Today, Smokey and the Bandit and Cannonball Run are pop culture curiosities to be mocked whenever VH1 has an I Love the [INSERT DECADE HERE] special. But if you grew up in the late 1970’s , early 1980s, those films acted as many a young person’s gateway into grown-up movies. They were raunchy enough that watching them made you feel like an adult, but they were still silly enough that they played to your childish sensibilities.
The man who directed both those films and wrote the first, Hal Needham, died Friday after a short battle with cancer. He was 82.
Needham was born in Memphis, Tennessee and served as a paratrooper in the Korean War. He got his start in Hollywood as a stunt double in the mid-1950s working on films such as The Spirit of Saint Louis, Pork Chop Hill, Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and How the West Was Won and television shows such as Mike Hammer, Laramie, and Have Gun-Will Travel, where he became Richard Boone’s regular stunt double.
By the mid-1960, Needham began acting as a stunt coordinator on a number of projects. Over his career as a stunt performer, he had the opportunity to work with Burt Reynolds on a number of projects and developed a friendship. When Needham wrote a script about smugglers trying to bring Coors beer into Texas, he showed it to his friend Reynolds. Reynolds agreed to star in the feature, and encouraged Needham to move to the director chair. That film would be 1977’s Smokey and the Bandit. The film was a smash hit, becoming the 4th highest hit of 1977, following Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Saturday Night Fever.
Needham moved into the director chair permanently shortly thereafter, and would go on to helm 10 feature films, often with Burt Reynolds as the star (Hooper, Cannonball Run I & II, Stroker Ace and Smokey and the Bandit II).
Needham would go on to be awarded two Academy Awards. The first was a Science and Engineering Award in 1987 for developing the Shotmaker Elite car and crane and was awarded the Governor’s Award, the Academy Honorary Award, in November of last year.