It had never been done before, but as Monte Perlin gunned the engine of his Harley motorbike and prepared to land it in an open boxcar of a moving train, he was strangely calm. Rather than fret for his own life, he was thinking about the responsibility he had for the life of the woman sitting on the saddle behind him.
Monte Perlin as a stunt double in Terminator 3
He laughs to tell the story now, but his moving-train stunt for Disney's 2008 Adam Sandler vehicle "Bedtime Stories" was perhaps the most dangerous Perlin's attempted in his 25 years in Hollywood, which includes work on films including "Spider-Man," "Star Trek, "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" and portraying Arnold Schwarzenegger's stunt double in "Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines."
That's right: Monte Perlin is a stunt man.
In fact, he said that after completing that train stunt, which involved probably more math than we'd care to compute (consider a man jumping 70 feet on a motorbike at 60 mph from a ramp into an open car of a train traveling at 45 mph, all with a woman on the seat next to him...sounds a bit like a SAT question, doesn't it?) the footage showed he missed. In actuality, he came too close -- or about 6 inches -- to one of the boxcar's doors. So, he had to do it again.
"I have to time it with a girl on my back," Perlin said. "Too short, I'm dead. Too late, I'm dead. Too high, fast or powerful, I take my head off. It had to be perfect.
While he didn't sleep for two nights before the stunt, he says a strange type of calm precedes any of his attempts at a difficult trick. Then, just before launch, he says, as he revs the engine of whichever "boss hog" he's riding that day, his adrenaline kicks into gear.
"I get that feeling, that I could wrestle 10 gorillas, I could jump 10 trains, and boom! I go for it."
Perlin completed the stunt, this time "hitting" it almost exactly through the middle of the box-car's open gate and the movie's production team wrapped the scene.
"I did it again and just hit it perfect," he said. "I hit the impossible stunt."
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It Didn't Start This Way
Perlin grew up in Lake Arrowhead, not far from Hollywood, where from the age of 10 he ripped around the largely rural area on motocross bikes before he graduated onto some seriously heavy machinery -- including his own super-modified Harley Davidson that packs a 350 Chevy car engine. That gave him a perfect start in his chosen career of motorcycle stunt riding.
He got into Hollywood by ditching the small-town naysayers who didn't believe in him, he says, and traveling to Los Angeles. After a couple misfires, he looked into a stunt school he found in a Hollywood trade publication and he found his calling.
Perhaps more importantly, Perlin met his wife, also a stuntwoman.
"(She) changed my life and stopped my drinking," he said. "I told her, 'If we're gonna get married, I gotta have a career.'"
Alongside traveling to Africa, Israel, Russia, and all over the world, the couple raised four kids on a 10-acre ranch about 25 miles north of Hollywood in Lancaster. Perlin hasn't touched a drop of alcohol in nearly 25 years. He says he often takes his grandkids for "wheelies" around his neighborhood. As it turns out, stuntin' runs in the family: His 17-year-old daughter is a champion horse show-jumper and is gunning for an Olympic place, but is already a professional stuntwoman.
Stunt work isn't something to be taken lightly, though.
Perlin has the scars to prove it. He says he's broken "almost everything." Everything, according to Perlin, includes both of his arms, legs, knees, feet, ankles, several of his ribs, his back and his pelvis. But, his background in gymnastics has left him some flexibility.
Perhaps philosophically, Perlin points out that the most important thing for any stuntman, alongside having a particular niche or forte like motorbike riding, is learning from the mistakes you'll inevitably make. Sometimes this means knowing when to say no and, simply, when to go for it. He recalls the time he was cajoled by a director into doing a motorcycle stunt he considered too dangerous.
"The worst thing (I ever did) was on a Brian Bosworth series 13 years ago in Florida. I had to jump off a pier, over the water and into a barge. Well, usually they give you a lighter bike mocked up to look like a Harley, but they wouldn't do that (for) this so I had to get a stock Kawasaki 1200 Vulcan. I could jump a 35-foot distance (on that bike) but from pier to barge was now more than 35 feet. I checked the tide and the jump was 40 feet long.
"Now (I know) I don't want to do it. But the production manager came running out and said, 'If Monte Perlin doesn't do this jump, you all are going home right now.' He was really throwing it at me. I did the jump and landed perfectly, but the bike snapped in half and crushed my ankle. In the hospital, the 'doc said they were gonna have to cut my foot off."
Perlin's foot was saved by steel plates and screws, but not before he learned an important lesson: "It's not the fact of making mistakes in life, it's what you learn from them."
He describes a later stunt where he had to jump a motorbike down 2.5 stories from a roof, jumping through a window, all while wearing a rubber monster suit. He says the lights were bad, and he "couldn't see a thing."
Randy Travis and Monte Perlin on the set of The Wager
"I called down to floor, said I couldn't see the ground," he said. "They said 'You wimp, my mother could do that.' But, five minutes later the lights were right, and I landed it. The end result was I had learned from my mistakes. There are ways to get around anything."
One Tough Assignment
Most famously, perhaps, Perlin portrayed Arnold Schwarzenegger in "Terminator 3," a role that still has a special place in his memory (although he says he's back working with his old Terminator team on a "major blockbuster" to be filmed this summer).
"For Terminator 3, I got a call to double Arnold, to go in and meet him. We hung out for six months, riding together and training. Now (as a double for the) Terminator, I can't be riding and looking, or turning my head. I had to use peripheral vision for all my stunts."
Not that he needed a reminder, but Monte's Terminator experiences proved once again that stunt work is serious business.
"In one of the sequences, Arnold's riding on a motorcycle and the lady's on a crane. She swings at him and he grabs the crane. But that transfer was not as sweet as it looked. Riding at 45 mph, following the crane, a harness was supposed to bring me closer to the crane and lock me safe to it. But, the crane made a swerve and it pulled me off the motorbike, and he's still going. Picture a fish on the end of a hook, being swung around. If that timing was off I would (have been) wrapped around a poll and torn in half."
On the same shoot, Monte had to do battle with an object much larger than him and perhaps less forgiving than a moving crane.
"For an explosion shot in the movie, I was heading right toward a tanker," he said. "I swerved around (it) and was head on with a remotely controlled ambulance, (which was) on fire. If I had fallen and it would of hit me, I would have been bone dead.
"But, it landed beside me -- a full-weight paramedic truck flipping through the air. I talked to the guy on the remote control after that. He said it would have landed on top of me, but on the last second it turned to the right and missed me. It woulda squished me."
Unless you're Monte Perlin, do not try this at home. You might get squished.
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