Don Shanks: The Man Behind the Muscles

Written by | B-Roll

Meet stuntman Don Shanks and hear what he has to say about his experiences in showbiz.

Catrine McGregor has been friends with Don for over 25 years, so she had a more personal interview with him. Don is authoring the stunt column for ReelGuru.com; if you would like to ask him questions about stunts, you can send in your question here

Catrine McGregor: Who are you?

Don Shanks: (laughs) Well, I’m Don Shanks.

CM: And…

DS: Well, I’m an actor, a director, a stunt coordinator, a stuntman, a writer, and a producer.

CM: And…

DS: (laughs again) This is the problem with being interviewed by someone who knows me so well – I assume that you want me to add husband and father to who I am.

CM: Yes. (laughs) Mainly because I’m tired of being told by people who’ve supposedly known you for decades that you’re not married. If that’s the case, I want to know who that woman is that is my dear friend and has been living in your house for a very long time.

DS: As you know, my wife is a very private person. We’ve known each other since we were in our early teens but our private life and our professional lives don’t intersect. She would rather stay home and watch a movie with me than ever walk the red carpet.

CM: And your kids have no real interest in the film business either, right?

DS: I have two grown sons. They have dabbled in this business. One of them is an amazing writer. The other has helped me from time to time on sets where I’ve been working as a stunt coordinator.

CM: How do you feel that your work in show business has affected your family?

DS: I think they see it more as “Dad’s job” than anything glamorous. It pays the bills. That attitude kind of came into play when one of my sons was about three. He was in a tumbling class when his grandparents came to visit; they asked to see what he’d learned.

Most kids love to show off – my kid said “Grandma, no money, no stunts.” That kind of sums it up!

CM: Even though you have credits in a lot of areas in film, the general public knows you best for two of your acting roles. Will you elaborate?

DS: I played Michael Myers in Halloween V and Nakoma in Grizzly Adams.

CM: Kind of opposite ends of the spectrum.

DS: Both were a lot of fun and I was fortunate to do them.

CM: Grizzly Adams gave you your start, right?

Don Shanks as Nakoma and Dan Haggerty as Grizzly Adams

DS: Yes. I was going to college in Utah and doing a play in Salt Lake City, and some people came and talked to me about doing special effects make-up on a series they were getting ready to do. When I asked them if they needed actors, one of the guys said “We need an Indian that can work with a bear,” and I said “Well, I’m a Native American, and I’ve never worked with a bear, but I’m sure I could.” The rest is history. That was the beginning of a career that has spanned over 40 years – so far.

CM: Weren’t you a little nervous about working with a bear?

DS: No.

CM: As a casting director, I’ve seen actors do a lot of things for the sake of an acting job, but I don’t know many who would take on a bear. That’s a pretty steep learning curve.

DS: (laughs) I have always had a good rapport with animals and it all came together pretty naturally. I loved it and became quite bonded with the bears we worked with, but I didn’t lie about having any experience with bears. Lying about any kind of stunt work is not just stupid, it can get you killed.

CM: You have one story that I particularly like. Will you tell it?

DS: The flapjacks?

CM: Yes.

Bozo the Bear as Ben and Dan Haggerty as James “Grizzly” Adams

DS: We did a lot of scenes around a rough hewn outdoor wood table with log seats. The bear would sit at the table next to me and eat with us. Bears are obviously scavengers and will eat anything in sight, so we had to teach her that she could only eat what was in front of her – in HER plate, which was nailed to the table. So we were doing a scene where everyone was eating flapjacks, but I was mad, so I wasn’t eating. The bear ate her flapjacks then looked around and saw that everyone else was eating theirs – but I hadn’t touched mine. I knew the bear well, and no matter how much you trust a bear you’re working with, they are still wild animals. So, I was watching her out of the corner of my eye. I saw her lean clear down, with her head next to my plate, then she sat straight up, just like a kid realizing that what they were about to do would get them in trouble. She did it several times, and each time, her big old lips were stretched out towards my plate. She finally used her lips to flip the plate towards her and INTO her plate. Now the food was HERS and she ate. I wish I knew where that footage was…

CM: You have had a long, wonderful career and have worked with not only great bears, but hundreds of people. Everyone who knows you loves you. Can you tell us your work ethic in a nutshell?

DS: For every person working in the film business, there are a hundred people lined up behind them to take their job. If you are thinking about getting into any aspect of show business, be sure that there is NOTHING that you would rather do – that you have more of a passion for – because it will probably be easier to do THAT than to get into the film business. I think it would probably be easier to become an astronaut than to become a working actor, director – anything. Then, never forget the people factor. There is so much money at stake on a set, and everyone is so rushed to get things done that respect and safety for people often goes out the window. I have no tolerance for that. People HAVE to come first – especially kids. I love kids, and I become very protective of them on a set.

CM: I have seen you become quite adamant about safety on the set.

DS: (laughs) Yeah, you were even casting the one film I was fired on!

CM: We might want to explain why you got fired, because it took you getting fired to save someone’s life.

DS: We were working on a “to-remain-unnamed” IMAX film where a bootlegger’s old model car was supposed to fly off the road into a pretty wide river. The producer wanted to shoot it with the actor actually driving the car. Even if we took the engine out of the car, I knew it was going to flip upside down. Even in shallow water, the actor would have drowned before we could have gotten to him. I told them that the scene had to be shot without the actor in the car, and they told me I was fired. Being fired was not the issue for me – my only concern was the actor’s safety. I publicly made it clear that the company had been warned of the danger and that if something were to happen, the company – and each of the key players on the film – would be legally liable. So they still fired me, but they shot it without the actor in the car – the car flipped, and had the actor been in the car, he would have been killed.

CM: Not every actor will have a Don Shanks on the set to protect him or her. What should an actor do if they feel that what they are being asked to do will put them in danger?

DS: If the project is being done through the Screen Actor’s Guild – or SAG-AFTRA – they can call the SAG-AFTRA office and have the situation investigated. SAG-AFTRA has pretty strict guidelines about when a stunt person needs to be brought in. I’d like to mention real quickly that if someone wants to consider himself a professional actor, he needs training, headshots, and an agent – and he needs to join SAG-AFTRA. Period. I won’t get on my soapbox about it, and I know that this issue will be covered extensively in ReelGuru.com, but join. If you don’t, you’ll be getting many, many benefits that you should not be entitled to without paying your share of the cost it takes to attain them. Like being able to call a SAG-AFTRA office to have something checked out that you feel is not safe – they’ll take that call and investigate, even if you’re not a member.

Editors Note: ReelGuru Academy has a course all about SAG-AFTRA! Note: The course is in no way affiliated with SAG-AFTRA.

CM: I know you’ll agree with me that a film NEVER becomes more important than a life.

DS: Never. Ever. You and I were on another set where we saw a crew member killed because he was being rushed – and was handling explosives. You will NEVER see me be rushed – by anyone – when it comes to safety on the set.

CM: When you are directing a film, what are you looking for when casting?

DS: It’s hard to pinpoint. You’re looking for the whole package, and you know it when you see it. It’s – to be honest – personal chemistry with the actor, the level of professionalism, a look that works, preparation, and passion. Let me explain the “chemistry” part; it doesn’t necessarily mean that I have to like you a lot. I mean more that there’s a chemistry between the actor and his character. Does that make sense?

CM: Totally. Have you ever really regretted a casting choice?

DS: My most disastrous moment with an actor was not with someone I cast – the actor was also a producer. After dozens of meetings about the project, I realized that I had never seen this person act. I’ll explain before I start the story that the same scene is done over and over on a film – not just several takes of a shot – but the scene often needs to be covered with a wide shot, medium shot, and a close-up. So anyway, on the first day of shooting on this period piece, the character is reminiscing about a friend who has died. The actor’s first dialogue was, “Oh, what a good friend you were to me.” He stopped after each word, digging deep into his brain to think of the next word – the most ridiculously stilted read I’d ever seen. I really thought he was kidding. I yelled “Cut!” and laughed. “Ha, ha – that was funny – let’s do it again.” We did. It was worse. I finally just told him that it would be more moving if he whispered the line. If the acting is that bad, maybe if you can’t quite hear it, it won’t be so bad.

CM: Did he ever get better?

DS: Oh. No (laughs). So we did the wide shot of him, then set up for the medium shot. When he found out he was doing the same scene, he said, “What kind of a director are you? We just did this scene!”. Remember when I said that it’s good to train? There you go….

CM: What are some of your best and worst memories on the set?

DS: I just told you that story and you want to know about bad moments – what do you think that was? (laughs). My worse moments are always when other people are at risk or when the project is atrisk, but one of my more painful personal moments on a set was on a project you were producing. I was taking a huge hit and was rigged to be jerked backwards – and we did it many times, if you recall…


CM: I’m actually going to step in here and give my perspective. I watched Don flinch in pain the first time he did the stunt. Very unlike him. Each time we did it, I asked Don from across the set if he was OK. He almost growled back, “Yes.” Others may have bought it, I didn’t. Each time he did another take, he flinched more but stayed stoic – the way he always does. It wasn’t until we were completely done that Don confided in me that he had actually broken his back in a car wreck a few days before but didn’t want to let me down. That’s the level of commitment and the lack of “diva-ness” (to coin a word) that defines Don Shanks.

DS: It takes a lot for me to go to the hospital. You can imagine my wife’s shock when I woke her up in the middle of the night once to have her take me to the hospital. I had woken up and my hand was twice its normal size – it looked like a rubber glove that someone had blown up. When we got there, the doctors were baffled but thought that it could  be poisoning. It took a while before I remembered that earlier that day, I had nicked my hand with a knife. The last time I had used that knife was to cut the head off a rattle snake, and over the years, the venom had crystallized and become incredibly potent.

But you asked about good experiences…I’ve had so many. I’ve had the privilege of working with some great people over the years. More recently, I worked as the stunt coordinator on the High School Musical movies. It was a joy to see the professionalism of people like Zac Efron. He represents, for me, a young upcoming group of actors that is committed to his craft – and has his ego in check. I really enjoyed working with him.

CM: Is there “that project” that you haven’t done yet?

DS: No. I could retire tomorrow and be perfectly happy with my career.

CM: But you won’t retire tomorrow or the day after…

DS: (laughs) No way. Then what would I do for fun? I’m already at the gym four or five hours a day when I’m not on a set. If I spend any more time there, they’ll charge me rent!

CM: In closing, what advice do you have for actors?

DS: Don’t lose your commitment, your passion, yourself, or your humanity. And good luck.

 

Remember if you want to ask Don Shanks your questions about stunts, you can send in your question here!

 

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Last modified: December 4, 2017

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