Richard Rush, ‘The Stunt Man’ Director, Dies at 91

Carmel Dagan
·6-min read

Richard Rush, who picked up two Oscar nominations, best director and adapted screenplay, for his extraordinary 1980 film “The Stunt Man,” starring Peter O’Toole, died April 8 in Los Angeles. He was 91.

His wife Claude said he had been suffering from longtime health issues but that he died comfortably at home. She said in a statement, “He will be remembered for a string of landmark films in the 1960s and ’70s, culminating with his 1980 multi-Oscar-nominated classic, ‘The Stunt Man,’ which is widely regarded as one of the greatest films of all time. To those who were privileged to know and love him, he will be even more warmly remembered, and missed, for his integrity, his loyalty, his endless generosity of spirit and his boundless support and mentorship of other filmmakers, writers or indeed anyone who ever dared to, in the words of his ‘Stunt Man’ hero Eli Cross, ’tilt at a windmill.'”

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Rush shared his adapted screenplay nomination with Lawrence B. Marcus. (Rush adapted the novel by Paul Brodeur, while Marcus wrote the screenplay.) In addition to the writing and directing nominations for “The Stunt Man,” O’Toole was nominated for best actor.

Joe Morgenstern in the Wall Street Journal wrote: “This sensationally original film, directed by Richard Rush, stars Peter O’Toole as a megamaniacal director, Eli Cross, and Steve Railsback as Cameron, a fugitive turned ad hoc stunt man. The structure is trompe l’oeil — what’s reality, what’s illusion — and the dominant mood is paranoia: Cameron thinks Eli is trying to kill him. The main attraction, though, is Mr. O’Toole’s madly majestic performance.”

O’Toole’s Eli Cross is rather absurdly shooting a World War I picture at the picturesque Hotel del Coronado south of San Diego when Railsback’s Cameron stumbles onto the scene. He gets sort of involved with the film’s leading lady, played by Barbara Hershey (or is this just another of Eli’s feints)? One of several stunning set pieces in “The Stunt Man” has an audience of tourists watch as the film crew shoots a scene in which German biplanes attack soldiers on the beach; when the smoke clears, the beach is awash with carnage — bodies splayed everywhere, many with severed limbs. Could the biplanes have been spraying real bullets? Is director Eli Cross that fanatical about realism? No, it’s all Hollywood magic and everyone is fine.

When “The Stunt Man” was released in a DVD box set in 2002, included was a video documentary by Rush called “The Sinister Saga of Making ‘The Stunt Man.'”

In a review in the Austin Chronicle, Jason Henderson wrote “The Stunt Man” “earned Rush his place as François Truffaut’s favorite American director, but the studio took one look at the piece and practically refused to release it. (They wanted a simple action movie.) In the companion DVD, the 2001 documentary ‘The Sinister Saga of Making “The Stunt Man,” Rush, cast and crew tell us why a movie can sell out test markets, gain rave reviews nationwide, receive three Oscar nominations, and still never receive a wide release. Why? Because it looked ‘hard to sell.'”

“Psych-Out” (1968) was the film that first brought attention to Rush as a director. Susan Strasberg played a deaf runaway who arrives in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury hippie district looking for her missing brother, played by Bruce Dern. Dean Stockwell played a disenchanted hippie, while Jack Nicholson portrayed a swinger with an interest in Strasberg’s character.

“Getting Straight” (1970) was Rush’s first studio film — it was produced and released in the U.S. by Columbia Pictures. The film starred Elliott Gould and Candice Bergen, and Rush showed signs of the fine director he would become.

Rush next made the 1974 action comedy “Freebie and the Bean,” starring James Caan and Alan Arkin as police partners. In the AllMovie review, critic Donald Guarisco writes: “Behind the camera, Richard Rush keeps the zany events rolling at a carefully modulated pace that gives the actors room to breathe, but also fills the screen with the kind of hardcore slapstick antics rarely seen outside a Tex Avery cartoon.”

The seemingly maniacal energy Rush brought to this film anticipates some of the delightfully antic moments in “The Stunt Man.”

Born in New York City, Rush was one of the first students at UCLA’s film program. After graduating he worked for the U.S. military creating TV programs highlighting the nation’s involvement in the Korean War. At the time Rush agreed with the involvement of the American military in the region, but his participation in this conflict was a defining event for the director.

He then spent several years in the counterculture trenches, working for Roger Corman.

Rush’s first film, which he wrote and co-scripted, was the 1960 teen exploitation film “Too Soon to Love” (aka “High School Honeymoon”), in which a young Jack Nicholson was fifth billed. Next was the startling 1963 melodrama “Of Love and Desire,” in which 52-year-old Merle Oberon played a woman tortured by her nymphomania, while her brother, played by Curd Jurgens, secretly moons for her.

Rush had a fairly high-profile directing assignment in AIP’s 1967 outing “Thunder Alley,” which took Annette Funicello and Fabian away from the beach and plunked them down into the world of stock car rallies. Rush directed two other films that came out in 1967: “The Cups of San Sebastian,” a comedy shot in Spain and starring Tab Hunter, and “Hells Angels on Wheels,” starring Nicholson, among others, to cash in on the boom in motorcycle films begun by Roger Corman’s “Wild Angels.”

After “Psych-Out” came “The Savage Seven,” which the New York Times called “a modern Western about motorcyclists, Indians and bad guys. Rush had a third picture come out in 1968: “A Man Called Dagger.”

Years after the critical success of “The Stunt Man,” Rush co-wrote the screenplay for Roger Spottiswoode’s 1990 movie “Air America,” starring Mel Gibson and Robert Downey Jr. in the story of the CIA’s secret airline during U.S. involvement in Indo-China in the 1960s.

His final film was 1994’s “Color of Night,” a thriller which gained notoriety for its sexy scenes featuring Bruce Willis and English actress Jane March. The story concerned a psychologist played by Willis, devastated by the suicide of a patient, who takes over supervision of a therapy group that had been led by a murdered colleague; Willis’ character is determined to discover which of the assortment of eccentric patients is guilty.

Rush is survived by his wife of 48 years, Claude; a son, Anthony and a grandson, Shayne.

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