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8.1.15

You Think I’m Crazy? Meet My Daughter.

You start out diving for coins on Martha’s Vineyard and the next thing you know you are a Hollywood stunt dynasty.

Have you seen the movie Earthquake? There’s a scene in it when a guy on a motorcycle rides through a circular corkscrew track and onto a ramp, then over a truck and onto another ramp. He does a figure eight and straightens out, flies through a burning fire, then sails over some twenty feet of spikes before hitting yet another ramp. It is, in a word, freaking cool. (That’s two words, but you understand the need to cheat.)

When the final cut was screened for cast and crew, Carol Washington sat in the dark theater next to her husband, Richard. And when the motorcycle scene appeared, after the driver had hit his last mark and the scene cut away, she turned to Richard and calmly said to him, “You are crazy.”

“Everybody turned around and looked at me,” Richard Washington recalled in his own calm voice some decades later, seated not in a dark theater but in the warm late-summer light of his home in Vineyard Haven. He’s in his seventies now, and retired. Washington’s appeared in everything from Dirty Harry to Die Hard with a Vengeance. He was KITT in Knight Rider for a time, and coordinated stunts for The Deep. He’s swum with sharks and had a car blow up on him. He narrowly missed having his head smashed by a special effects eel (a scarier moment, he said, than the car blowing up).

“Mom never wanted to know what he was doing until it was over,” said daughter Kym Washington-Longino.

Richard Washington and Kym Washington-Longino duke it out at his home in Vineyard Haven.
Ivy

Not everyone is cut out to be a stunt person. It takes a certain mentality, equal parts pragmatic and thrill seeking. It’s hard to cultivate that mindset. Most people who end up as fall guys are born with it, Washington said.

That’s particularly true of Washington-Longino, who entered the family business about a decade after her dad did, and is still a professional stuntwoman based in Frederick, Maryland. The pair is the first and only African-American father-daughter duo in the stunt business.

“She came in under my tutoring because I was already established,” Washington said. As a young girl, Washington-Longino was the son Washington never had (he and Carol have two daughters), a tomboy who loved riding motorcycles with her dad. She went to college as a backup plan in case stunt work didn’t pan out, but ultimately decided to make the leap. Or fall, as it were: her first job was to fall off two-story-high rafters into a pile of boxes. Washington-Longino did the shot in one take.

“As a kid, you know, we would practice,” Washington-Longino said. “Off the garage [roof] onto a mattress, things like that. I liked the excitement.” It felt normal to her, given her dad’s career.

When Washington entered the stunt world in 1968 there were barely any black stuntmen working. The Black Stuntmen’s Association (BSA) was a fledgling organization, only a year old, formed to address the standard practice at the time: literally painting white stuntmen several shades darker and denying all jobs to blacks in the process. Minorities across the board – women, Latinos, Asians – couldn’t get work because of the paint-down practice.

In The Deep, Washington was the double for (a taller) Louis Gosset Jr.
Courtesy Richard Washington

“For a while, it absolutely stunk,” Washington says. Then, a “friend of a friend of a friend” started the BSA. The NAACP got involved, filing lawsuits on behalf of the organization to break open doors for the stuntmen.

There are still battles to be fought. Last fall, Warner Brothers cancelled plans to paint down a white stuntwoman doubling for a black actress on Gotham after word got out and people protested. For Washington, it’s frustrating, given how hard his generation fought to get doors opened for minority stuntmen.

Everyone in the new association was in the Screen Actors Guild; everyone had a stunt speciality. Washington’s was water work. During the first meetings of the new association, people taught new skills to one another, so their individual repertoires expanded.

“You’re also groomed by some of the old pros, guys that get to like you,” Washington said. “They show you some tricks, [like] how to set a car on fire.” Washington himself taught others how to dive.

“I’ve been in the water, on the water my whole life,” he said. His ease in the water started with summers spent diving for coins at the ferry docks in Oak Bluffs: the Washingtons have been vacationing here since the 1940s. Richard was two when he first came to the Island. The family rented for a time and bought a home on School Street, but ultimately landed at the sunlit house overlooking Lake Tashmoo. (Washington’s catboat, Chocolate Chip, summers in Tashmoo. His main boat, Hot Chocolate, summers in the same place it winters: St. Lucia.)

Stuntman Richard Washington on the set of Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen.
Courtesy Richard Washington

Washington’s coin diving earnings bought him his school wardrobe – “All the stuff my parents wouldn’t buy me,” he said – and notched him the Best Dressed title in high school. And the summer gig paid off in other ways too: Washington was a commercial diver before he moved on to his stunt career.

“Most people do come with an ability,” Washington-Longino said. “You have to have something that will get you in. You can’t just come by and say, ‘Oh, I’m a daredevil.’”

“Stunts is not being a daredevil,” she continued, “Because everything we do is choreographed.”

Have you seen Soylent Green? There’s a crowd scene with people packed into the frame; the bad guy is shooting at Charlton Heston. “He misses, and he shoots me,” Washington said.

Being shot at, being shoved through a crowd, riding shotgun in a careening car, moving out of the way of a careening car (“You just have to jump out of the way,” Washington said. “But you MUST jump out of the way.”) – these are the easy stunts. And there are more challenging ones. It’s up to a stunt coordinator to figure out how to run a scene. The coordinator writes out the action; Washington, when he moved up the ranks to a coordinator position, wrote “every punch” in Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.

Washington-Longino was Whoopi Goldberg’s double for seventeen years, including in the film Theodore Rex.
Courtesy Kym Washington-Longino

“The script reads: ‘And Bob grabs the gun and runs down the street and gets in a car and drives away and you chase him,’” Washington said. “You can’t shoot that. You don’t have where the car is, what the car is, what are you going to do in the car …. does he go up on the sidewalk, does he roll it over at the end? But that’s how it’s written. It’s about six lines.”

“It takes longer to do the action [scenes], not the dialogue,” Washington-Longino said.

Washington-Longino was twenty-three when she took that first fall in 1981, and soon after got into stunt driving in car commercials. She joined the Stuntwomen’s Association of Motion Pictures, and was one of the first black women in the professional group.

“I was the new young girl coming in,” Washington-Longino said. Jadie David, Pam Grier’s regular stunt double, took Washington-Longino under her wing.

“She was kind of my guidance on the women’s side of the business,” Washington-Longino said. In keeping with the stuntmen ethos of looking out for one another, Washington-Longino would return the favor to newcomers over her career; in 2011, she earned a lifetime achievement award for her work as a trailblazer and a mentor.

In the TV series White Shadow, Washington-Longino played a young woman who gets high on drugs and believes she can fly.
Courtesy Kym Washington-Longino

“When you’re a black person, you have to be the best,” Washington said. “You don’t have a whole lot of room. You had to be better than the average white stuntman in many cases. Some of the guys were looking for you to fail: ‘Let’s go back to the white guys and keep painting them.’” The standards were even higher, he said, when he became a coordinator.

Washington and Washington-Longino got the chance to work together on several films before Washington’s retirement, including Get Smart, Kennedy, First Kid, and Mississippi Burning. Washington-Longino has, on occasion, taken on speaking roles and still occasionally gets recognized in public for a bit part she had in season four of The Wire (“Delivery woman gets shot”).

It’s not fame or glory that drives stuntpeople, though.

“Most stuntpeople don’t want it,” Washington said. “We all know actors we’ve worked with or we’ve doubled – I don’t want to live like that. I want to go down to the corner, have a drink with the fellas, take my family out.”

Nor is it money. Income varies year to year according to what projects you’re working on. Scenes in a feature film can take months to wrap. Work in commercials fills the gaps between the long-term things. The best way to ensure stability is to become a regular double for an actor or actress. Washington-Longino doubled for Whoopi Goldberg for seventeen years before Goldberg left acting for The View.

“Most of the big-time actors have [doubles],” Washington said. It’s less about physical resemblance and more about mimicking the actor’s physical mannerisms. When Washington-Longino first started working with Goldberg, Washington gave her one piece of advice: Watch how she moves. Washington-Longino fooled her own mother once when she came home for lunch made up as Goldberg.

There is a particular type of satisfaction that comes from nailing a move, landing a jump, scripting a scene, giving extra oomph to movie magic.

“I [hear], a lot, ‘Oh, you don’t look like a stunt person,’” Washington-Longino said. She smiled. “What are they supposed to look like? They’re just people.”

Comments (5)

Enon Peters
DC
Great article much respect for this dynamic team. I see a book in the makings. A Fan
September 30, 2015 - 1:57pm
Pat Washington
What a great story about a father and daughter (the son he never had) who have excelled in a very non-traditional profession yet are still very grounded in who they are, where they came from and more importantly make a conscious effort to mentor and coach others. I too see a book in the future!
December 25, 2015 - 8:58am
Jean Lorello
Brick NJ
So great to see you !!! I rented 11 Ocean Ave from you for 10 years 1989-2000!!! Oak Bluffs. I loved you guys... You were so good to me as I was a Chicago girl then. Hugs to you all. Jean Lorello
January 26, 2016 - 2:02am
Peter Hoffman
Sweden
I am proud to have meet you and your wounderful wife at Star Clipper! Hi Joe!
March 11, 2017 - 3:06pm
KEVIN BELFORD
520 E CENTRAL #207 WICHITA KANSAS 67202-1007
MY LONG LOST FRIEND RICH! I HAVE MET HIS DAUGHTER!. WE SAILED 1200 MILES FROM THE BAHAMAS TO THE VINEYARD ON HOT CHOCOLATE. DROP ME A LINE, CAPT. KEVIN BELFORD 520 E CENTRAL#207 WICHITA KANSAS 67202-1007. THANK YOU FOR YOUR TIME, YOUR OLD FRIEND SATELLITE KEVIN
August 10, 2017 - 4:31pm
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