An Interview With Loren Janes
I was recently treated to a most interesting afternoon. John Ross and I were on our way to interview Loren Janes, one of the legends of our industry for Inside Stunts Magazine. After driving into Placerita Canyon a few miles, and then a few miles more into Angeles National Forrest, I found myself thinking, “How do I write this article? What makes someone a legend?”
Rounding yet another curve, the rock lined road turned to rolling tree-lined hills with the sent of pine was in the air. The city was gone and only the hills the trees and the valleys were apparent to the eye. I felt the strained thoughts of the day slipping away the farther we got into this slice of heaven. Hiking trails, pine trees, birds, deer, fresh air. Niiice.
Who would choose to live here? I’m thinking that it’s no ordinary person.
Around a few more curves we come up on a man standing in the road. Silver hair, tan, strong, fit, an American flag pinned to his shirt, directing us into a gated driveway.
Cindy greeted us there; a beautiful dog with a thick coat and a smiling face that seemed to be a perfect fit for the man as well as the home.
I stepped out of the car to see the welcoming face of the one and only Loren Janes. Here I was in this beautiful setting with a colleague, someone that I’ve worked with and known for years…I was about to get a lesson in stunts as well as living life to the fullest from this “retired” gentleman.
Loren first pointed to his wife’s car. The license read MEAN PNO and has a Semper Fi sticker in the window. Loren was full of pride when he told us that his wife Jan is a concert pianist. Now about Loren’s truck, whose license plate reads USA 1789…this is the year that the Declaration of Independence was signed. Photos of American eagles, stickers and banners from the Marines were on display in the garage and around the house as well. I was starting to get a picture of whom this man is.
We took a short walk to his guesthouse, where we met Jan. Loren’s wife who is as lovely as Loren is handsome. Together they introduced us to the walls of the room like they were old friends. Walls covered with memorabilia from Loren’s 50 years in the industry, and Jan’s long and productive career as a concert pianist.
Photos of Doris Day, Steve McQueen, John Wayne and President Reagan (wearing a Stuntmen’s Association hat) were on display along with production stills and personal photos of some of the most recognizable faces in our industry.
Loren said that he has three more boxes of “stuff” and has nowhere to put it. I asked myself, Why not the beautiful main house? I was about to find out.
Stepping into the arched front door brought us into a warm and well decorated home. The walls were amass with plaques, commendations, and awards that Loren has so rightfully earned in his years.
On the mantel rests the Golden Boot Award. This prestigious award is presented by the Motion Picture & Television Fund Foundation to honor the achievements of cowboy film heroes and heroines as well as those behind the scenes who made significant contributions in film and television westerns. Loren is a member of this illustrious club who’s honorees include John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, John Ford, Yakima Canutt, Buddy Van Horn and Terry Leonard.
Displayed on the wall was Loren’s Silver Spur Award. This is bestowed to those men and women whose achievement has blazed the trail in the Western music, film, and the television industry. Deserving actors, actresses, directors and stunt professionals alike have been recipients of this distinguished award. Here Loren’s name merges with legendary Burt Reynolds, James Garner and Jack Palance along with stunters Richard Farnsworth, Royden Clark and Eric Cord.
On the next wall is a plaque awarded to Loren from the World Acrobatic Society inducting him into their Hall of Fame as a legend. He keeps company there with stunt people Doug Coleman, Dar Robinson, Lee Hennessey and our own John Ross.
The next honor displayed is from the Western Hall of Fame for Loren’s contributions to the genre of the American Western. Take a look at the Westerns on his IMdb, and then watch some of these classic films. No wires, no CGI no Green Screen, just action that’s designed and performed by extremely talented stunt professionals.
In the center of the room a baby grand piano that Jan works and entertains on. It’s also the spot where Loren laid out a couple volumes of his on-going history of the industry. And when I say history, I mean, here’s a guy who worked with Gable, Cooper and Heston when Hollywood was becoming Hollywood!
Loren has volumes of movie and television history ready for viewing. Photos of actors, directors, producers and stunt people that we have only heard of and thought to ourselves, “Man, I wish I coulda worked with that guy, that woman, or that director.” There it sat, the history of 50 years of film and television, just waiting to be opened and poured over as if it were a newly discovered pyramid.
John and I could only stare at the treasures in front of us. Loren was very matter of factly saying something like: “Here’s a picture from “Spartacus” where I doubled Kurt Douglas. And here I’m doubling his son Michael on “Streets of San Francisco”. Here I am with Jock Mahoney. Here’s one with Steve McQueen from “The Sand Pebbles.” And this is me with Candice Bergen. I dated her. Here’s one of the Duke. I did fourteen pictures with him.” John and I were whelmed. It was a virtual “Who’s Who” of Hollywood’s hay-day!.
The Janes were wonderful hosts. Loren took us around the room pointing out his various awards and accomplishments. He wasn’t boasting, but rather speaking in the way that the Professor would explain radio waves to the Skipper and Gilligan. These were simply the facts of his career. He spoke with steady confidence knowing that this is what comes with dedication and hard work. Almost as if he had a life vision since he was a child.
And ya know what? He did!
When he was a kid Loren found a collection of Tarzan books and read them cover to cover. This, he says, was the start of wanting to be an adventurer.
Between the ages of 11 and 17, Loren hiked the John Muir trail four times!
We’re not talking about puffin up Fryman Canyon here…
This is a 250-mile trail, and…he did it alone! Carrying a knife, wearing a loincloth and living off the land. And some say reading the classics don’t influence young minds.
Can’t you just imagine the Janes household of the early 1940s in the sleepy California foothills…
“G’morning son. Got your knife? Alright then, have a nice walk.”
An amazing natural athlete, Loren qualified for not one, but two Olympic teams in the Pentathlon. Becoming the first non-military athlete to do so. The Pentathlon. That’s five events that includes being an expert at shooting, fencing, swimming, riding and running.
Oh, what a surprise!
As a young man Loren studied to be an opera singer (tenor), found the time to serve as a second generation Marine, his father was killed at the battle of Guadalcanal in WWII. He also squeezed in graduating from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo to go on to teach high school calculus…all before he got into the movie business!
Loren’s start as a stuntman came while he was still teaching. A student’s father was a producer and looking for three “guys” who could and would dive from an 80 foot cliff on Catalina Island for a film. Loren got an introduction and took the job, as did two other young men. All three made
the dive, and Loren ended up saving the two other ‘stuntmen’ because they had both hit the water flat and were unconscious.
Loren’s good looks and talent didn’t go unnoticed. He was soon cast as a lead actor in an episode of “The Cisco Kid”. A very popular episodic program of it’s time. Loren, not surprisingly, did a great job with his 36 pages of dialog and was noticed by some suits from Warner Bros. Loren was invited to meet them in their office on the lot.
There was Loren, young, handsome and fresh into the business. He tells us that there were three “studio guys” in the room and one of them said that after seeing his acting in “The Cisco Kid”, he had done such a wonderful job, that they had decided to make him a star.
Loren said to them, “What do you mean you’re gonna make me a star?”
“You just leave that to us,” he was told.
“And, there’s nothing else? Loren asked.
“Well, there are a couple of little things. You can join the Communist front. Or, you can give 25% of your salary from now on to the Communist Party. But no one will ever know it.”
“Are you serious?” Janes asked.
“Ya,” said the suited man sitting on the corner of the desk. “What’s your answer?”
Loren caught this guy with a straight right that sent him back over the table.
Didn’t these guys know whom they were messing with? A second generation Marine, a two time Olympian and a guy who can sing the Star Spangled Banner better than all of us put together!
After not being able to get onto the Warner lot for quite some time, (go figure), Loren found himself once again working at Warner Bros. He was walking on the lot with a friend one day and he asked, “Hey, who’s that right there?”
“Oh. That’s Jack L. Warner,” his friend told him.
Loren quipped, “That’s the guy I knocked over the table!”
In 1961 Loren heeded a suggestion from Mickey Rooney to organize qualified stunt people. They could become a strong force for producers to deal with as well as a professional nucleus to be hired from.
Loren partnered with stuntman Dick Geary and founded the Stuntmen’s Association Of Motion Pictures. They, along with a select group of stunt professionals, created the first stunt organization of its kind and by doin so changed the face, the politics and the future of stunts and action in our industry. To this day we all benefit from their commitment to professional excellence and integrity.
Loren shared his “Action Reel” with us, and it’s nothing short of spectacular. The reel opens with him doing a fire burn from the Nicolas Cage movie “Wild at Heart”. A minute and ten seconds worth of full body burn where he needed to ignite the whole apartment that he was in. From the couch to the curtains to table and then the chair, and this is almost 20 years ago! He didn’t want to fall on an air bottle, so he ran a breather tub from his mouth to under his driving suit …this is he got his air.
Next is a 30 second spot of a soaring eagle, then the title, American Eagle Films Productions. I think that if Loren were at another place in our history we would have read about him hanging out with Thomas J., Ben F. and the boys in Philly signing documents, or perhaps wearing a coonskin cap with Dan’l at a fort in south Texas. In grade school we could’ve had to study about the Lewis and Clark and Janes Trail. And there’s not doubt that his face would have been on a piece of today’s currency.
Loren is clearly a very special person and talented stuntman. When is the last time that you knew of a stuntman doubling for the same actor for 28 years? Steve McQueen, no low budget movie star, called on Loren throughout his career. And Loren never disappointed him or production.
Take a look at the movie “Hunter.” Janes, as McQueen, hangs off of a ladder swung out at a 90-degree angle from the top of an “L” train traveling at 55mph in Chicago. Free handed! For three days! No harness, no clips, no CGI. All it took was strength, determination and talent.
Some of Loren’s folklore surrounds the famous photo of him flying off the top of a moving train and into a 15-foot cactus in “How the West Was Won.”
A wonderfully calculated and performed gag that Loren set up and prepped his own stunt by digging down and cutting the roots to of the cactus tree. He burned off the thorns and then worked out the timing of leaving a moving train in time to smack face first into the cactus and roll down the embankment of the desert sand and rock. As usual, it went off perfectly and at the premier received a standing ovation from the audience.
Why was Loren in such demand? He moved effortlessly. His physicality, unlimited talent and professionalism made him the perfect choice to stunt for such stars as McQueen, Kurt Douglas, Paul Newman, Chuck Connors and even Debbie Reynolds. Let alone being a perfect fit for the glut of television westerns of the 50s and 60s. With his mastery of horsemanship, shooting and archery he was able to play both cowboys and Indians with ease. A valuable commodity in “those days of yesteryear.”
When asked who he thought were some of the best stunters of his day, Loren didn’t hesitate to answer. Ronnie Rondell, Mickey Gilbert, Freddy Waugh, Royden Clark. Geeze. What a gang of talent!!
Ronnie Rondell, or Big Ronnie, is one of the best talents and most loved gentlemen to have ever come along in our industry. So I gave him a call and asked him what his thoughts were on Loren. There was absolutely no hesitation in his answer either. “Loren was extremely talented. He had tremendous body control and unreal coordination and ability. A great horse-backer and the sweetest man you’ve ever met. Great sense of humor! In those days we had to be all around.”
I then turned my attention to Fred Waugh. Freddy’s physicality and stunt sense comes from years as a young circus performer before becoming one of the industries top stunt performers and action directors.
I posed the same query to him as Ronnie. “I like Loren a lot. He’s a great acrobatic talent, good in the air and a really good horseman. Probably was the best all around stuntman of his time.”
This is high praise from a couple of incredibly talented peers. The respect and camaraderie these gentlemen have for each other is tremendous. I’m guessing it’s because they were some of the first to perfect the way today’s gags are performed and that took working closely together day after day. I was a much different time. Remember, there were only a handful of stunt people then, compared to the hundreds that we have in our business today.
A consummate pro, Loren is a man to be studied and to learn from. He doesn’t spin his stories or add an extra foot or ten when talking about his high falls. When he speaks of knowing famous celebs, because they’re his friends, not because it’s cool for us to know.
Today Loren may be retired from stunts, but not from life. He keeps a rigorous schedule with workouts and still even jumps on the trampoline at Bob Yerkes as he helps train those that are lucky and smart enough to listen. He practices his archery, swims, hikes, runs and could most likely still out stunt most of the industry if he wanted to.
It’s tough to capsulate who Loren is and what he has accomplished so far in his life. Explorer. Marine. Olympian. Teacher. Stuntman. Stunt Coordinator. Husband. Father. Innovator. Leader. Speaker. Legend. American. There’s a lot to choose from.
Loren still spends part of his time teaching. That’s right. He lectures to grade schoolers, high schools, colleges and private firms about movies, and film making. He cuts in behind the scenes and rehearsal footage that he shot on the set of half a dozen movies (he even had the presence of mind to shoot film back then) and explains how a production goes from rehearsal to finished product.
There’s so much to learn here. One lesson in particular was evident; to have foresight, determination; to believe in yourself and to put your thoughts into action. It was evident that Loren’s been practicing this his entire life.
Before we left for the day, Loren asked Jan to play a piece for us on the baby grand. We were treated to a wonderful original piece that she had written. It was a take on a Christmas song that filled the room with good feelings and a true appreciation for Jan’s extraordinary talent.
And there was Loren, a calm smile on his face. Mesmerized with her beauty and her art. It was apparent that greatness recognizes greatness.
I can’t truthfully say here that Loren Janes has done it all (he admitted to me that he doesn’t “do” motorcycles), but he has done just about everything else. Including forging new paths and opening doors for our industry by creating the Stuntmen’s Association. By taking the time to help train and advise those of us who are in the industry today and giving lectures and lessons to those who will be guiding our business in years to come.
And my original question, “What makes someone a legend?”
He is someone who can perform to the highest degree while still being able to help those around him and ‘whose influence reaches worldwide.
We would be wise to listen to the ones who literally blazed the trail for us. We’re a very fortunate group of professionals that owe so much to the likes of Loren, Bobby Hoy, Jeannie Epper and Gene LeBell.
Stunts are truly an art form. Loren is an artist who, through his hard work, principles and dedication has set the bar high for those of us who follow him.
The Golden Boot Awards describes their recipient’s contributions to the industry this way:
“This true American art form has left its imprint on the world, and like the cowboy, it is unique, powerful and timeless.”
This is Loren Janes. Legend.