Johnny Kazian of Kuna was also a stuntman for stars such as James Brolin, David Hasselfhoff, Robert Redford
by Tim Woodward
KRTBN Knight-Ridder Tribune Business News – The Idaho Statesman
June 14, 2006
KUNA — When Johnny Kazian's son was a little boy, he thought his father was Batman. “It wasn't surprising,” Kazian said. “How many dads wear a leather helmet and goggles to work?” These days, Kazian and his wife live quietly in a rural area near Kuna. The only clue to his remarkable career is found on his license plates — Stunt 1.
Kazian made his living as a Hollywood stuntman for nearly 35 years.
He also was a wing walker, credited with saving the death-defying practice from virtual extinction. Before that he was a tumbler and before that a trapeze artist. He's Idaho's elder statesman of thrills and spills. A transplanted easterner, he says he “was born where the cement grows, but now I live in the country. When you travel all over, you can pick where you like it best. For me, this was it.
Seattle is nice, but it's too liquid.” An Idaho resident for 32 years, Kazian grew up in Philadelphia. It was there that his high-flying lifestyle began, with a casual inquiry and a trapeze. “My father was an Armenian immigrant who designed rugs,” he said. “He had a friend who was in the circus. His friend didn't have a son of his own, and one day when I was 7 he asked my father if he could train me. I don't know any 7-year-old who wouldn't want to be a trapeze artist.” He did his first professional show, at Coney Island, N.Y., in 1947. He was 14. “It takes a long time to learn,” he said. “You have to be in great physical condition, and your timing has to be perfect. If everything isn't done at just the right time, you're going to the net.” Even falling is an acquired skill. “The net has a sweet spot. You want to land on your back in the center of the sweet spot. If you don't hit it just right, the net's going to act like a racquet and you're the ball.” What's it like up there? “It's graceful and beautiful,” he said. “It's like being a bird. You're alone in the air. And once you learn the timing and balance, it's not difficult.
I've never been afraid of heights, and you develop this little bubble in your head that tells you whether you're upside-down, right-side-up or somewhere in between.” Kazian spent two seasons flying hand to wrist with the Ringling Brothers Circus. When the Korean War began, his skills made him a natural candidate for aviation training. He became a Navy pilot and was flying a seaplane when his wrist was badly broken in a crash. The break didn't heal properly, ending any chance of returning to his job as a trapeze artist. What initially looked like bad luck, however, proved to be a jackpot. “A friend helped me get a job as a stuntman in Hollywood. You do a little of everything when you work in a circus. I'd been a tumbler, as well as a trapeze artist, so I knew how to fall and hit an air bag. I'd tumble out of movie belfries dressed as a German officer, get thrown out of jeeps, that sort of thing.” The pay reflected the risk. “I have an engineering degree from Temple University, but I could make more money doing stunts,” Kazian said. “I got $500 just for showing up. I'd get another $500 for every bump (stunt), more if it was something special. It was fairly easy to make $2,000 a day.” Every stunt was planned to minimize the risk. He sketched the trajectories on paper so he'd know exactly when and where he'd be at the moment of impact and how to execute a fall or car crash with the least likelihood of hurting himself. “You plan it so you go to the bank and not the hospital. And when they're spending $100,000 a day on camera locations, you'd better know where you're coming down. If not, a) they've ruined a car, b) they're not going to get the shot and c) you're not going to work again.” He worked as a stuntman in movies and television programs, doubling for James Brolin, David Hasselhoff and other actors. But it was wing walking that brought him his greatest fame. The practice — some would say madness — of walking on wings of airplanes while they do loops and rolls was popular during the barnstorming era of the 1920s. With the more powerful planes that followed, higher speeds made it increasingly difficult and dangerous. By the time Kazian began experimenting with it in the late 1950s, wing walking had become a memory. “He's the one who reinvented it,” said Illinois aerobatic pilot Dave Dacy, who worked with Kazian for 10 years. “By the time he came along, they had planes that landed faster than the old barnstorming planes cruised. Johnny found a way to bring it back at the higher speeds.” It took him two years to perfect the techniques. “I learned that if you make yourself an airfoil at the higher speeds, you'll be lifted off the wing,” Kazian explained. “If you curve your back enough, it becomes a lifting surface and you fly off. The key is to lean forward at the correct angle into the wind. That keeps you from becoming an airfoil.
I also put pieces of traction tape on the wings in case it rained.
“There's a lot of communication with the pilot because he's always compensating for your weight. It's a team effort. When his eyes are as big as his goggles, you don't push it any farther.” Was it scary the first time? “No. That's not bravado, either. I enjoy heights, and I knew I could do it.” He did it well enough to stand on wings of planes looping, rolling and flying upside down at speeds in excess of 200 mph. “He's the original, the real thing,” Dacy said. “There's no net, no nothing. He's the only one I know of who did it without ropes or cables except for one other person, and she did it on an old cropduster that was really slow. Johnny set the standard. He's the example of how it ought to be done. He even looks the part.” In 1975, Kazian doubled for actor Robert Redford in the title role for the wing walking movie, “The Great Waldo Pepper.” Masks were made of his face and the actor's; a third had the shape of Kazian's face on the inside and Redford's on the outside. “It was about a quarter of an inch thick, and they glued it to my face. That way, if I smiled or my cheeks moved, it looked like it was Redford's face moving. … He was a real nice human being and quite a character. He wanted to do everything. They put a cable on him, and he walked out on the wing.”
Kazian retired from stunt work in 1994. “I found out then that my wife was worried the whole time and never let on,” he said. “She was afraid of the phone call telling her I'd fallen.” Mary Kazian admits that the nature of her husband's work kept her awake nights. “The traveling around the country made me as apprehensive as his performing every weekend,” she said. “I was happy when he decided to retire. I felt he had the right to relax and spend more time at home doing what he loves — fishing, boating and hunting.” Ten years after retiring, Kazian was inducted into the Airshow Hall of Fame, honoring four decades of work as a wingwalker and stuntman. “Retirement,” in his case, is relative. He still does some engineering work and occasionally uses his skills as a stuntman. One example: a 50 mph head-on crash at a convention of Idaho law enforcement officers. “We used junk cars that still ran. I took out the rearview mirrors, sun visors, the dashboard knobs … those are the things that will hurt you. Both I and the officer driving the other car came out of it without a scratch. We wore crash helmets and harnesses I attached to the chassis. The harness goes over both shoulders, which is the way seat belts ought to be. Seat belts over just one shoulder break your clavicle.”