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Father of Invention

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Rubbing sticks together to start a fire in a potential employer’s office is not usually a good career move. But it worked for Steve Watts, who was hired to transform everything from ice skates to a parachute into the “tools” Tom Hanks’s character uses in the hit movie Cast Away. “[Director Robert Zemeckis] was afraid the smoke alarms would go off,” says David Wescott, a consultant on the film. “But he really got a kick out of it.”

Of course, Watts, 53, was a natural for the gig, given his full-time job as director of aboriginal studies at the Schiele Museum of Natural History in Gastonia, N.C. “Primitive skills are our shared inheritance,” says Watts, the father of a grown daughter with wife Cindy, 53, a special-ed diagnostician. “The Stone Age is the greatest common denominator of humanness.”

Working with Cast Away screenwriter William Broyles Jr., Watts spent a year imagining—and creating—objects that Hanks’s character, FedEx supervisor Chuck Noland, would need to survive for four years. The filmmakers shipped him shells, driftwood and cattail leaves from the Fiji Islands (where Cast Away was shot) as well as potential debris from a FedEx plane. There was some trial and error. “They sent Rollerblades,” says Watts. “I tried every possibility, but I just couldn’t make them work.” So the Rollerblades were traded for ice skates, with a blade serving as part of an ax. Paper clips doubled as fishhooks. Videotape? Binding for a raft. In total, Watts came up with 152 items (not all were used), but it was the simplest one—Wilson the volleyball—that struck the biggest chord with moviegoers. “[Wilson] saved Chuck’s sanity,” says Watts.