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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 attorneys present?”

     “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 jurors. 

     “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 ‘Charlie’s Angels.’”

     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 lawyer.

     “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 blood.

     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 safety.”

     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 coordinator.”

     That, he said, “is the case in a nutshell.”

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Julie Johnson:

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.

     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 life.

     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:

·         Be humble;

·         Be proud;

·         Be thankful;

·         Be useful;

·         Learn the craft, and never, ever be late for your job;

·         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 arrived;

·         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 for awhile.

                   Then I will rise to fight again.

                                              St. Barton’s Ode


     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 honor.

     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 unproductive.

     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 Connolly.

     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 forget.

     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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