October 13, 1980 12:00 PM

It is a kind of hybrid of 60 Minutes and The Gong Show designed by a network Dr. Strangelove. Derided by critics as “trash news” and hailed by its creators as “innovative,” it carries a hyperbolic title that could have been bellowed by Barnum himself: That’s Incredible! Anchored by breathless reports from an odd trio of entertainer John Davidson, ex-quarterback Fran Tarkenton and tennis player turned actress Cathy Lee Crosby (following story), the electronic sideshow has become the year’s most popular new program since its debut last March on ABC. All it lacks is a circus barker with a cane. A woman whose body is covered with bees? STUPENDOUS! A ghost adoption agency? GEE WHIZ! A man who milks venom from snakes? YECHHH! It would all be good fun, perhaps—an innocent TV throwback to Art Baker’s You Asked for It—if not for one ominous trend. Over the past few months several bloody accidents have transformed That’s Incredible! from harmless entertainment to what some detractors have already called “snuff television.”

The mounting complaints that the show has become a carnival of carnage focus on its weekly habit of paying publicity-seeking daredevils to perform dangerous stunts that are shunned even by many veteran stunt-men. In particular, three stunts have already ended in near-fatal disasters and, in one case, a lawsuit.

•Last March novice stuntman Stan Kruml, 36, constructed a 150-foot tunnel of chicken wire and burlap, set it afire and, protected only by a flame-retardant suit, attempted to run through the inferno for about $8,000 and a moment of prime-time glory. He stumbled from the blaze, his suit afire, his fingers charred to stubs.

•In July 25-year-old Steve Lewis attempted to jump over two sports cars speeding bumper to bumper toward him at 100 mph. His left foot smashed sickeningly into the windshield of the lead car. The impact shattered his foot and turned his lower leg twice around his knee. He survived and is recuperating, but doctors think the foot, now infected, still may have to be amputated.

•Then last month motorcycle daredevil Gary Wells, 23, re-created the jump that seriously injured Evel Knievel in 1967. Soaring 180 feet over the fountains at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, Wells lost his gamble for fame when his cycle wobbled in midair and struck the edge of the landing ramp. He careened into an unpadded concrete wall at approximately 80 mph, suffering a ruptured aorta and severe pelvic, skull and leg injuries. He remained on the critical list for a week and his condition now is stable.

“It’s insane. It’s suicidal. It’s exploitative,” claims California attorney Ed Steinbrecher, who plans to file a multimillion-dollar suit against That’s In-credible!’s Alan Landsburg Productions on behalf of maimed fire-runner Kruml. “If they had spent as much time checking out Stan as hiring a mail room clerk, they would have known he couldn’t do it. He had done seven or eight car jumps in his time, but never a fire run. He was totally unqualified. Now his hands are burned to a crisp.” Kruml, who is a bachelor former policeman with only four years’ experience with stunts, concedes, “I’ve lost a fantastic career.”

Lewis and Wells were invited to join the suit against the producers, but so far both have declined. Though Wells was too badly injured to comment, the motorcyclist’s manager, Tom Baker, boasts, “Gary’s a pro, and when he’s well he’ll work out what he did wrong, and that’ll test whether he’s a 23-year-old kid or a 23-year-old man.” Lewis, who is married and has a 2-year-old daughter, is also forgiving. “It was my stunt and my responsibility,” he says. “Those groups who are bad-mouthing the show are stuntmen who say people like me and Gary and Stan are not pros but just daredevils. I’d say we are in a higher category than they are because we put our lives on the line. It’s life or death every time.” His mangled foot, though, will hardly permit resumption of his previous speciality: kickboxing. As he admits, “I’m resigned to walking with a limp the rest of my life.”

Among the show’s severest critics is Ron Stein, 42, head of Stunts Unlimited, a team of 30 movie stuntmen. “They’re reaching out and saying: ‘Come up with something really crazy and we’ll film it,’ ” he says. “Pros don’t do a stunt until they are reasonably sure they can walk away safely. Some of these stunts look badly prepared. They’re negligent.”

Producer Landsburg replies, “It seems that much of the criticism comes from stuntmen who have not been invited to take part.” He argues that most of the show’s 30 or so hazardous stunts have gone smoothly. “The show needs no justification.” Yet many stuntmen that Landsburg hires are not experienced members of the Screen Actors Guild but rather nonunion performers whose rates are cheaper. “I needed the money,” says Stan Kruml, who claims the show originally wanted him to run 200 feet—not 150—through fire. (Landsburg denies it.) “They simply asked me if I could do the stunt. Am I going to pass up an opportunity to be on network TV?”

“We are paying people reasonably well to go out and do incredible stunts for us—something that has been going on since the beginning of show business,” counters Landsburg. “We are responsible in a dangerous field.” Cathy Lee Crosby and Tarkenton also defend the record. “I am proud of this show,” says Crosby. “I think it shows just how great human potential is. Why don’t people talk more about the positive things we’ve done, like stories on the blind girl track athlete or the one-legged football player?” Tarkenton agrees that the criticism is “unjust. We’re doing positive educational things. Teachers are having students watch. People risk their lives every time they get on an airplane. Human triumph means risk; this show celebrates human triumph on all levels.”

Predictably, That’s Incredible!’s critics include George Schlatter, a rival producer responsible for two similar “reality” programs, Real People and Speak Up America! “We are directly opposed to the kinds of stunts they use, and we were offered all of them,” claims Schlatter. “Real People is classic character portrayal. That’s Incredible! is a carnival.” Both Landsburg and Crosby are incensed at what they see as Schlatter’s sour grapes. “If we were not a success, no one would care,” claims Crosby.

Landsburg reserves his most barbed comments for the way TV news treats the show. “If there is an accident, they rush it on the air,” he fumes. “The night Gary Wells was hurt we didn’t run it on the show, but the news programs did. They promote the gore: ‘Sensational film of accident. Stay tuned.’ An unsuccessful stunt does our program no good. If it’s gore, we don’t show it.” Despite Landsburg’s claim, however, That’s Incredible! has in fact shown footage of Lewis being hit by the car, Kruml’s run through fire, and such near-disasters as the attempt of a man named Carl Skenes to catch a .22-caliber bullet in a metal contraption held between his teeth. The bullet was slightly off-target and Skenes wound up with minor cuts and a mouthful of blood (carefully shown on close-up cameras).

Some critics are disturbed that such antics may inspire imitation. Nelson Price, a member of the National Coalition on Television Violence, worries that “the show has real risks for children because they try to emulate what they see.” He cites the spate of injuries that followed Evel Knievel’s much ballyhooed tricks in the late ’60s and ’70s. Daredevil Lewis shrugs off the suggestion, saying, “My followers are kids, and they tell me I’m crazy and they wouldn’t do a thing like that.”

The Rev. Everett Parker, director of communications for the United Church of Christ, says, “The show’s producers and advertisers are simply interested in making money by exploiting people.” David Boehm, American editor of The Guinness Book of World Records, says his organization is about to withdraw permission for producers David Frost and Marvin Minoff to create TV specials based on the sometimes odd and dangerous exploits catalogued in the book. “Minoff took his shows way beyond the standards of good taste,” Boehm says. “I object violently to this type of programming.” Boehm adds: “Producers of shows like That’s Incredible! encourage amateurs to do the same feats without taking the necessary precautions.”

Despite a fear that the endless quest for higher ratings could inspire increasingly risky stunts, Landsburg vehemently stands by his creation. “If an item is just interesting, it doesn’t belong on our show,” he notes. “We have to make people say That’s incredible! after each segment. But to say we are doing this to stir blood lust is crazy.” Yet, gruesomely, an eyewitness claims spectators dipped their fingers in Wells’ blood after his near-fatal jump for That’s Incredible! As lawyer Steinbrecher says, “I can’t see the justification for letting these guys kill themselves and call it entertainment. They will be throwing people to the lions soon if this continues.”

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