Grave Spotlight

In a way, cemeteries are like libraries. They contain the final resting places of thousands of people, each with their own separate and unique story. Some of these people are famous, and their stories are well known. Most are not, but that doesn't make their life any less interesting or their stories any less worthy of being told and remembered.

Periodically, we'll spotlight a different Los Angeles-area grave. Every person has a story, and we will use this space to tell their story, through their final resting place.

After your tour of the virtual cemetery, don't forget to visit the official store (or the brand new downtown location) on your way out and pick up a souvenir or two. Thanks!

Yakima Canutt

(Nov. 29, 1895 - May 24, 1986)

April 13, 2010 -- Although you might not know his name, you've certainly seen him on the movie screen, especially if you've ever watched a Western. Yakima Canutt was one of Hollywood's best known and most successful stuntmen. He appeared in more than 200 action films and Westerns from the 1930s through the 1960s, and worked behind the scenes as a stunt coordinator on dozens more.

Canutt was born Enos Edward Canutt near Colfax, Wash. He grew up riding and roping on his family's ranch, and entered his first rodeo at the age of 16. During his rodeo days, he picked up the nickname "Yakima," from the city in Washington, although Canutt wasn't actually from there. While appearing at a rodeo in Los Angeles, Canutt met film cowboy Tom Mix, who got him a job working as an extra in Westerns. Although Canutt occasionally played villains in the films, he concentrated his efforts on stunt work, and gained a reputation as one of the top stuntmen in Hollywood, where he worked as the stunt double for John Wayne, Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Clark Gable, Errol Flynn, Robert Taylor and Henry Fonda, among many others. Canutt and Wayne are credited with creating new techniques and camera angles to make filmed fight scenes look more realistic, and Canutt created or refined most of the stunt techniques used in Westerns and action films.

Among the safety devices developed by Canutt was the L-shaped stirrup, which allowed a rider to fall off a horse without the risk of getting his foot caught in the stirrup. He also developed cabling devices and equipment to create a spectacular wagon crash while safely releasing the team of horses.

With the advent of sound films, Canutt realized he didn't have the voice to be successful as an actor, but he remained busy working on stunts. Canutt was in charge of -- and often participating in -- much of the stunt work in Westerns produced by Republic Pictures in the 1930s and 1940s, including the Gene Autry films, and "The Lone Ranger" and "Zorro" serials.

Canutt was the stunt coordinator for "Stagecoach" (1939), "Gone With the Wind" (1939), "Dark Command" (1940), "Boom Town" (1940) and "Spartacus" (1960), among many others. Canutt also worked as the second-unit director -- usually responsible for the action scenes -- on films including "Ivanhoe" (1952), "Knights of the Round Table" (1953), "Old Yeller" (1957), "Ben-Hur" (1959), "Rio Bravo" (1959), "Spartacus" (1960), "El Cid" (1961), "Cat Ballou" (1965), "Where Eagles Dare" (1969), "Rio Lobo" (1970) and "A Man Called Horse" (1970). Canutt's direction of the chariot race in “Ben-Hur" is still considered one of the most exciting and dramatic action sequences ever filmed.

After suffering severe injuries while working on "Boom Town" and "In Old Oklahoma" (1943), Canutt retired from active stunt work, but he continued to work behind the camera, directing action scenes, supervising stunts and creating new stunt techniques.

Though Canutt seemed daring and fearless as a stuntman -- jumping off cliffs into lakes on horseback, leaping from a speeding stagecoach onto a team of galloping horses -- a fearless stuntman doesn't usually live very long. Canutt was extremely careful and precise in his planning, leaving little room for error. The chariot race in "Ben-Hur," for example, took two years to plan and film. And the lengthy preparation paid off. Despite rumors that stuntmen were killed during the shoot, there were no serious injuries to either humans or animals during the filming of the race.

Even with all his preparations and precautions, however, Canutt, like many rodeo riders and stuntmen, suffered his share of injuries. His mouth and upper lip were torn by a bull's horn at a rodeo in Idaho. He fell off a 12-foot cliff and broke his nose while filming "Branded a Bandit" (1924). He broke six ribs when a wall fell on him in "San Francisco" (1936). He was seriously injured when a horse fell on him during the filming of "Boom Town." He broke both legs while falling off a wagon in "Idaho" (1943).

In 1966, Canutt was given an honorary Academy Award "for achievements as a stunt man and for developing safety devices to protect stunt men everywhere." He also received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, was inducted into the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum Hall of Fame, and received the Stuntman's Association Life Achievement Award.

While Canutt's techniques influenced a generation of stuntmen, even modern films recreate some of his most memorable stunts. For example, in "Raiders of the Lost Ark" (1981), a stunt double for actor Harrison Ford falls from the front of a speeding truck and is dragged beneath the vehicle. The scene is a re-creation of Canutt's fall between a team of speeding horses in "Stagecoach."

Canutt's two sons, Tap and Joe, followed in their father's footsteps and became accomplished stuntmen, often working with their father. (Joe Canutt was the stunt double for Charlton Heston during the chariot race in "Ben-Hur.")

Canutt died at the age of 90 in North Hollywood, Calif. He is buried at Valhalla Memorial Park in North Hollywood, near the Portal of the Folded Wings.

To see his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, click here .

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