By Dixie Brunner
July 11, 2001
The Worst thing that ever happened to Neil Summers is when he was bitten by a rattlesnake and died.
Well maybe that wasn’t the worst thing.
There were the time Summers was set afire, blown up, and he and his horse had to jump off a moving train. And what about the thousands of times he was shot and hundreds of times that he was killed?
“To be able to spend your life doing something that you love is a wonderful thing.” Said new Kanab resident Neil Summers, of his 36 years in the film industry. Summers is a stuntman extraordinaire, with literally hundreds of famous films to his credit, many of which were filmed in the Kanabe area. “I’m proud of being a survivor in an industry which chews people up and spits them out,” said Summers.
Neil Summers grew up watching westerns in his boyhood home of Phoenix, AZ. His all-consuming passion was to be a cowboy in the movies. “I loved the Indians, posse and the bad guys… it was all so exciting to me.”
During summer vacations Summers was able to live his dreams, when he would get hired as a horseback rider for westerns being filmed nearby.
Summers eventually made his way to Hollywood to realize his career in films. California held promise for a young man who was interested in westerns, good with horses and didn’t mind getting shot.
He has been working ever since. As a fully-accredited member of the Stuntmen’s Association, Summers has been tapped countless times through the years to perform courageous, dare-devil acts. In other words, he’s the hard-working guy who makes the movie stars look good.
To say Summers has experienced success in his chosen field would be an understatement. His credits include a mind-boggling list od hundreds of famous movie and TV shows such as Gunsmoke, Dick Tracy, High Chaparral, Death Valley Days, True Grit, Grizzly Adams, Barnaby Jones, My Name is Nobody, and outlaw Josey Wales.
Robocop, Shawshank Redemption, Oceans 11 with Julia Roberts and George Cluney, and Bad Girls with DrewBarrymore, are some more recent credits, with the latest V.I.P Buffy the Vampire Slaye, and J.A.G.
He has been shot by Clint Eastwood, killed by John Wayne, and tangled with the best of them.
While Summers plays the bad guy in most movies quite the opportunity is true in real life. “Neill Summers fits the bill.” Western columnist Pierce Lyden once wrote. “He is a stuntman deluxe, a guy I’m glad to call my friend-not only because he is a great stuntman but a great person.”
call Summers a friend. Besides being friends with hundreds of actors and
actresses through the years, he enjoyed a close personal friendship with
President Ronald Reagan.
“It’s been a terrific life,” said Summers. “I’ve gotten to meet all my heroes.”
During the many years of working as stuntman in the movies, Summers spent a lot of time shooting westerns in and around Kanab.
“It was great back then,” remembers Summers, “You’d see Sidney Poitier, John Wayne or Jack Nicholson strolling down Center Street or sitting around the pool at Perry’s”
Santa Fe, Tucson and Kanab were the three major locations in demand for westerns in the 60-70s. “There would be as many as five or six major companies a year filming here,” said Summers. “I spent four months on one film alone.”
Five of those films were made with Summers’ personal hero, John Wayne. “John Wayne was hard to for,” commented Summers, “but he was the best of the best!”
Evolving film industry
According to Summers, the movie industry has changed dramatically through the years, and not necessarily for the better. Since many studios are owned by corporations instead of individuals, decisions are made by boards. “You get studios run by absentee landlords,” said Summers. “None of the great producers are around anymore. Most of the films made today are fodder for the masses, not for entertainment.”
“The stars these days have forgotten the people who made them famous,” added Summers. “Many of them will not even sign autographs anymore. They are just spoiled.”
But while much has changed, Summers realizes the enormous exposure stars today get. While on a recent flight, he notices a woman pointing in his direction. Slightly flattered, he figured that she recognized him. When he looked back again, he saw the woman talking to the stewardess and pointing in his direction. “I thought they remembered me from one of the movies,” said Summers with a grin.
They had recognized him, but not from a movie. Upon landing at the airport, he was handcuffed by three FBI agents. He had performed a criminal re-enactment of a bank robbee wanted in six states for America’s Most Wanted, and had been confused for the real bad guy! He was taken downtown to be booked and it took his studio several hours to spring him.
More relaxed lifestyle
During the many years of filming in southern Utah, Summers fell in love with the area and eventually purchased land. He has recently made his home here. He and Karen, his wife of 11 years, desire Kanab’s quieter, safer lifestyle.
“I love it here,” admitted Summers. “The clerk at the grocery store actually said goodbye and that she hoped I’d come back soon.”
Summers pastime passions include film festivals and collecting western movie memorabilia. He is often a featured guest at festivals through-out the west. Summers western memorabilia collection is thought to be one of the most complete in the country and includes over 1,000,000 photo stills, many of which were taken right here during Kanab’s “Little Hollywood” years. He and Bonnie Riding are exploring the possibility of getting a grant to open a film history museum in Kanab with his collection.
But while Summers has plans for his leisure time, he will continue to perform movie stunts, with no retirement plans in the immediate future. He will begin shooting a feature film with Charlton Heston in August.
So for now, Neil Summers will have to be content with brief moments enjoying the beauty of our majestic red rock countryside… and remember back to the good ‘ole days spent here getting snakebit, shot, hit with arrows and falling from horses.