Enos Edward "Yakima" Canutt was a champion rodeo star who parlayed his dexterity on horseback into a legendary career as a Hollywood stuntman. Born in 1895 on his family's ranch near Colfax, Washington, Canutt was 18 when a newspaper photographer at the Pendleton Roundup gave him the nickname "Yakima," and Canutt, who disliked his given name, was happy to have it stick. After serving in World War I, he returned home to a careeer on the rodeo circuit, where a series of chance encounters in Los Angeles steered him into the movie business. He started out as a movie cowboy and actor, later turning to stunt work when it became apparent he wasn't much of an actor. Canutt found his true calling in the choreography and execution of stunts, designing some of the most iconic action scenes in film history. He earned an honory Oscar and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and is a member of the Cowboy and Rodeo halls of fame.
Son of the Palouse
Enos Edward "Yakima" Canutt, rodeo star and legendary movie stuntman, was born November 29, 1895, on his family’s ranch near Colfax, Washington. His paternal grandfather had come west in a covered wagon to Oregon, eventually settling in the Palouse and establishing the ranch near Penawawa Creek in the Snake River Hills. It contained wheat fields and pastureland as well as 30 acres of orchard producing cherries, pears, prunes, and watermelons that were ferried to market in Lewiston, Idaho, by sternwheeler.
He was named Enos Edward Canutt after two uncles, one from each side of the family. His mother, Nettie Ellen, was of Scottish and Irish extraction. His father, John Lemuel Canutt, was descended from German and Dutch immigrants. He had two older siblings, Alexander Hamilton and Sally Treen, and two younger ones, John Maceo and Anna Adaline.
When Canutt was a year old, his father was elected to the state legislature. A few years later he campaigned for gubernatorial candidate Alfred E. Mead, and after the Republican won in 1905, John Canutt was appointed as the state's oil inspector. The family moved to Green Lake, then a suburb of Seattle, where Canutt and his siblings attended Green Lake School, now inside the city limits. His father, however, soon had a falling out with the governor and resigned, taking the family back to the ranch.
Canutt does not appear to have received any formal schooling after that. Later in life he couldn't remember any time before he was riding horses. He also spent a lot of time swimming, shooting and trapping mink, muskrat and coyote, collecting a bounty for each coyote pelt. He began to break his first horse at 11 without seeking parental permission, and was thrilled with his first ride on the untamed horse. His terrified parents intervened, but not before the horse, aptly named Buck, had already torn up the potato patch. He was punished by his stern father, but he had already decided he wanted to be a bronc rider when he grew up.
His parents weren't enthusiastic about his career choice, so he practiced secretly at the nearby ranch of a man who furnished bucking horses for the Whitman County Fair. At 15, Canutt attempted to win $50 riding a particularly challenging horse at the fair. Unbeknownst to him, his father was in attendance, and he humiliated his son by yanking him out of the saddle in front of the crowd before he had a chance to show his stuff. The crowd, perhaps admiring the boy's pluck, gave him a round of applause.
By the following year, when Canutt was 16, a local rancher bet the elder Canutt a hundred dollars that his son could stay on a particularly feisty horse that had bucked off everyone who had tried to ride him. John Canutt, who by now seemed to have realized his son was serious about bucking broncos, agreed but told his son that if the horse threw him, his bronc riding days were over. A big local crowd arrived at the alfalfa field where the ride was scheduled to take place, young Canutt gave a good account of himself, and his parents seemed proud of their son and relented about his career choice. He made his rodeo debut soon afterward at the 1912 Whitman County Fair, winning his first bronc-riding contest on a horse named Little Spokane.
A Nickname Sticks
His first major rodeo was in 1914 in Walla Walla, Washington. There, Canutt reconnected with a noted horse breeder he had met and admired. Jackson Sundown, born Waaya-Tonah-Toesits-Kahn (Earth Left by the Setting Sun), was A Nez Perce Indian who had fought alongside his uncle, Chief Joseph, in 1877 in the last of the Nez Perce wars and was said to have had three bullet scars to prove it. Sundown became a rodeo legend when he won the bronc-riding championship of the world in 1916 at the age of 53.
The Walla Walla rodeo featured a newly introduced event. Canutt observed it carefully and decided he’d give it a go at the upcoming Pendleton Roundup. Bulldogging was invented and named by a legendary Texan, African American cowboy Bill Pickett, as a Wild West show act. It originally featured Pickett diving from a running horse onto a steer’s head, grabbing its horns, twisting the steer down to the ground on its side, then biting its lip and throwing his hands in the air.
The following week, Canutt went on to the Pendleton (Oregon) Roundup, where he would earn the nickname Yakima because he happened to be palling around with a couple of young cowboys from the Yakima, Washington, area. Soon after sharing a bottle of Old Crow with them, a newspaper photographer got a picture of Canutt flying in the air above a horse before hitting the ground. The caption identified him as 'Yakima' Canutt, and the nickname, often shortened to "Yak," stuck. Canutt said he immediately made a vow to "save what little drinking I did for after the contests” (My Rodeo Years ... 32). A Colfax friend later said that as a young man Canutt lived for a while in the Yakima Valley and was billed at rodeos as "The Yakima Kid."
The Pendleton Roundup had begun life as a 1907 fundraiser for the town's strapped baseball team, but by 1914 had become one of rodeo's premier events, filling an estimated 40,000 seats. That year it featured hundreds of Umatilla, Sioux, Yakima, Nez Perce, Blackfoot, and Shoshone tribal members drumming and performing ceremonial dances, a stagecoach race that ended in a spectacular pileup, trick riding, men's and women's relay horse races, roping contests, and a brace of extra big steers imported from Mexico for the bulldogging event.
Canutt's bulldogging debut began with a leap onto the steer from his horse that knocked the steer over. He was then dragged around by the steer while hanging onto it by one horn, eventually pinning him down with an innovative half-nelson maneuver. It wasn't fast enough to win, and Canutt's bronc and bull riding didn't win him any money either, but he'd made his big-time rodeo debut and earned himself a lifelong nickname.
This was apparently fine with Canutt, who was said never to have liked the name Enos. Over the years, it was often assumed he was of Indian descent because of his nickname, and he sometimes played along with the misconception, assigning himself to various tribes, but when the truth came out asserting that he would have been proud to have actually been an Indian.
After the show was over, Canutt worked breaking horses to be sold to the French cavalry in its ongoing war against Kaiser Wilhelm, all the while working out doing pushups to get in great shape for the next year's Pendleton Roundup. In 1915, he and some companions spent three days traveling to Pendleton from Eastern Washington on horseback, and Canutt competed once more. He began to develop a reputation as a good bronc rider and bulldogger. That year, he won a second at Pendleton and firsts in lots of smaller shows.
In 1916, he signed on with a manager who paid his expenses on the rodeo circuit in return for a percentage of his winnings. At the Sheepshead Bay Stampede in New York, he met rodeo fan Teddy Roosevelt, and in Kansas City he and his friends riding in the rodeo parade peeled off on horseback, and rode up to the bar of every saloon they passed, receiving drinks on the house -- fun until someone's horse got stuck in the revolving door of a big hotel.
Yakima Goes to Sea
At the 1916 Pendleton Roundup, Canutt met Kitty Wilks, a tough, tiny cowgirl. She weighed less than 100 pounds and barely reached his shoulder, even with her cowgirl hat on. That year, she was named All-Around Champion cowgirl at Pendleton for her bronc riding and relay racing events, and had also been the national Ladies Bronc-Riding Champion twice. They married in 1917 at Kalispell, Montana.
In 1917, Yakima Canutt won the bronc riding event at Walla Walla, and the Police Gazette Championship belt, rodeo's biggest award for the All-Around Cowboy Championship at Pendleton. In early 1918, after the United States had entered World War I, Canutt went to Spokane, enlisted in the Navy for the duration, and proceeded to the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard near Bremerton, Washington. He said he'd "always had a yen to see the world through a porthole" (My Rodeo Years ... 79) and that he was also interested in escaping his volatile home life. The honeymoon had started off badly, when the bride lit into the groom, cursing him for having arrived at the altar hung over and with a face heavily marked up because of a barroom slugfest with a lumberjack at his bachelor party.
In 1918, he received a furlough from his naval duties to defend his championship at the Pendleton Roundup. He was unsuccessful, and he also got in trouble from the Navy for wearing his white uniform -- bell bottoms and middy blouse -- while bronc riding and bulldogging. Upon his return to Bremerton, he fell victim to the Spanish influenza epidemic. He lay on a cot in an armory with hundreds of others, bleeding from his mouth. His vocal chords were permanently damaged, giving him a weak, raspy voice.
Canutt returned to civilian life and his rodeo career in 1919. He won the Calgary Stampede bucking championship, and his wife, now billed as Kitty Canutt, was cheered by the crowd when she managed to get back on a horse after a bad fall and finished a relay race with a shattered rib.
A Toehold in Hollywood
While competing in a rodeo in Los Angeles, Canutt met movie star Douglas Fairbanks, with whom he played badminton and to whom he introduced some fancy mounts -- spectacular ways to jump on a horse -- that Fairbanks used in movies. He also got together with cowboy friends who were now making movies. He decided to spend the winter in Los Angeles. A new acquaintance, bartender turned cowboy star Tom Mix, got him a job as an extra in his pictures and had him do some stunt fighting and horsemanship. While in Los Angeles, Canutt also divorced Kitty, a dissolution that was uncontested.
When the 1920 rodeo season started, Canutt got back on the road, racking up more wins and collecting more trophies. During his rodeo career, he won the World's Champion All-Around Cowboy title five times, and eventually he was inducted into both the Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City and the Rodeo Hall of Fame, affiliated with the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum.
By 1923 he had become a movie cowboy, playing the lead in silent quickies with titles like Branded a Bandit, The Ridin’ Comet, and A Two Fisted Sheriff. He had already performed some uncredited movie stunts in earlier pictures. Now, he was performing his own stunts and unlike other movie leads, he also doubled for some of the other actors.
By 1928, however, pictures were talking and his career as an actor was over because of the vocal chords that had been damaged after his bout with Spanish influenza. After hearing a recording of his own voice for the first time, Canutt said he sounded "like a hillbilly in a well" (Stunt Man ... 81). Canutt hit hard times, and got deep in debt, picking up stunt work when he could. He later said that after thinking hard about how he could make a living in this new environment, he consciously decided that the picture business "lacked excitement and thrills," adding that, "A whole new field in the action end of motion pictures seemed to open up before me” (Stunt Man ... 81)
Charlton Heston wrote that Yakima Canutt invented the profession of stunt man. "When he hit Hollywood, there was no such thing … you gave some cowboy twenty bucks and a bottle of whiskey and let him risk his neck” (Heston ... 184). Heston seems to have overestimated the pay. In the 1920s, Hollywood was full of cowboys for whom a saloon called the Waterhole and a drugstore at the corner of Gower Street and Hollywood Boulevard -- an area therefore nicknamed Gower Gulch -- had become the end of the trail. They worked as riding extras for from $3 to $5 a day and a box lunch.
In her book Hollywood Posse, author Diana Serra Cary said her father got his daily rate as a riding extra increased from $5 a day to $7.50 for acting as cowboy star Tom Mix's stunt double. Safety wasn't a concern. According to Cary, "Hardly a man among them walked without a limp, until the terms 'gimpy' and 'picture cowboy' came to be synonymous” (Cary ... 189)
Making Movies With 'The Duke'
In 1931, Canutt was hired to double for a former University of Southern California football star and studio prop boy who was starring in a poverty row serial called Shadow of the Eagle. At 6 feet 3, Canutt was a good size match for John Wayne, and had been for some time. Canutt’s birth weight was 12 and a half pounds, while Wayne had begun life at 13 pounds. Canutt, a great kidder, convinced Wayne that he was spying on him for management, ostentatiously writing down the actor's on-set transgressions in a little black book. Wayne went after him, but when he learned that Canutt’s behavior was what was called a "rib," he thought the joke was hilarious. The two men also bonded over the Depression working conditions -- low pay and a grueling schedule starting before sunup and sometimes ending after dark.
Wayne and Canutt went on to make a long string of low-budget westerns during the 1930s, and became lifelong friends. Wayne was said to have stolen Canutt's speech patterns and his gait, which he made into his own signature loping walk. Marion Morrison, the druggist's son from Keokuk, Iowa, eventually came to personify everyone's idea of an American cowboy.
Wayne sometimes denied he'd patterned his screen persona on Canutt, but near the end of his life, he did acknowledge that he had consciously picked up one of Canutt's mannerisms. He said that the usually affable Canutt, when challenged by rambunctious wranglers or stuntmen, could assume a "half-humorous" glint that gave the impression of "a steel trap waiting to be released" (Eyman ... 73). The actor said that he appropriated that menacing glint for use in man-to-man confrontation scenes.
Canutt also played henchmen and other bad guys in those B westerns. Wayne said Canutt was a terrible actor, who grimaced, yelled and snarled as the heavy, even after Wayne told him his own menacing glint was much more sinister. But despite his hammy acting, Canutt was a star when it came to choreographing stunts, or "gags" as they were known. One of the innovations he developed with Wayne was to choreograph fight scenes, dramatizing them by using camera angles to make a series of fake punches look real. Until then, screen fights had been crudely improvised and often featured clumsy grappling.
Using editing and wardrobe changes, Canutt sometimes portrayed two people in one scene, doubling for both Wayne and his opponent in a fight or chase. In a 1934 picture called ‘Neath Arizona Skies, in which Canutt was cast as a villain, the producers forgot to hire a second stuntman of the right size for a scene between Canutt's and Wayne's characters, so Wayne doubled Canutt and Canutt doubled Wayne in a scene requiring a leap from a horse to a railway handcar followed by a fight, and a leap from the handcar into a gulley.
In 1931, Cannutt went to a party at the home of a fishing buddy, Los Angeles policeman Claude Rice. There, he met Rice's daughter, 23-year-old Minnie Audrea, a telephone company employee. Later that year, they married in Yuma, Arizona. The couple would go on to have three children. Edward was nicknamed Tap, short for tapadero, a Spanish term for a leather stirrup hood on a saddle. Tap and his younger brother Joe grew up to become noted stuntmen. Their little sister, Audrea Elaine, nicknamed Honey, married a stunt man. Yakima and Audrea Canutt's marriage lasted for 54 years until his death. By the mid 1930s, Canutt had established himself as a stunt man, and the movie business was in better shape. He was able to pay off all of his bills and move his family from an apartment to a house.
John Wayne's breakout role was as the Ringo Kid in director John Ford's 1939 Western classic, Stagecoach. The actor got Ford to hire Canutt for the picture. When Ford asked Canutt to come up with some flashy horseback business for Wayne, Canutt remembered something he’d seen at a performance of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show he'd attended as a child. While an overland stage ran around the arena, a messenger galloping after it cocked a rifle with one hand by twirling it in the air. The crowd had gone wild. The rifle had been modified with a ring loop. Canutt said he’d never seen the stunt done since. Wayne went on to use it in several films and owned rifles customized to perform the twirl.
Canutt was the first stuntman to do a transfer from a galloping horse to another moving object. He demonstrated that ability in the scene he did for Stagecoach that has been called the most exciting movie stunt ever designed. As an attacking Indian, Canutt jumps from a galloping horse over another galloping horse onto one of the lead horses pulling a stagecoach at full speed. After he’s knocked off, he falls to the ground between the six running horses pulling the coach. After horses and the coach pass over him, he’s dragged along the ground. He later leaps onto a horse using a mane mount and takes off after the stagecoach again. While planning the stunt, Canutt estimated the stagecoach would be barreling along at about 37 miles an hour, but in the actual scene the coach was clocked at 45 miles an hour. In 1981, Steven Spielberg paid homage to the scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Canutt, doubling for John Wayne, also gets a runaway stagecoach under control by leaping from the top of the stagecoach onto one of the six horses, then standing on the horse's back and jumping forward twice from galloping horse to galloping horse until he reaches a lead horse and gets the coach under control. Canutt also convinced a skeptical John Ford that he could rig a stagecoach full of passengers so it wouldn't sink as horses pulled it across a rushing river ahead of pursuing Indians. After carefully weighing the coach and all the actors, and measuring the depth of the water, Canutt came up with a way to use hollowed logs as flotation devices, and designed an underwater cable connected to a truck on the opposite bank. After supervising the construction and installation of this equipment, Canutt took the reins and drove the stagecoach and its passengers across the river at high speed.
Canutt doubled for Clark Gable in Gone With the Wind, navigating a one-horse hack through walls of flame while dodging falling burning debris during the burning of Atlanta scene. Another Clark Gable picture, 1940’s Boom Town, resulted in injury when a horse Canutt was riding reared up and threw itself backward in an equine belly-up maneuver known as sunfishing.
Canutt could have thrown himself clear -- he was an expert at falling off of horses sideways, as well as over their heads and rumps -- but this time, at the end of a long day, he said he just wasn't fast enough. He ended up underneath a 1,200-pound horse with a saddle horn puncturing his stomach. "When I saw old Yak carried off the set with most of his stuffin' trailing after him," a colleague later said, "I knew he’d cashed in his chips for the last time" (Cary ... 190).
He was back in action after extensive surgery, but part of his intestines had grown back into a U shape that began causing painful gastric attacks. The problem corrected itself when he was at the reins of six horses pulling a runaway stagecoach. He yanked so hard on the reins that the adhesion that had formed was torn lose and he was able to cancel the exploratory surgery he’d scheduled. He said he didn’t recommend surgery by stagecoach to others, but that it had worked for him.
'More Thrills and Wrecks'
Canutt was now 44 years old, and he began planning a transition to a career as a second unit director, designing and supervising the filming of complex action sequences. Soon, he was also training his sons Tap and Joe to take over the stunt work. The 1950s were the age of the wide-screen blockbuster, created to compete with in-home television entertainment. Canutt choreographed scenes featuring armies of extras in films such as Spartacus and El Cid.
The crown jewel of this new phase in his career was the chariot race sequence in the 1959 extravaganza, Ben Hur. The scene took two years to plan and prepare and has long been considered the best action scene ever filmed. The picture was a remake of a 1916 silent version starring Ramon Navarro. The 1916 chariot race was supposed to have been filmed in Italy, but there were so many pileups that more than 100 horses had been killed. The producers gave up and shot it in Culver City near the MGM studio but there were still a few pileups that injured men and horses.
Brilliant but reckless action director Breezy Eason, with whom Canutt had worked on Gone With the Wind, had staged that earlier race, which used 18 cameras and took four months. Canutt decided he could make his version more exciting and a lot safer, and rewrote the script to include more "thrills and wrecks" (Stunt Man ... 4) His plans included placing a camera operator in a pit with chariots running over him and a stunt where one chariot team jumps over a wrecked chariot using a ramp to keep the chariot airborne.
At a budget of $15 million, the 1959 Ben Hur was the most expensive movie filmed up to that time. The chariots were pulled by four side-by-side horses, a lot to handle. Roman charioteers had managed the horses with eight reins, but Canutt designed a harness that made it possible to control four horses with two reins, and he designed a special sand and gravel track. He also came up with an undercarriage for the chariots that would allow for much tighter skidding turns than the wide turns he'd observed in the silent version.
Canutt went to Yugoslavia and bought more than 100 horses to make up eight teams so that shooting could continue throughout a day in shifts to prevent running the horses too hard. While his son Joe would double for actor Charlton Heston as Ben Hur, Heston himself, a good athlete who loved horses, also took the reins and drove the chariot as did his on-screen nemesis, Irish actor Stephen Boyd. Heston told Canutt thet he thought he had mastered driving the chariot but that he was concerned about shooting the scene with seven other teams racing around the set. Canutt replied, "Chuck, you just make sure y'stay in the chariot. I guarantee yuh gonna win the damn race" (Heston ... 186).
Into the Sunset
In 1967, Canutt added an honorary Oscar to his collection of trophy cups, belts, buckles, saddles, and medals from his rodeo career. Charlton Heston presented him the award for achievements as a stunt man and second unit director, and for developing safety devices and techniques to make stunt work less dangerous. A star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame followed in 1985.
Yakima Canutt retired at 80. His last credited film was 1975’s Breakheart Pass starring Charles Bronson. In 1982, he returned to Colfax, Washington, to serve as grand marshal of the Whitman County Fair. Canutt died of cardiac arrest on May 24, 1986 in a North Hollywood hospital at the age of 90. After a remarkable rodeo career, he became the most famous stuntman ever, credited with inventing the profession as it's known today, making it safer for people and animals, and thrilling movie audiences for more than half a century.