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Updated: Tuesday, 26 Feb 2013, 10:40 PM CST
Published : Tuesday, 26 Feb 2013, 8:51 PM CST
AUSTIN (KXAN) - For more than a half-century, Gary Kent lit up motion pictures with carefully crafted and expertly executed stunts.
When Kent wasn’t getting shot off horses, being hit by oncoming cars and plunging into violent onscreen fist fights, he was acting in movies and even writing and directing two of them.
During most of that time, 34 years to be specific, Kent did all that with the love of his life, Tomi Barrett . She came into the world, here in Austin, with the name, Shirley Willeford. But she didn’t like it, and when she went into show business in Los Angeles, she changed it.
But if Barrett didn’t like her given name, she did relish her home town and after she and Kent married, she eventually prevailed on her husband to move to Austin and settle down in a rambling ranch-style house off Slaughter Lane in South Austin.
We would likely know none of this, though, were it not for the work of another Austinite, Joe O’Connell . O'Connell is a former newspaper editor and reporter who went on to write novels and now, to produce documentary film.
When O’Connell met Kent at a writer’s conference, he was astonished by the man’s story and he quickly decided to start gathering old film and shooting new material.
The stuntman, reluctant at first, was quickly won over and the project gathered steam.
“I see the story behind Gary's life,” said O’Connell. “Sure, it's about stunts. There's a reportage about a guy who has a stunt career and has been in 100 movies.
“But at the same time, to me, I see the story of the, the human story, the individual and the challenges he has gone through, as a man and not just as a stunt man.”
“He's done the stuff that most people don't do,” O’Connell added. “You know, most people, they live a safe life; they don't take risks. And he just went to Hollywood. He took the leap to go to Hollywood, to begin with, to try this.
“Some people do this kind of thing and others don't in life, and he's the epitome of the guy who's taken the leap and accomplished it all.”
The road trip
That trip, from Houston to Hollywood, took place on a Greyhound bus. It started with the usual frustrating ritual of applying for jobs with people who would immediately toss resumes and photos into the trash can.
But Kent pushed on, meeting people, making friends and telling lies. Lies like the one he told to a young actor and producer named Jack Nicholson and an independent filmmaker by the name of Monte Hellman .
Kent had heard they were looking for a stuntman for a western to be shot in Utah.
“I said, 'I'm a stunt man,’” he recalled, “and I thought, 'I'll just lie my way in.”
It turns out that Kent was raised on a ranch in Walla Walla, Washington, and he knew plenty about horses.
“So I went to meet Monte and Jack,” he said, “and they had this little office that was about as big as a closet, you know, with a bunch of paper on shelves.
“I really think someone let them have their supply room, you know, to put an office in. They were just young guys getting started.”
The first stunt
Kent was hired and on location in Utah, his new bosses asked him a question.
“Can you take a horse,” they asked, “and get a horse to get sick, slow down, lie down and die?”
“’Gee,’” Kent responded, “’that's, that's easy to do,’ having no idea how I was going to do that.
“But I did do it; I called a vet and I had the vet come out and shoot the horse up with a tranquilizer. So he slowly slowed down, lay down and went to sleep.
“Everybody went, 'Cool, you did it!'”
That opened doors, lot of doors and the jobs rolled in over the years.
“It introduced me,” said Kent, “to this vital filmmaking community at the time, which were the independent filmmakers.
“The major film studios still wouldn't touch the drive-ins. That was beneath them. And the kids stopped going to the drive-ins, the little kids and the parents because they had television.
“So suddenly, all the drive-ins needed product and the door was open to all these young filmmakers like you see in Austin today, running around with a camera, shooting a film.
“And it was great because they hardly ever had any money, so you had to figure stuff out yourself, on the fly, kind of, how to do things. And so I learned. I would do anything to be on a film.”
There was, though, plenty to learn.
“I was falling off horses onto bare ground,” Kent said. “I didn't know you were supposed to dig it up and put some soft sand down under.”
And indeed, comparatively speaking, the stuntman has managed his career with a reasonably remarkable safety record.
“I broke my shoulder,” Kent said, “broke my leg, broke my ribs, cut my arm in a fight doubling Jack Nicholson. That's about it.”
Meanwhile, many stunt performers fared far worse.
“Every year,” Kent said, “there are five or six, maybe more stuntmen severely injured, some killed, making a movie. So it's a hard road for a lot of people.”
For Kent, though, it was paradise.
“It answered so many things,” he recalled, “that
I was looking for in my life: adventure. My greatest love was the old pirate movies: Burt Lancaster, the things where you had sword fights and jumped off things and rode horses really fast. So it gave me that opportunity, more even than if I'd been an actor.”
It also meant job security.
“You didn't have to stand in line forever,” said Kent. “You could either do the stuff or you couldn't, and they quickly knew who couldn't.
“And not many people wanted to go out and fall off buildings and roll cars. But those that did, it was easier to keep working than an actor.”
Still, the job came with unusual requirements, or so the stuntman thought. For example, he was called upon to create a special effects scene designed to represent a drug high.
The drug trip
“There was a huge fire scene at the end of the film where Susan Strasberg was having an LSD experience that turns bad and turns into a fire trip. So I'm supposed to do that fire trip.
“And I thought, 'Before I do this, I'd better take some acid and find out what it's all about, so I can do it correctly.
“So I did. I went on an acid trip, for the business, for the love of show business, one of the strangest experiences I've ever had in my life. But it did lead to some ideas on how to do that sequence.”
The big stunt
Then there was the 1985 film, “ Rainy Day Friends ,” which Kent wrote and directed, that opened with a harrowing sequence in which a man is dragged for blocks by a truck.
That stunt earned Kent “Best Special Stunt of the Year in a Motion Picture” honors at the International Stuntman Awards.
“We had him on one of the little carts that you slide under a car when you're working on it? We had him on one of those. So when he was being dragged along, he was on that cart.
“We put motorcycle leathers on him. We went through about six of those, just burned right through the leathers. We had him padded up pretty good. Still, it was a dangerous, dangerous stunt.”
Meanwhile, Kent married and divorced twice before meeting Tomi Barrett.
The big love
“We just fell in love with each other,” he said, “and the business, and she loved film as much as I did and how it's done.
“She was also crazy about animals, which I am also.”
It was not all peachy, however.
“Tomi had some problems with addiction,” Kent said, “alcohol addiction that she struggled with for a long time and I went through that struggle with her.
“But she conquered it and in spite of that problem, she was so good at so many things. She was just so good to other people. She could make them feel better about themselves. She had that quality, one of those people.”
Then came Barrett’s lung cancer diagnosis. As she declined, she was forced to use a walker to get around. One day, she slipped into her husband’s office.
“I looked up,” Kent said, “and she was standing there and she said, 'I am so afraid.'
“I had no answers; I didn't know how to help her. I couldn't hold her because it hurt to be held. All I could do was just barely touch her.
”But I wanted to take the pain from her. 'Don't be afraid,’ I wanted to say; give it to me and I'll take care of it, but I couldn't and it dawned on me that ordinary people go through this all the time.”
A brief six months after the couple learned of the cancer, Tomi Barrett was dead.
“I learned so much from going through that experience,” Kent said, “about life and death with my wife, Tomi.
“I learned how real folks deal with stuff a lot harder than stunts every day, you know, with their families, with divorce, with breakups, with kids in trouble.
“And I couldn't have gone through life, that part of life with a better partner than Tomi. I just adored her for many, many reasons.”
Now, Kent is putting all that learning to use in an important way. Three years ago, he, too, was diagnosed with cancer. It started out in his blood and then it showed up in his bone marrow.
Three months ago, he was accepted into a clinical trial and the medication he is taking appears to be working for now. The veteran stuntman is sanguine.
“We're all going to go from something,” he said, “and I am just so lucky to be, with all the things I've done, still walking around.
“So I thought, 'If I've got to deal with cancer, hey, okay, I'll deal with it; it's no problem.’
“Maybe it’s because of my life. If I'd been Tomi, who hadn't had such an adventurous life, I'd probably be scared to death, but at my age, who cares? I don't care,” he said with a smile.
The most interesting man in the world
“He's the most interesting man in the world,” said O’Connell, the documentarian. “He's done it all. He's done the things that we would all like to do. And yet, he's come through it and he's a good guy underneath it all. That's what's hard to do, I suppose: to have this amazing life and not be a jerk.”
O’Connell expects to have his documentary completed within a year. An Indiegogo.com crowd-source funding campaign
runs through Wed., Feb. 27. The $9636 goal has already been met, but the filmmaker, of course, is happy to have more.
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