to my wife, Yvonne, I got to know her dad, Joe Yrigoyen, who was a big-time stuntman. Joe started [coordinating stunts] for a lot of shows, so he asked me to go on one of his movies. I think it was Texas across the River. But I turned that down because I didn’t want people thinking that I had married Joe’s daughter to get work as a stuntman. I waited for other opportunities.”
Fortunately, a job on the Civil War picture Alvarez Kelly came up in 1965, for which Mickey doubled Richard Widmark. And he subsequently appeared in Beau Geste, a movie about the French Foreign Legion filmed in Arizona, and Africa: Texas Style, in which he used the skills he’d honed on the rodeo circuit for roping wild animals. Mickey got so busy in the mid-sixties that “I couldn’t make the rodeo anymore. I was learning different types of stunts to the point where I could take any kind of job. I just wanted to be a guy who could do any of it well. Then I started running shows myself, coordinating stunts. I wanted to do better than that—I wanted to get into directing. So I got jobs doing second unit, which is shooting action scenes.” Since the mid-nineties, Mickey has directed second unit for dozens of pictures, among them both of the City Slickers films and Redford’s The Horse Whisperer.
In 1969, he headed to Colorado to plan out a dangerous jump sequence for Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid. He recalls that he and actor Paul Newman and director George Roy Hill stood on a cliff overlooking the Animas River outside Durango. “It was quite a ways down. And when I walked over there, I shook my head.” He told Newman and Hill to look at “‘all that white water. That’s about a hundred and twenty-five feet down there. Well, underneath that white water there is nothing but rocks. The river hits them, and it boils the water, and the water turns to foam. All that area may be two feet deep. I wouldn’t myself do the jump there because I want to keep working for the rest of my life.’”
The film’s producers decided eventually to shoot elsewhere, but Mickey’s understanding and experience were such that they retained him to do other stunt-related work. In many of the scenes in which Redford’s character, Sundance, rides a horse—that’s Mickey on the saddle.
He also worked on the famous scene shot in Grafton, Utah, where Paul Newman’s Butch Cassidy character performs tricks on a bicycle to amuse a school teacher played in the film by Katharine Ross. This time Mickey doubled for Newman. While the actor for the most part rode the bicycle himself along Grafton’s rutted roads, the producers wanted to get shots of his character, Butch Cassidy, speeding along with his feet pointed up in the air.
To do this, Mickey explained, “They hired a circus guy to stand on his head on the bike. That was going to be the last gag that Newman did, and so the director came to me when we were up there in Utah, and he said, ‘We’re bringing up the guy who’s going to stand on his head and ride the bike through the fence where the bull is.’ I said, ‘Oh, good.’” When the man from the circus arrived, director George Roy Hill asked Mickey “to take [him] and see what he can do.” As the two walked together, however, the circus performer started “making these excuses. He said that he could ride on his head for five feet or so, ‘But you gotta catch me.’”
The revelation bothered Mickey. “‘Hey, wait a minute, nobody can be beside Newman [in the shot]. This is just going to be Newman riding his bike [on his head], having a great time.’ So the guy said, ‘Well, no, I can’t do that.’ And I said, ‘you’ve been on salary for almost eight weeks while we’ve been in Mexico scouting locations. You’ve been getting paid all this money, and you want me to go back and tell them you can’t do it? I think you’re out of here.’ They put him on a plane and flew him home.”
Although Mickey had a bad ear infection, which he’d picked up floating down the Animas River with Newman’s stunt double, Jim Arnett, he and Jim went down into the apple orchard where Newman had been practicing on his bicycle. “Newman and Redford were up in these apple trees picking apples. So Jim and me started picking rotten apples off the ground and throwing them at them in the tree. Newman and Redford shouted, ‘Let’s get them!’ They started running after us, throwing apples at us, and I jumped on Newman’s bike and got on it backwards and rode off backwards, just laughing. All of a sudden Newman said ‘He’s riding the bike backwards! Why don’t we do that? Forget the headstand!’” When you watch the film and see Butch Cassidy riding the bicycle backwards, in other words, you’re looking at Mickey.
In 1978, Mickey returned to Utah to double for Robert Redford on The Electric Horseman, a modern-day western about a rodeo entertainer named Sonny Steele, who runs afoul of the law when he steals a horse that he thinks has been mistreated. Throughout the story, the central character wears a special suit fitted out with electric bulbs, hence the picture’s title. Mickey can be seen riding the horse in many of the scenes in which the police pursue Sonny, with shots filmed around downtown St. George.
Redford and director Sidney Pollack, who both owned homes in Utah, wanted to shoot as much as possible throughout their adopted state, particularly in the arid region that stretches between Moab and St. George. They filmed on location using locals, as well, one time filling the stands at the St. George Rodeo Grounds with extras for a scene in which Sonny Steele, after a bout of drinking, comes out of a bucking chute and falls when his horse rears.
“There was a big turnout at the rodeo grounds,” Mickey said. “People came from all over as they gave prizes away to keep them there in the stands. Redford didn’t really want to come out of his room and get in the suit and get on his horse.” So Mickey, in the electric suit he’d been given to wear, went out on the horse himself. “They introduced me to the crowd as Redford and turned on the [suit’s] lights.”
He wore an ear piece and microphone that enabled him to communicate with Pollack. “I could hear Sydney say, ‘Get closer to the crowd.’ ‘Okay,’ I said, ‘but I think they’re going to recognize me.’ I kept riding. I got about six feet from the wall. There were all kinds of kids leaning down over the rail, thinking it’s Redford they’re seeing. I got closer and closer, weaving on my saddle like I’m going to fall off. Then I heard one girl saying, ‘I don’t think that was Redford!’ And then I hear, ‘No, it’s not him. It’s not!’ Then the crowd started stomping their feet. ‘We want Redford! We want Redford!’ By that time, I was already out in the middle of the arena. I got the horse to rear, and I fell off. The producers wanted to do more close-ups, so I went back inside to Bob and said, ‘Now they know it’s me, so you’re going to have to put that suit on and go out there.’ He put the suit on, and he went out there, and, of course, everybody was whooping and hollering.”
Mickey has worked behind the camera in Utah, as well. For City Slickers II: The Legend of Curly’s Gold, he wrote and directed a “a big horse stampede” that he filmed in the Moab area. “We found this gorge, oh, maybe twenty feet wide and half-a-mile long, that ran down deep like a big cut in the soil. I told the cinematographer, ‘This would be a wild spot.’ We trained 500 head of horses to go from point A to B…with a chuck wagon and a team of mules all mixed in, near the same place where the car in Thelma and Louise jumped off the cliff.”
Now in his eighties, Mickey still works in the movies. He recently doubled for Redford on The Old Man & the Gun, a thriller about an elderly convict who escapes from prison, which is due in theaters next spring. “I got the call from the stunt coordinator. ‘Mickey,’ he said, ‘Redford is doing this movie, and I want you here for sure.’”
Mickey accepted the offer, understanding he would double his old friend for some car chase footage. Twenty years had passed since the pair had last worked together, on The Horse Whisperer. Mickey came to the set and was chatting with members of The Old Man & The Gun’s crew when he saw Redford coming down “from getting his wardrobe on.” Back when he and Newman and Redford had collaborated on Butch Cassidyand The Sundance Kid and later The Sting in the sixties and seventies, Mickey explained to me, they would sometimes cry “Hey!” to get each other’s attention, which became a part of their dialogue—one of the ways they talked to one another. So on the set of The Old Man & The Gun that day, as he saw Redford walking toward a chair, Mickey called out, “‘Hey!’” The actor “perked up,” recognizing the voice. “‘Where are you?’’ he said. Mickey crossed the set and the two embraced. “We just started talking and talking and talking. ‘God, it’s so good to see you,’ we said. ‘Now let’s get ready and make a movie!’”
Stephen B. Armstrong is a Professor of English at Dixie State University.
The author wishes to thank Yvonne Gilbert, Rebecca Rockwell and James D’Arc for their assistance.
Above: Mickey stands in for Redford for a pyrotechnic effect, Mickey riding the bicycle backwards for Paul Newman, and Mickey performs a “high fall” in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
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