Black stuntmen and women recognized at Fitzgeralds
Over a 40-year career in Hollywood, Calvin Brown fell down on the job a lot – and he got paid well for it. He even broke a few bones along the way. But recognized as Hollywood’s first professional stuntman, it was not the stunts that were the hardest part of his job, it was his fight against institutional racism in the industry.
One way he fought against it was by co-founding, along with Henry Kinji, the Black Stuntmen Association, which trained blacks for stunt work and lobbied for jobs and equal pay.
Brown, along with four dozen of his colleagues, was recently honored at a reunion of the now dissolved association at Fitzgeralds in Las Vegas.
The men and women were recognized by actors Antonio Fargas, Roger Mosley, and Brown’s friend of more than 40 years, Bill Cosby, who was the keynote speaker.
Their friendship evolved after the comedian demanded that his director hire a black stunt double for him when he was starring in the groundbreaking TV drama, “I Spy.”
“I’ve known Calvin for many years, since 1963,” Cosby said. “It all started when there was a stunt to be done on the set of ‘I Spy’ and I couldn’t do it. The director told me not to worry, that he would bring in a stunt double to perform the stunt.
“When I looked around in the dressing area, they were making up a white guy with dark black makeup from head-to-toe. I mean the makeup was coal black and all you could see was his red lips. I was very angry and told the director to never have a stunt double play me that was not a black man. Well, that’s how I met Calvin, and we became instant friends. He took the hits for me that helped make me a star in my early days of television.”
A native of Farmersville, La., Brown didn’t set out to become a stuntman. He moved to Los Angeles with his wife after graduating from Grambling University with a business degree. He had a nice secure job as a second class special delivery mail messenger for the Postal Service. A friend who was doing some extra work urge Brown to join him as an extra on the movie “Drums over Africa” which paid $11 a day.
Liking his physical presence, the director gave him the role to double as the chief, a runaway slave. During one scene, the director asked the men if any of them had any stunt experience. He needed someone to fall out of a tree and it paid $100.
“Before he could say ‘dollars’ I was up that tree,” Brown said, “because I had been falling out of trees back in Louisiana as a child all my life.”
“After I fell out the tree, the director said ‘I’m sorry we have to do it again.(The film had jammed in the camera.) but don’t worry, every time you fall I will pay you $100.’ Before he could finish saying a hundred, I was back up that tree. I finished the day with $600. I had never had that much money at one time in my life,” Brown said.
Brown did all of the stunt work for Cosby on “I Spy” from 1965 to 1968. He also did stunt work on other TV series such as “The Wild Wild West,” “Mission Impossible,” and movies like “I Spy Returns,” “Blank Check” and “The Split.”
The Black Stuntmen Association dissolved in the 1970s during the onslaught of the blacksploitation movies that saved many Hollywood studios from going bankrupt.
Brown finally retired in 2002, but he still works as a stunt consultant. He resides in Los Angeles with his lovely wife, Ruth Ann.