Cameron (Steve Railsback) is a criminal on the run from the police. At one point he is cornered in a diner but manages to escape. Trying to hitch a ride on an old bridge he tries to get into a car that stops. The driver pushes him out and races off. It then turns around and heads back over the bridge at full speed toward him. Cameron throws an iron bolt at the car, and it disappears over the bridge. A helicopter comes down and is filming the incident. What Cameron doesn’t know is that he has stumbled into a movie stunt being filmed on the bridge. Observing all of this is the film’s overly dramatic director, Eli Cross (Peter O’Toole).
The driver of the car was a stunt man named Burt (Michael Railsback). The stunt was not authorized, and Eli didn’t have a permit to do that particular stunt at that particular time. Burt drowns in the accident, but his body is not found. With Burt dead Eli is short a stuntman. He hires Cameron to replace the dead man. Burt was the stuntman for the movie’s star, Raymond Bailey (Adam Roarke). Eli calls Cameron Lucky Burt and pretends that he is the real Burt. Since Eli is well known as being eccentric and Cameron looks similar to the actual stuntman, everyone goes along with the ruse. Cameron gets a crash course in stunt work from Chuck Barton (Charles Bail), the stunt coordinator.
Cameron finds himself in the middle of a fantasy land where the real world is distorted by the world of film. The line between real and fake become blurred. He does some dangerous and involved stunts and begins a romance with the film’s female star, Nina Franklin (Barbara Hershey). Eventually he begins to believe that sadistic and flamboyant Eli is trying to kill him and wants his death on tape.
“The Stunt Man” was released in 1980 and was directed by Richard Rush. It is an American action black comedy film with some satire influences. The film was based on the 1970 book of the same name by Paul Brodeur. It was nominated for three Academy Awards: Best Actor, Peter O'Toole, Best Director, Richard Rush, and Best Adapted Screenplay, Lawrence B. Marcus and Richard Rush. The film isn’t well known but there is a small contingent of cult fans of the movie. O'Toole once remarked that "The film wasn't released. It escaped."
The film is peppered with insanity. Not just by Railsback, but also by Barbara Hershey and especially Peter O’Toole. O’Toole gets to spout poetic dialogue throughout the film. It went from insane to dramatic at the flip of a switch and all the while there was a slightly surreal feel to what was happening.
The movie is long but wonderfully done. There is a lot going on with layers of philosophical vision and psychological torment. Railsback, who is one of my favorite insane guys, plays a Vietnam vet who is wanted for attempted murder. His life, since being in Nam, already has an illusory vibe. The world of movies and moviemakers adds another dimension to his continued troubled existence.
The film’s original “Burt the stuntman” was played by Steve Railsback's real-life brother, Michael.
As the closing credits run you can hear Peter O’Toole speaking in character saying, "Sam, rewrite the opening reel! Crush the little bastard in the first act!".