John Hagner
by Laura Haley
Contributing Writer
Aug 01, 2013 | 2591 views | 0 0 comments | 22 22 recommendations | email to a friend | print
John Hagner
John Hagner
John Hagner realized what he wanted to do in life at a young age. At 12 years old, Hagner frequently attended Saturday matinees in his hometown of Baltimore, Md. It was then, while watching the likes of John Wayne and other film stars as they brawled and battled and galloped across the big screen, that Hagner realized there were some things many actors couldn’t do.

“I noticed that there would be a famous star like John Wayne, and I would say ‘That’s not John Wayne. It doesn’t move like John Wayne,’” he said.

The idea piqued his curiosity and he started to pay more attention during the movies, trying to figure out what was different about the way the actors moved and looked on film during action scenes.

“I realized that [John Wayne] didn’t do those things. And I figured if he didn’t do those things, then the big stars didn’t do them either,” Hagner said. “I didn’t want to be an actor or anything like that. I wanted to do what the actors couldn’t do. Or weren’t allowed to do.”

Hagner and a group of his friends began trying to duplicate stunts they watched on the silver screen. They figured out how to safely jump off 8-foot tall objects, using mattresses to soften the landing. They had no cameras to film their escapades, yet they quickly learned the importance of camera angles to successful movie-making, especially in fight scenes.

“What you would see ... when there’s a fight, it’s the camera that helps to make it look real,” he said. “Even to this day, you see John Wayne throwing a punch ... and he would miss by a foot.”

Hagner says that the more time he spent choreographing stunts, the more he enjoyed it. Soon, he took up tumbling classes and learned hand-balancing in order to develop and strengthen the skills required to become a professional stuntman. He and another friend formed a hand-balancing act, and they began performing for a local television station’s weekly talent contests.

“I’ve been working in front of people ever since,” Hagner said.

Hagner’s Hollywood stuntman career took a backseat after high school, however. In 1945, he joined the U.S. Navy. He was assigned to the largest aircraft carrier built at that time: the USS Philippine Sea. He was on board that ship when it transported Admiral Richard E. Byrd to his expedition at the South Pole.

When Hagner was discharged from the Navy a few years later, he went to work as a commercial artist for the Baltimore Sun newspaper. He married, and the couple adopted a son. Although he loved being an artist, Hagner says he couldn’t shake the feeling that he wanted to be a stuntman.

At 28, Hagner decided it was time to pursue his dreams. He and his wife sold most of their belongings and the small family boarded a bus bound for California.

Stunt work didn’t come to Hagner immediately. He spent a few years working as an artist while trying to track down stunt jobs. Eventually, he began performing stunts in live shows.

“During my life I’ve done over a thousand ... stunt live shows,” he said. “It was good to educate me a little bit more on movie stunts, although the two of them are not the same.”

Two years after arriving in California, Hagner got his big break. While waiting to meet with the casting director at Walt Disney Studios, Hagner met Rex Rossi, an established stunt man and rodeo star. After showing Rossi what he knew, Rossi helped Hagner obtain a Screen Actors Guild membership card. That card would open up many new doors for the aspiring stuntman.

Hagner got his first gig working on “Adventures in Paradise,” as a stunt double for lead actor, Gardner McKay. He went on to perform stunts in “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea,” and the “Batman” television series.

Hagner began getting job offers from the major studios. He worked in several other movies and TV shows, including a scene in “The Great Race,” where Hagner and others threw 3,500 pies.

“They weren’t just whipped cream,” he said. “They were fruit pies.”

The scene was listed in the Guinness Book of World Records for having the most pies thrown in a single film.

In 1973, Hagner opened the Hollywood Stuntmen’s Hall of Fame. The museum kept him busy, along with occasional filming and opening a stunt academy where he taught aspiring stuntmen the trade.

In 1988, while going through a tough divorce, Hagner was looking for a chance to relocate the museum. That opportunity came in Moab.

“I moved myself and a truckload of memorabilia into the building where the MARC [Moab Arts and Recreation Center] is now,” he said.

Soon after, he was introduced to his current wife Dorothy.

Eventually, Hagner was forced to close the Hollywood Stuntmen’s Hall of Fame, though he’s held on to most of the memorabilia and is hoping to someday reopen it. His vision includes live stunts performed daily.

Now 85, Hagner continues to appear in movies whenever the opportunity arises. He also stays busy creating art and playing in a band. And, if you bring enough mattresses and cardboard boxes, he just might be willing to jump off the third-story of his apartment building.

“I’ve still got it up here,” he said, pointing to his head. “And if it’s up there, I can still do it.”

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