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(Credit: Columbia Pictures)


The Hollywood icons that inspired Quentin Tarantino's Cliff Booth

Quentin Tarantino is one of the masters of modern cinema, and regardless of whether you appreciate his style or not, it is impossible to doubt that his influence is up there with some of the greatest directors of all time. From Pulp Fiction to Django Unchained, Tarantino has given cinema many memorable moments over his career, and one of the best arrived in the form of his most recent film, 2019’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

Starring Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Margot Robbie, the movie was something of a conceptual departure for the director. Featuring a customary ensemble cast, the thematic nature is less sinister than in his previous films, set in the heady era of 1969 Los Angeles. The story follows Rick Dalton, an actor struggling with waning relevance, and his stunt double, Cliff Booth, as they navigate a rapidly changing film industry, with the spectre of the Manson family looming in the background. A surreal ode to the final days of Hollywood’s golden age, the picture is one of the most refreshing entries in Tarantino’s filmography. 

Apart from Margot Robbie playing Sharon Tate, the most notable character in the film is Brad Pitt’s stuntman Cliff Booth. A fictional character, a former Green Beret and a veteran of World War Two and the Korean War, it is made very clear – and very quickly – that he is not one to be messed with. According to the director, Booth could even “kill you with a spoon”. Famously, in the movie, Booth overcomes martial arts master Bruce Lee in a fight, but as far as spoilers go, we’ll leave it at that. 

Even though Booth is a work of fiction, it transpires that Tarantino actually based the character on two of Hollywood’s most iconic stuntmen, helping to imbue the character with a tangible sense of reality that allowed the audience to really root for him.

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The first of all is perhaps the most well-regarded of all stuntmen, Harold ‘Hal’ Needham. A former paratrooper, Needham made many movies as a stuntman, and once even trained under John Wayne’s stunt double, Chuck Robertson. A regular body double for the likes of Clint Walker and Burt Reynolds, his credits include Have Gun, Will Travel, How the West Was Won, and The War Lord. Alongside being a stuntman, he also worked behind the camera, directing The Cannonball Run, as well as writing and directing the 1977 comedy-action, Smokey and the Bandit

The Memphis native’s life was like a work of fiction, and his antics are the stuff of legend. Upset by some of the negative critical responses to Smokey and the Bandit and The Cannonball Run, he bought advertisements in a host of publications such as Variety, and placed the quotes of critics next to a picture of a wheelbarrow bursting with money. A man who lived life on the edge, he once fitted a car with a 25,000 horsepower rocket, without a driver, and shot it across a 430-ft chasm, and it is stories such as these that account for the more outlandish side of Booth’s character. 

A pioneer of the stunt industry, many of Needham’s methods are still in use today. Not afraid of the injuries that come as part of the job, he once claimed: “I broke my back twice and 56 bones and knocked out a few teeth”.

The second figure that inspired the creation of Cliff Booth is Gary Kent, the director, actor, and stuntman. After studying journalism at the University of Washington, Kent served in the US Naval Air Corps. However, he spent his time in the Navy writing promotion and publicity for the Navy’s elite flying team, The Blue Angels, instead of getting stuck into the grit of warfare. However, he’s still not one to be messed with, even at the ripe age of 89.

His credits include The Green Hornet and The Man from U.N.C.L.E., and he was Jack Nicholson’s body double in a string of films that include The Savage Seven and Psych-Out. Much like Needham, Kent has lived a life of epic proportions, and aside from being a stuntman and journalist, he’s also had stints as a private detective and rodeo cowboy. 

Kent’s route to becoming a hero of the film industry came via him landing the gig as a movie studio electrician. In his 2009 autobiography, Shadows and Light, he recalled an interesting anecdote of shooting at Spahn Ranch, which features heavily in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, where he came across none other than Charles Manson and his followers. Needing a buggy to be repaired by Manson, Kent found himself physically threatening the diminutive cult leader after he had failed to fix the buggy that he’d promised to for money. 

The lives of both Needham and Kent account for Cliff Booth’s multi-faceted personality, resulting in one of Tarantino’s best and most memorable characters. I know it’s highly improbable, but I think I speak for a lot of people when I say I’d love to see him appear on the silver screen once again.

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