Kitty O’Neil, one of Lynda Carter’s stunt doubles in the 1970s Wonder Woman television series, died this past Friday at the age of 72.
As one of the stunt performers on Wonder Woman‘s three season run, O’Neil performed many of Lynda Carter’s superheroic feats, including a 13 story fall from a San Fernando Valley hotel into an airbag. The stunt set a new woman’s high-fall record.
O’Neil also raced cars, setting a land-speed record fir female drivers in 1976 and broke her own record in 1977.
Mentored by stuntman-turned-director Hal Needham, O’Neil became the first woman to do a cannon-fired car roll, which involves explosives rigged under a car to detonate causing the vehicle to roll, for Needham’s Smokey And The Bandit II. She also drove and did stunts on such films as Airport ’77 and The Blues Brothers (1980) and such television shows as The Bionic Woman and Baretta.
Born in Corpus Christi, Texas, on March 24, 1946, O’Neil contracted mumps, measles and smallpox at the age of 5 months old. She miraculously survived, but with the loss of her hearing. Her mother, a speech therapist, would forbid her from learning American Sign Language, instead teaching her to speak by placing Kitty’s hands to her throat. Growing up, she learned to play piano and cello, feeling the vibrations of the instrument through her feet. She also trained as a platform diver and was a strong contender to join the United States team for the 1964 Summer Olympic Games when a broken wrist and case of spinal meningitis sidelined her career. It was as part of her self-motivated recovery from spinal meningitis that O’Neil turned to racing and ultimately stunt work.
Her life would serve as the inspiration for the film Silent Victory: The Kitty O’Neil Story (1979) starring Stockard Channing.
O’Neil retired from racing and stunt work in 1982, settling in Eugene, Oregon.