Stuntman Vic Armstrong spent a career taking blows in some of Hollywood’s most iconic roles. In this exclusive excerpt from his new book, he describes what it was like to actually, physically, be Indiana Jones.
Working in the studio was great; it was such a fun movie to be on. I remember it was a baking hot summer and we’d all come to work in shorts. The famous mine car chase was all done in the sound stage and it was built almost like a rollercoaster. One day it was blisteringly hot and Kate Capshaw, who was a lovely, sweet girl, bought ice creams for everyone. ‘Quick Vic, quick,’ she said, and bundled Short Round’s double, Roy Alon, and me into the mine car and rubbed ice cream all over our faces just like a naughty schoolgirl. ‘Tell them we’re ready,’ she said. ‘What about the ice cream?’ I asked. ‘Just tell them we’re ready.’ So I yelled, ‘We’re ready up here Steven!’ OK, action. We came hurtling down and as we passed the camera we were all eating ice creams. God it was funny, but not for the poor grips who had to run like hell with these two cameras on a dolly to catch up with us, sweating their nuts off only to see us playing jokes. It was like, ‘Thanks guys!’
At one point in the chase Kate had to punch a baddie off the back end of the mine car while it was still moving. I was watching from behind the camera, speeding along trying to get it all in line because it was a tricky angle. It was close to lunch and we were still shooting, everyone was sweating and grumpy, but we couldn’t get it right, you could see the gap between the punch every time.
‘How was that Vic?’ they’d ask. ‘Missed it,’ I’d reply and they’d all growl at me. ‘It’s not my fault. I’m just saying you missed it. You ain’t got it.’ The mine car came shooting down again and this time Kate actually hit the man square in the face and Steven went, ‘Yes, great, now you can’t say she missed there Vic.’ I went, ‘She did.’ He went, ‘What are you talking about, look, he’s got a big fat lip!’ I said, ‘No, she hit him, but it’s crap, it looks awful.’ When you throw a film punch it’s got to be a massive hit; what Kate did was real but it looked weak because she chickened out half way through when she realised she’d made contact. So everybody growled at me again and Steven said, ‘One more time because Vic says that was a miss, missed the guy with the fat lip.’ Down it came and Kate threw the punch. ‘How was that?’ ‘Yeah, that was good.’ And sure enough, just like that missed punch I called in Tunisia on Raiders, when Steven watched the dailies he said, ‘Good call Vic, that looks like nothing.’
John Wayne actually invented it – those big haymaker misses look far better on screen than the real thing. And I always say it’s the person taking the punch that makes the shot, that makes the punch big. It could be Arnie Schwarzenegger throwing a punch but if the guy on the other end doesn’t pop his head it looks like nothing, and yet you could have a wimp throwing a punch and if Arnie pops his head, you go wow, what a big punch. It’s the reaction that makes it.
Every Friday at the end of the day we used to have a pound draw. Everybody wrote their name on a £1 note, put it in a dustbin bag which was then shaken, and whoever’s pound note was pulled out won the whole lot – it was quite a lot of money. One day Harrison won it. ‘For God’s sake,’ he said. The guy didn’t know what to do with it, and we said, ‘No, no, a winner’s a winner, you keep it, give it to charity or something.’ Everyone said goodnight to each other and left. Meanwhile Steven, Harrison and I walked onto the set because I wanted to show them some fight choreography planned for next week. And poor Harrison was walking around really embarrassed with this big dustbin bag crammed full of pound notes. I watched him and saw that he kept putting this bag down somewhere and walking off only for somebody to say, ‘Harrison, you forgot your bag.’ He tried this three or four times.
We finished the rehearsal and walked to the car park and Harrison started dropping back. Out of the corner of my eye I saw him look around before picking out the tattiest old car, walk over, feel the door, open it, throw the dustbin bag in, shut the door and just carry on as if nothing had happened. I never did hear what became of it. That guy must have sat in his car – he was probably a plasterer or one of the labourers – and said, ‘Who’s put fucking rubbish in my car?’ and it was this dustbin bag full of money. I hope he didn’t throw it away without looking in it! But it was a lovely touch from Harrison.
Following that weekend I came to work Monday morning and Harrison wasn’t there. He’d been complaining of a bad back for weeks and it had now completely seized up. They’d got an ambulance jet and flown him to the States. The film was facing a crisis. Without their star, the producers were contemplating shutting everything down for two months. I guess I came to the rescue. I put on Indy’s gear and they shot on me for several weeks. I did all that stuff of releasing the kids, a lot of the mine car stuff, jumping around the gantry, and the big fight on the rock-crushing conveyor belt, with Pat Roach playing the chief guard. Then, when Harrison came back we just did his close-ups. It really kept the whole film going.
Working with Harrison again was wonderful. On the last night of shooting I went over to a local pub to buy the wire riggers a drink, because they’d done such a great job, and suddenly in walked Harrison. He always loved meeting the carpenters and the riggers and was keen to have a drink with the lads. Later on, we both went outside for a breath of fresh air and standing by the back of my car he said, ‘You stunt guys are lucky, all the girls fancy you.’ I said, ‘You are joking, aren’t you? You’re bloody Harrison Ford!’ He said, ‘No, nobody ever knows who I am.’ I said, ‘What a load of nonsense, you’re recognised in a heartbeat.’ He said, ‘I’m not you know. Watch this.’ And with that he shouted over at these two young ladies walking into the pub. Both of them stopped and looked, and Harrison pointed to himself and said, ‘Indiana Jones, Han Solo, Harrison Ford.’ And they went, ‘Yeah, right,’ and just turned around and carried on walking. ‘See, I told you,’ he said, ‘they don’t know me, nobody recognises me.’ Anyway, we closed the pub down that night and ended up having a great booze-up.
Three months later I’d just finished working in Mexico on Dune and flew to LA to have a meeting with director Richard Fleischer about doing Conan the Destroyer. I called Harrison and he suggested we meet up for dinner. At the time he lived up near Pickfair and he gave me directions how to get there. I took the car but couldn’t remember if he said turn left or right at the T-junction, so I turned right. I drove on a bit further until I saw a boulder blocking the road, which Harrison had told me was the result of an avalanche years before. ‘I’m next door to the boulder,’ he’d said. I parked and walked into this elegant house and saw a sign on the wall. ‘I’m downstairs with the physio, make yourself at home.’ I thought, he’s having back problems again.
‘I’m here,’ I shouted. ‘Harrison?’ No answer. I decided to relax and looked at the view over the Hollywood Hills; fabulous. I walked around for a bit and then sat down. Twenty minutes passed. ‘Hello,’ I said. ‘Anybody there?’ Nothing. Now I started to get the feeling that something was wrong, that this was not Harrison’s house, because it just didn’t look right. I was getting paranoid and having visions of the owner coming out and setting the Dobermans on me because they thought I was an intruder. Having previously walked around the place shouting my head off, I now tip-toed out to the car and raced off down the road. As I went hurtling past the T-junction, sure enough standing outside looking for me was Harrison. I’d gone the wrong way. God knows whose house I’d been in.
Finally I got to Harrison’s home and he showed me round. The first thing he did was to take me into one of the bedrooms. Pulling open a drawer he flipped it over and said, ‘Look at these dovetails.’ He was showing me furniture he’d just made. He was so proud of it. I’ve always said that’s the mark of his professionalism: even the dovetail joints in the back of a drawer that nobody ever sees, he wants them to be absolutely perfect. And that’s the kind of attention to detail that he brings to his movies. After a few beers we headed out for dinner. I was looking at the menu when I suddenly realised he’d taken me to a bloody Mexican restaurant. ‘Thanks Harrison,’ I said. ‘Mexican food, just what I need after three months in Mexico City.’ He sat there chuckling to himself.
Melissa was also there with us that night and halfway through the meal said, ‘Vic, I’ve wanted to ask you something. The last night of shooting at Elstree on Temple of Doom, were you with Harrison?’ I thought, oh fuck, I’ve walked into a family row here. I looked across for some yes or no shake of the head from Harrison, but he was hiding behind a menu, he wouldn’t even look at me. ‘You know he didn’t get in until two o’clock that morning.’ ‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘We were in the pub.’ She said, ‘Well, we were having dinner with very influential people that night. And he just didn’t turn up, no phone call, nothing.’ I said, ‘It’s not my fault. You know, you should’ve done what I do in those situations, just tell them he was working late.’ She said, ‘I could have done, but it would have been awkward, because it was Steven Spielberg and George Lucas that I was having dinner with. I can’t say Harrison’s working late with the director and the producer sitting next to me!’ He just didn’t turn up for dinner; he’d preferred to spend the night boozing with us. Hysterical guy, Harrison.
Pictured above: Stunt man Vic Armstrong on the set of the Indiana Jones movies with Harrison Ford.