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[whitespace] Jean Malahni Fiend For Fire: Stuntpeople like Jean Malahni may have a bit of the daredevil gene, but they are also highly trained professionals.

Photograph by Michael Amsler


Burning for Respect

You've probably seen her naked, you've probably seen her in flames. But why don't you know her name?

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"Hey," says Jean Malahni, plopping down beside me on a lightly battered couch in her comfy Kenwood living room. "Wanna look at my photo albums?

"Here's me falling off a cliff," she says, turning a page and pointing.

"Here's me on the wing of an airplane," she continues. "Here I am falling out of a four-story window after having my throat cut." And so it goes: there she is burning to death in a car crash; smashing up a truck in Utah; slathered in blood, dying in the dirt. "Oh, and this is me," she chirps, "falling off a 15-foot bridge into a river full of alligators."

The afternoon is warm and sunny, filling Malahni's living room with soft, dusty light. She wears old, faded jeans, an oversized black
T-shirt--"Don't piss me off: I'm running out of places to hide the bodies," it reads--and a smile wide enough to bridge that gator-infested river she was just leaping into in one of her photos. Malahni, obviously, is proud of her work, proud of her decades-long career as a hard-working, high-falling Hollywood stuntwoman--proud of stunt people in general.

Malahni has done stunts, car crashes, fist fights, and a whole lot of nude body-double work on dozens of movies--The Terminator, Runaway Train, and Slumber Party Massacre II--and countless television shows, including The Fall Guy, The Dukes of Hazzard, and Beauty and the Beast. Her entire career is captured in the various shots collected in these albums all around us, shots populated with some of the most recognizable names in show business: Tom Cruise, Alicia Silverstone, Jon Voight, David Carradine, Hugh Hefner, Madeline Kahn, Rebecca DeMornay, Matt Dillon.

"This one is from Friday the 13th, Part VII," Malahni says wistfully, turning more pages. "I'm a dead body who falls out of a tree. And that's me flying over the table in Ice Pirates. I'm so proud of Ice Pirates. It finally made the official list of all-time cult classics." With every turn of the page, with each new gore-and-mayhem-filled photo, Malahni stops, laughs, flashes that smile--and offers some vibrant tidbit of insider information.

"What a rush!" she exclaims, describing what it's like to do a fire stunt such as the one she performed in the movie Nomads. "Unless you've actually done fire, you can't know how superhuman it feels to be engulfed in flames and yet not feel hot--you don't feel heat because of the gel you wear that cools you down. When you're on fire, you can't see the camera. You can't hear directions. All you hear is woooshhhhhhhhhhhhhh! It's very hypnotic."

Since taking a break from Hollywood three years ago, Malahni has lived in the comparatively action-free Kenwood, in a house she's owned since 1976. Her last film was Clint Eastwood's 1999 drama True Crime, and though she's still willing and able to take a stunt job now and then--"If it's something really interesting," she says--Malahni describes herself as a typical North Bay resident.

"I'm the Martha Stewart of Kenwood," she insists, laughing. "I'm a mom. I like to garden. I like going to nice restaurants. I enjoy wineries--though, yes, in my spare time, I do still enjoy being set on fire."

A Little Respect

The personality that Malahni most resembles, in terms of her extracurricular endeavors, is not Martha Stewart but Erin Brockovich--the Erin Brockovich of stuntpeople. For most of her career, Malahni has been trying to persuade the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to start giving out Oscars to stuntpeople.

"I've been plugging on that for years," she shrugs, leading a tour of her shady, tree-lined garden. "Handing out flyers at Screen Actors Guild meetings, standing up to make speeches. I've never understood why stuntpeople aren't eligible for an Oscar, but they've always told me, 'We can't put stuntpeople up for an Oscar. They'd just go out and kill themselves to get an award.' But that's ludicrous. That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard!"

Malahni has turned to face me, eyes aflame with a flash of kindled anger, her muscled arms tense and ready for a fight.

"Stuntpeople put safety first," she exclaims. "We're the ones who make movie sets as safe as they are. We're not stupid and we're not crazy; we're stuntpeople. If it weren't for us, movies would be very dull. If it wasn't for the action scenes that we make possible, Hollywood would make a lot less money every year."

Fortunately, says Malahni, assistance finally came from an unlikely source. Dietrich Mateschitz, longtime fan of stuntpeople and founder of the Red Bull Energy Drink company--the ones who make those caffeinated cough-syrup-flavored power potions--was persuaded to sponsor the World Stunt Awards show, an annual fundraiser for Mateschitz's Taurus World Stunt Awards Foundation, which aids stunt professionals who have suffered severe physical injuries on the job or in pursuit of their work. The first award ceremony took place last year in the Santa Monica Air Center's Barker Hangar.

"It's kind of cool," she states, "to see each other when we're not all torn up or on fire or standing there with fake blood all over our faces."

On the day of this interview, Malahni is preparing for her trip down to the second annual World Stunt Awards ceremony (which took place on May 19 and was broadcast a week later on ABC), grateful that someone is finally giving stuntpeople their due--"It's bigger than the Oscars," she says. She's still prone to get a little get misty-eyed remembering the shock and surprise she was treated to during last year's event.

"All through the show, they were showing clips of famous stunts," she recalls, "and then they did this big tribute to the best vehicular stunts of all time." The homage began with a clip of Steve McQueen, jumping the cars in the legendary chase scene from 1968's Bullitt. "And then, to my surprise, they panned to me--hanging from the train on Runaway Train."

That stunt--in which Malahni doubled Rebecca DeMornay dangling between two bouncing train cars careening through icy Alaska at 55 miles an hour--was greeted by the assembled stunt professionals with a rousing ovation.

"What an honor," Malahni says, "to cut from Steve McQueen to me, hanging from that damn train. I started crying," she confesses. "It was a real difficult stunt."

Becoming Invincible

Raised in San Pedro, Calif., Malahni grew up watching slapstick Disney comedies starring people like Hayley Mills and Kurt Russell, stunt-filled entertainments that only fueled Malahni's disturbing predilection for tossing herself down flights of stairs and jumping from rooftops or leaping from a moving tram at Disneyland.

"I got in tons of trouble for doing that," she boasts. Noting their daughter's inclination toward the world of show business, Malahni's parents encouraged her to pursue acting, and at the age of 11 she began landing small parts on television--The Waltons, Bonanza, The Brady Bunch--while simultaneously training as an Olympic hopeful gymnast.

After several years, Malahni found herself spending less time with the other actors on the sets and more time with the behind-the-scenes crew. She became especially fond of the stunt workers, whom, she soon learned, were making a lot of money doing the same kinds of things that once landed her in so much trouble. By the time she began seeking work as a stuntwoman, she'd already made a name for herself as a skilled body double, doing the nude shots for famous actresses whose contracts exempted them from getting naked.

"I've never had a problem being naked," she says, nodding to the framed photo on a nearby bookshelf, a tastefully staged nude shot Malahni did for Playboy in 1995 as part of an eye-opening feature on Hollywood stuntwomen. "When my 13-year-old daughter's boyfriends come over to visit," Malahni laughs, "she always runs over, real quick, and hides all my nude pictures."

As further evidence of Malahni's willingness to bare all, she shows me the Stuntperson's Directory--a Yellow Pages for daredevils--which describes her as an "all-around Stuntwoman, with and without clothes." Shaking her head, Malahni adds, "I used to say to the stuntmen I'd meet on the sets, 'I can do anything you can do--but I can do it naked.'"

While shedding her clothes might have been easy for Malahni, building up her résumé of stunt work was quite a different matter. She was in her early 20s by then, with a young daughter at home, and few stunt coordinators were willing to give her the necessary breaks.

"There weren't too many single moms doing stunts back then," she admits. "It was hard to break into the business because of that, because everyone would say, 'You're a single mom. You don't know anybody. Forget it.'"

While waiting for her big chance, Malahni took a job with Chippendales on the female wrestling circuit, appearing in muddy gladiatorial battle all over the United States and Japan. Fortunately, Chippendales brought Malahni and some other performers to Los Angeles to wrestle Regis Philbin, back when he was doing a show called A.M. Los Angeles with Cindy Garvey. She ended up going one-on-one with a bathing-suited Regis--and winning. Suddenly armed with real "television experience" as a stuntwoman, Malahni found that stunt coordinators began to take her a bit more seriously. Her first official paid stunt in the movies was a fight scene in the film Private School, a stunt that required Malahni to fall off a horse.

Then came the call that would make all the difference.

"They called me in to take a gun shot to the chest in a little movie called The Terminator," she says. She was just one stuntperson out of a dozen or more. "And then James Cameron noticed I looked like Linda Hamilton," she says, "and they asked if I'd be willing to be Linda's stunt double for the entire shoot. So I ended up wearing that little pink shirt and tight jeans, just like Linda Hamilton, for weeks on end, running and jumping and hanging out of cars--at three in the morning in downtown L.A.--whenever I wasn't sitting around playing Trivial Pursuit with Arnold.

"I was always on the team with Arnold and the other bodybuilders," she says, "so our team always lost." After The Terminator wrapped--and with no other stunt jobs on the horizon--Malahni went back on the wrestling circuit. "None of us on the Terminator set had any idea that that movie would turn out to be anything special," she admits. "I saw the trailer in a movie theater in Arkansas," she recalls, "but I didn't realize the movie had become a big hit until my roommate in L.A. called me to say, 'You have to come home. Your phone is ringing off the hook. All these stuntpeople are calling offering you jobs on movies.'"

So she left the wrestling biz for good, returned to Los Angeles, and found that Hollywood was waiting with Band-Aids, burn gel, exploding cars--and open arms.

Dressed to Impress

"Oh my God, this is great!"

Malahni is sitting cross-legged in front of the TV, watching gleefully as a naked woman in a shower stall beats the crap out of another naked woman. The more aggressive of the women is, of course, Malahni, kicking serious ass early in her stuntwoman career. You can't see her face, but then that's kind of the point.

"You know, the only bone I ever broke on a movie set was my pinky finger," Malahni mentions proudly.

After a few more seconds, the scene cuts to several shots of Malahni as Linda Hamilton in The Terminator, then to the aforementioned train stunt from Runaway Train, and on to the fight scene in Ice Pirates, to Showgirls (Malahni was a naked dancer, tripping and falling down the backstage stairs), to Nomads, to Another 48 Hours--and on through her entire career.

The wild and wooly video is a compilation of Malahni's best stunts, culled and compiled by 15-year-old Kenwood video wiz Sarah Campbell. Malahni had decided she needed a more visual, action-packed version of her résumé and those photo albums to show to future filmmakers in need of talented stuntpeople.

"At the very least," Malahni says, "It'll give my kids something so, when I'm dead, they can say, 'Hey! This was my mom. Can you believe it?'"

Numerous hours and several trips to the video store later, Campbell has arrived at Malahni's to show off an early version of the compilation.

"Sarah, this is amazing!" Malahni coos, watching her own throat being slashed and her body being dumped out of a window several flights up. The sight appears to put Malahni in a bit of a nostalgic mood.

"That's a good, pure stunt," she says. "But it might not happen that way today. These days, computers are cutting a lot of stuntpeople out of their jobs.

"I started doing stunts back in the days when you'd do a Dukes of Hazzard or a Fall Guy, and you'd hit those air ramps and actually jump the line of cars!" Malahni continues. "You'd really slide your motorcycle for 20 feet. Back then you didn't put it on some computer and add an extra 20 feet to make it look more impressive. We were impressive."

With so many impressive exploits under her belt, I wonder which stunt stands out as Malahni's favorite. Reaching for another photo album, she shows me pictures from--not a movie--but her eldest daughter's wedding. The ceremony, she explains, was held outdoors at a hotel in Carmel, near the foot of a lengthy, multilevel stone staircase. Asked by her daughter to help put some unexpected fun and excitement into the wedding procession, Malahni agreed to appear at the top of the stairs posing as her daughter--identical $300 wedding dress, same fancy hair, the works--and then to trip and do a flailing somersault all the way down the long flight of steps.

"That was one of the funniest stunts I've ever done," she grins.

With a last look, Malahni closes the book and sets it back on the stack with the others.

"It makes me kind of eager to find another stunt real soon," she admits. "It's been a while, and there are still stunts I'd like to try. Every stuntperson has a dream stunt they'd like to get a chance to do."

Malahni knows exactly what her dream stunt would be.

"I'd like to be lit up on fire while naked," she laughs. "If there was a movie that needed that kind of stunt, I'd do it in a minute.

"That," she grins, "would be the ultimate."

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From the August 1-7, 2002 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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