Julie Johnson vs. “Charlie’s Angels”
Julie Johnson sat with her hands folded before her on the plaintiff’s
table in Dept. 23 of Los
Angeles Superior Court, her eyes darting nervously between the blank faces of
the jurors and the clock ticking silently above their heads. It was 1:38 p.m., August 11, 1987, and the trial she’d waited so long for
was finally about to begin.
“All rise!” the bailiff bellowed, and Julie, startled from her thoughts,
fairly jumped out of her seat. “The court is now in session!”
Judge Leon Savitch, wearing
black robes and a scowl, entered the courtroom from his chambers and took the
bench. Banging his gavel to bring the court to order, he asked, “Are all the
“Yes, Your Honor,” they all said in unison.
“Counselor,” he said, nodding
to Julie’s lawyer, “you may begin.”
Richard Grey, short in stature and professorial, approached the
“Ladies and gentlemen of the jury,” he explained, “the opening statement
is a preview of coming attractions – an opportunity for the jury to preview the
evidence that may be presented by each side to make it easier for you to
closely follow the testimony from the witness stand.”
He’d said those exact same words to jurors many, many times before. It’s
what he always said at the beginning of a trial. But what came next was
different. This was going to be a trial about Hollywood
– something new for him – so he crafted his next words carefully to evoke an
image familiar to them all.
“This case,” he said, “will resemble an evening television action series
or a soap opera – if you will – such as ‘Fall Guy, ’ or ‘Charlie’s Angels,’
‘Dynasty’ or ‘Hotel.’ The difference is: Here we are involved with a true-life
drama, not a fictional story.”
“This case,” he continued, “is about a woman who worked for nearly 20
years in the stunt field of the entertainment industry and who worked hard and
earned a very high reputation in her field.”
Indeed, Julie had been one of the most respected stuntwoman in Hollywood
for many years, and one of the few female stunt coordinators in a business
dominated by men.
“Hearing the testimony to be offered,” he
explained, “you as jurors will learn something about the stunt field beyond
common knowledge, and learn about the risks and hazards that are built into
that line of work.
“The jury will also become acquainted with the plaintiff, Julie Ann
Johnson, and you will have an opportunity to observe her closely every day and
to get to know her quite well as a person.
“In this matter, after 20 years of excellent work and after building an
outstanding reputation and at the peak of her career, Miss Johnson became
employed by the defendant, Spelling-Goldberg Productions, and went to work on
‘Charlie’s Angels’ in the late-1970s.
“There, she had two assignments: First to be a stunt player and to work
on a regular basis doubling for the female leading stars of that series – not
coming and going when the need arose for her services, but to be there on a full-time
basis. After that, she was able to gain recognition and support and became a
stunt coordinator – first as co-coordinator with one of her colleagues, and
then doing the work entirely on her own and coordinating all of the stunts for
Grey paused for a moment to study the jurors’ faces. Several of them, he
could tell, were impressed already. This was not going to be a boring case
about some arcane legal dispute between the manufacturer and buyer of men’s
pants. This was going to be about a top-rated hit TV show that they’d all seen.
This was going to be about Hollywood,
and movie stars, and “Charlie’s Angels!” And who in America
didn’t know that Farrah Fawcett had risen to fame on the show? Who in America
hadn’t seen Farrah’s famous poster, with the bathing suit and the big smile and
the big hair?
Familiarity may breed contempt,
but in the courtroom, it breeds victory. It gives jurors something they can
relate to, something they can sink their teeth into. It makes things personal,
and for a good lawyer, that’s a head start from the first bang of the judge’s
gavel. And Richard Grey was a very good
“The stunt player,” he continued, pacing back and forth in front of the
jury box, “appears in front of the camera and does the physical work – the actual
stunt work, and the stunt coordinator supervises those stunt players and has
responsibility for finding them, making recommendations about their
compensation, and planning the stunts.”
The planning of a successful stunt, he explained, begins with a budget,
and then goes to the creation of a stunt script. After that, the coordinator
must ensure that the stunt looks good on screen. But first and foremost, he
said, it must be safe.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he told the jurors in his sternest voice,
“safety on the job is a fundamental requirement, and in my opinion, it is the
most important responsibility of the stunt coordinator. Basically, it is the
very reason for having that position.”
Safety – or the lack of it – in Hollywood
was something that all of the jurors knew a little something about already;
there’d been a rash of high-profile stunt accidents and deaths on Hollywood
films and TV shows in the years preceding the trial.
The most famous accident in Hollywood’s history happened five years
earlier, when actor Vic Morrow and two children were killed when a special
effects explosion brought a low-flying helicopter crashing down on top of them
during the filming of “Twilight Zone: The Movie.” A sensational manslaughter
trial had ended just the previous May – in this same courthouse – with the
acquittal of the film’s director, helicopter pilot, associate producer, and
unit production manager. The case grabbed national headlines for months.
Since then, there had been many other tragic accidents. Just a few
months before Julie’s trial began, Stuntman Victor Magnotta drowned when the
stunt car he was driving plunged off a bridge during filming of the movie “Skip
Tracer,” and a few months before that, stuntman Dar Robinson – one of the
greatest stuntmen of all time – was killed in a motorcycle accident on the
movie “Million Dollar Mystery.” And just a year before Julie’s trial, Hal
Needham – Hollywood’s most famous
stuntman – went on trial for contributing to a horrific accident on the set of
“Cannonball Run” that left stuntwoman Heidi von Beltz paralyzed from the neck
down for life.
The year before that, stunt pilot Art Scholl was killed when the jet
fighter he was flying crashed into the Pacific Ocean
during filming of “Top Gun.” And a few months before that, stuntman Reid
Rondell was killed when the helicopter he was flying in for a dogfight sequence
on “Airwolf” crashed into a mountainside. An autopsy found cocaine in his
A few months before that, actor Jon-Erik Hexum accidentally killed
himself on the set of the TV series “Cover Up” while horsing around with a gun
he didn’t think was loaded.
And there had been many more deaths, as well. Between June of 1980 and
August of 1981, camera assistant Rodney L. Mitchell was killed during a stunt
on “The Dukes of Hazzard”; camera assistant Robert Van Der Ker was killed when
his helicopter crashed into the ocean off Hawaii during filming of a scene for
“Magnum P.I.”; camera assistant Jack Tanenberg was killed when a stunt car hit
him during filming of a TV movie called “The Five of Me”; director Boris Segal
was killed when he accidentally walked into the tail rotor blade of a
helicopter during filming of the miniseries “World War III,” and stuntman Jack
Tyree was killed when he missed an airbag during an 80-foot high fall during
filming of “The Sword and the Sorcerer.”
All of these accidents and deaths grabbed headlines, and then faded to
the back pages. But they had a cumulative affect; anybody who was paying any
attention at all had to know that something was horribly haywire in Hollywood.
“The true life drama of this case,” Grey continued, “involves a person
who was wrongfully terminated from her employment as the stunt coordinator for
‘Charlie’s Angels,’ and the evidence will establish that she was terminated for
a very simple reason: she became too vocal, too visible on matters involving
Grey paused again, and then spoke to the jury in a voice like that of a
doctor giving a patient bad news. “In addition…and this is a touchy subject…she
became painfully and personally aware that lives were being placed at risk
because of someone else’s use of illegal drugs on the job.”
He paused again to let the weight of his words sink in.
“This is a very difficult subject for anyone to confront, to control, to
deal with,” he said, almost apologizing to the jury for having to tell them the
awful truth. “And here we’re talking about one of the most dangerous and
life-threatening of all illegal drugs – cocaine.”
Some of the seven men and five women on
the jury, he knew, had probably tried the drug, which had swept the nation in
the early ’80s, and was still sweeping lives away every day. Nearly all of them,
he figured, knew someone whose life had been touched by drug abuse.
“So this real life drama,” he said, “is primarily about a highly
successful stuntwoman and stunt coordinator who, after she complained about
safety and drug-related incidents, found herself unceremoniously dropped,
terminated from her employment after 20 years of being held in the highest
regard, and without ever receiving any serious criticism about her performance.
She was dropped, we submit, because she would not, and could not, ignore
serious safety problems, including drug-related problems that confronted her
every day she went to work. She saw fit to protest these problems, to take
issue with them, to the point where she was labeled a troublemaker; a person to
be avoided; a person to be gotten rid of; a person who could no longer be
trusted in the very visible and highly responsible position of stunt
That, he said, “is the case in a nutshell.”Click to BUY NOW
In Her Own Words
David Robb and I wrote this book to show how difficult it is, especially
for women, to break into the stunt business, and how easy it is to be broken by
It’s a dangerous business. Women have gotten killed on the job, and many
others have been seriously injured – some of them permanently. I know three
stuntwomen who have committed suicide. Many others’ lives have been destroyed
by drugs and alcohol.
And yet, being a stuntwoman is the most exciting job in the most
exciting industry in the world. Unfortunately, the stunt business is also the
most sexist in Hollywood
– an industry rife with male chauvinism.
I spent most of my working life hanging from helicopters and hot air
balloons, running on high catwalks, jumping across rooftops, falling down
stairs, crashing through windows, turning over cars, being hit by trucks, and
fleeing from fires and floods. I got concussions and fractured my neck, cracked
my ribs, torn muscles and tendons, and I still have a dent in my head from
being kicked in the head by a horse on “Little Big Man.” But the most dangerous
thing I ever did was to complain about unsafe working conditions, and about the
drug abuse problem that made a dangerous job all the more hazardous. Blowing
the whistle cost me my career and livelihood. Drug users almost cost me my
Discrimination is subtle and not always clear-cut. The old boys’ network
is constantly lurking in the wings, in every position of the industry.
Women are still vastly underrepresented in Hollywood – not just in stunts, but in all
creative positions. It’s hard for anyone trying to break into the business, but
for women, it’s even harder. You are judged more harshly, and you have to be
twice as good as a man in your selected field. The longer the women in this
industry remain silent, the more oppressed they will be.
I realize that there are women all over
the world whose lives are much tougher than ours could ever be. But pain is
pain. Oppression is oppression. Not being able to be all that you can be is
hell. If you don’t want us to care, don’t teach us to feel.
The answer to nearly all the wrongs in the world is to put a woman in
charge. Try it, you might like it.
It’s a privilege of the highest order to
work in this business. My advice to young women entering the stunt business
today is simple:
Learn the craft, and never, ever be late for
Stay away from abusing drugs and alcohol to be
popular or trouble will surely follow;
Never surrender your honor and integrity;
Project an image of strength and courage;
Just remember, as my friend Eve Brent told me
when I was starting out, “You don’t have to go to bed with any of them.”
Consequences can be deadly;
Don’t be a slob; hang your wardrobe back up like
you found it;
Be safe and look out for the safety of others;
And above all, you have a duty and a
responsibility to yourselves and to those whose shoulders you stand upon, to
protect, preserve and enhance the power we have acquired for you. Use it with
dignity and grace, and wisely pass it on. You will evolve into the next
generation of stuntwomen, stronger and more educated than mine, and when you
become stuntwomen with purpose, and have no fear of speaking up, you will have
Or as my as my father use to say, “Just use good
common sense; let self-control and your conscience be your guide”;
And remember: for inequality to prevail, all
that good men and women have to do is nothing.
I always believed that if I took a grievance to my superiors, there
would be an appropriate and considered response. I now know, however, that my
commitment was shared by few others. It behooves all producers to speak in
person to a stunt person if there is an issue.
I figured that being labeled a troublemaker was a reasonable price to
pay to make some changes. This led me into the world of the unknown,
blacklisting, personal harassment and intimidation. Few people are prepared to
handle retaliation, but I chose to take a stand and take any punishment they
handed out. Sadly, except for a few brave souls, my friends and peers slowly
disappeared. Life, as I had known it, was gone. If I had done cocaine with the
“right people,” I’d still be working, or dead.
I dug my own grave, but I did what I had to do. They can blacklist me,
but they can’t kill my spirit…ever.
While waiting in a doctor’s office, I saw this written in a magazine:
I am hurt, but I am not slain.
I will lie down and bleed
Then I will rise to fight
These few words
helped me get through some of the toughest times of my life.
A friend once asked me, “What’s it like to feel blacklisted?”
I told her, “It feels like you’re being led to slaughter; like you’re
being thrown into solitary confinement; like everyone is armed against you, to
hurt you, to deny you; that you have been cast out.”
And yet, I hope and pray that my solitude will somehow bear fruit in the
hearts of the very people who destroyed me. My father taught me to be brave,
and to stand up for what’s right. So I wear my blacklisting like a badge of
To quote Eleanor Roosevelt: “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and
the security of person.”
This is 2012…where is our security of person? Without it, life
and liberty are hopeless dreams, and hopeless dreams are not conducive to
building better-educated and stronger stuntwomen.
As long as management is false to their obligations, we are rendered
What a waste of important talent. To me, this is unspeakably sad.
To the stuntmen, I say: Say what you will about me. Call me what you
wish, but whether you like it or not, you are my brothers, and you taught me
well. I have no ill will, just concern. But next time, just think with clearer
minds before you decide to destroy someone.
To all the producers, directors, actresses and crewmembers who applauded
my work over the many years – I applaud you for your gracious help; your
unmatched stamina in your chosen fields. You all inspired me. Thank you for
letting me be me.
And a heart-felt thank you to Jeannie Coulter, Leslie Hoffman and Jade
David for not abandoning me. We share something in common – blacklisting. I
would also like to thank David Robb, Kathleen Nolan, and posthumously, Norma
Lest we forget, all those in our industry who died, those who were
injured beyond repair, all for the sake of the passion for their work…lest we
Eddie, if you’re out there; ‘Time Remembered.’
Mom and Dad, thank you for my life.
Lily, you are always in my thoughts and prayers and tears.
And finally, with this book, I lay down my sword. But if I have to, I’ll
pick it up again.
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