Born To Do Stunts

When Mike Vendrell was born, his mother placed a news clipping about a stunt man in his baby album. Today he’s stunt coordinator for the ABC hit ‘Lost’

Wednesday - April 07, 2005
By Chad Pata
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Mike Vendrell takes his stunts very seriously

In the stunt man industry there is an old joke used in retort to the oftasked question, “How do you get into the stunt business?” The response, “You fall into it.”

If we are to believe this old industry witticism, it has been one heck of a fall for Lost stunt coordinator Mike Vendrell. In the past 30 years he has not only doubled for the industry greats (think Nicholson and Connery) but also taught them how to fight (think Carradine and Schwarzenegger).

But maybe the old adage is wrong; maybe you are born to be a stunt man. After all, when Vendrell was born his mother cut out a clipping from the newspaper to put in his baby scrapbook. It was an article about Davy Sharp, a stunt man.

“So I asked her why she cut it out and she said, ‘I don’t know, I just thought it might be interesting so I put it in your baby book,’” says Vendrell, who later worked for an apprentice of Sharp’s in Hollywood.

Either way, it has been a magical trip through Hollywood’s tough man business. Training since the age of 3 in the martial arts of kung fu and karate, his specialty came in Yee Chuan Tao, a defensive and healing art, in which he became the world’s only remaining master at the age of 16.

He spent the next three years going undefeated in the underground world of no-rules cage fighting, but this acumen for fighting was not the aspect of the chi that would lead him to the stunt world.

Vendrell grapples with Schwarzenegger

At 19, faced with going to Vietnam, his father asked him not to go and offered to get him a job in the movie business, driving a truck. Vendrell accepted and worked on the show Barnaby Jones driving around props, wiling away the hours between moves working a heavy bag in the back of the truck.

His moves caught the eye of the show’s star, Buddy Ebsen, with whom he formed a fast friendship. One day he received a call that shooting was canceled due to Ebsen developing phlebitis in his leg and that they may have to amputate it.

“So I went to the hospital and told them I was Dusty Ebsen, Buddy’s son, and Buddy told me what was going to happen,” recalls Vendrell, still smiling about this turn of fortune. “I told him I was only 20 years old but was a doctor of Chinese medicine and could save his leg.”

Using acupuncture and his knowledge of chi, he had Ebsen out of the hospital in a week and completely healed in two. Feeling deeply indebted to Vendrell for saving his limb, Ebsen used connections to propel Vendrell into the movie industry.

He soon met David Carradine and prepared him for his role in the cult classic Kung Fu, where he taught him not just to walk the earth, but how to kick butt passively as well. He followed this by training Hawaii’s own Pat Morita for the moves that propelled The Karate Kid to the top in the box office.

Other students have included now- Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Farrah Fawcett, Timothy Dalton and Bruce Lee’s son Brandon. It was his relationship with Lee, among all these big stars, that had the most influence on his life.

A 17-year-old Lee was hired to do a fight sequence on the film Kung Fu: The Movie against Vendrell. Despite his pedigree, Lee had eschewed martial arts his whole life because he never thought he could measure up to his dad. With only the weekend to prepare, Vendrell hid his enormous collection of Bruce Lee memorabilia and invited the young Lee to his home. Without a single reminder of his late father about, Lee trained all weekend and aced the fight scene in front of some of Hollywood’s biggest stars who had come out to see their idol’s son’s first fight.

“Afterwards, I was walking off the set and from this dark corner I heard someone call my name,” says Vendrell, who had taken the side of the loser in the on-screen scrap. “I went over and it was Brandon, and he said, ‘All my life I’ve tried to live up to my father’s expectations, and tonight I feel my father is smiling at me.’ With that he gave me a big hug and said, ‘From now on, you are going to be my dad.’

Vendrell: high-flying stunt man

“I started crying, and for the next 10 years he was like a son to me. And when he was killed on the set of The Crow it took me a lot of years to get over that, but I feel like everything I did in my career was for that (first) day.”

Emotional events like these, not to mention the general wear and tear the stunt industry exacts from your body, led Vendrell to some land in Hilo his father had purchased for him many years prior.


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