Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Headshot of Russell Saunders

Born on a farm near Winnipeg, Manitoba, on May 21, 1919, Russell M. Saunders repeatedly risked his life as perhaps the greatest movie stuntman of Hollywood's halcyon days. As a child he was fascinated by the acrobats in traveling circuses, and he worked on his acrobatic skills until he had achieved Canadian championships in diving and gymnastics. After being rejected by the Canadian Air Force because he was color-blind, he moved to California. There he quickly found his way to Muscle Beach in Santa Monica, where acrobats and body builders performed and paraded. Even in his later years he spent much of his time on the beach, giving free gymnastics lessons to children.

But it was in the movie business that Saunders made his name. He appeared in more than a hundred movies, doubling for stars such as Alan Ladd, Robert Cummings, and Gene Kelly. He was particularly revered by his peers for his ability to capture the exact mannerisms of the stars as he performed the dangerous feats they were unable to do. In The Three Musketeers (1948), for example, he jumped from a rooftop, caught hold of a flag, and, as it ripped, swung on the shreds through an open window. In another film as Richard Widmark's double he leaped off a fifty-foot cliff, breaking his arm on a rock in the water. Saunders was also in the climactic fight scene in Shane (1953), unknown to audiences, who saw only Alan Ladd and his antagonists in the blur of action. Russell Saunders died in a West Los Angeles nursing home on May 29, 2001.

David J. Wishart University of Nebraska-Lincoln

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