Though the superstar of What’s Up, Doc? had to dangle by her manicure from a 16th-floor ledge, there wasn’t so much as a chip in Barbra Streisand’s fingernails, and when the heroine of 100 Rifles leaped on a steed and galloped off wildly bareback, it was no skin off Raquel Welch’s act. In each instance, the life and lovely (if lesser known) limbs of stunt woman Donna Garrett were actually in jeopardy. Similarly this year when the rough stuff flares every week in NBC’s sexily violent Police Woman series, it isn’t star Angie Dickinson’s husband Burt Bacharach who is threatened with widowerhood—it’s Donna’s old man Ralph.
Of course, Ralph Garrett, a stunt man himself, also threatens to put their two kids, Damon, 4, and Nicole, 1½, into an orphanage. That wasn’t Jon Voight paddling his own canoe in the most perilous Whitewater parts of Deliverance—it was Ralph. And while Charlton Heston and Ava Gardner cooled their heels, Garrett and 140 other stunt folk suffered the toe-curling calamities in the new blockbuster Earthquake. “A star, any star, is worth too much money,” explains Ralph matter-of-factly of his career raison d’être.
Remarkably, Ralph, 37, has had only one serious mishap since he began in 1961: his head was stomped in the sci-fi film Soylent Green, leaving him with double vision for a few weeks. Donna, 32, has suffered nothing graver than a broken foot in her decade in stunt biz. Knock wood. Against all California and Hollywood odds, this is their first marriage; recently they notched their tenth anniversary.
As for their safety record, the family motto is “Don’t be a hero,” and they demand modification of what they regard as reckless bits. Their marital survival, Donna feels, is actually helped by the required separations of their work. “It’s healthy,” she says, “for each of us to have a chance to get away from the kids and be on our own for a while. I’m a big flirt on location, and I know Ralph likes to stay out late carousing when he’s away. But we both know what we have in each other and don’t do anything to risk losing it.”
They found each other in suburban L.A., where both grew up. Ralph was born into show biz, joining, at age 13, his dad’s acrobatic square-dance troupe, “Homer Garrett’s Why-Knot Twirlers,” a warm-up act during those palmier days of nightclubs. Donna recalls that “Ralph was a legend in his own time in Van Nuys—as a dancer and as a lady’s man, the Casanova all the girls wanted to know.” While a phys ed major at L.A. Valley Junior College, she happened to look in on a “Why-Knot” rehearsal. Ralph, then in the Army, but on leave, coincidentally also showed. “The moment he walked in,” says Donna, “I couldn’t take my eyes off him. I thought I couldn’t possibly catch a man like that.” To complete the scene, as unlikely as some they now play, Ralph continues, “I picked Donna out of a crowd of 40 and walked right up to ask her to dance.”
Three years later they married. By then Ralph was into stunt work, as the bride was reminded hours into her honeymoon. After the ceremony the Garretts drove until 3 a.m. to reach their honeymoon lodge. At 6 a.m., the associate producer of the early Raquel Welch epic The Swinging Summer called to offer Ralph a job. Donna “was shocked” to find that he accepted, particularly when she discovered it involved watusiing around with a boatload of bikini-clad starlets. Donna felt a little better about it all the next day when she was recruited into the film as an extra. More work came so fast that she left school in her final semester. Her gymnastics and diving training made her a natural, and Ralph taught her the tricks of the craft.
“Women’s Lib or not,” she notes, “I decided to use my married name in my work—my maiden name was Funk.” Today Donna Garrett has a bigger name than Ralph’s, and he uncomplainingly does the housework and child-rearing when she has a job and he doesn’t. Donna tends to double for more name stars and averages about six months’ work a year, while Ralph usually pulls anonymous cannon-fodder parts and is employed only about three months. She is V.P. of the Stunt Woman’s Association, which is crusading against the discriminatory Hollywood practice of casting male stunters in drag for actresses.
This year, with the avalanche of catastrophe movies, there is plenty of opportunity, but the Garretts accept their underemployment and are happy with an annual gross fluctuating between $25,000 and $40,000. “In show business,” Ralph observes, “success can breed misery for a marriage. I hate the politics and the jockeying for position, and we try to live a normal life, with a lot of time to enjoy our kids and each other.”
“Movies are just a job for them, not a life-style,” agrees Granada Hills neighbor Alan Wills, who, like the rest of their crowd is non-show biz. “Except for Donna,” says Ralph, “most stunt people are too competitive to have real friendships.” The Garrets own a $75,000, five-bedroom house, a motor-home, a camper, a speedboat and four motorcycles. Because they realize that an unhappy landing could end their career at any time, they have also invested in apartment buildings. Yet so far Ralph has found that “the most dangerous place you can be is your own home.” In all of their combined 23 years in stunt work, the bloodiest injury either suffered occurred when Ralph, in search of a snack, bashed his head wide open on the refrigerator door. Also, not so long ago, their home was shivered in a real, non-Universal earthquake that did $20,000 damage.