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December 20, 2014

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Locals honored for breaking a color barrier — in stunt work

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Leila Navidi

Willie Harris, 68, revived the Black Stuntmen’s Association when he moved to Las Vegas in 2004.

The fight for respect and recognition never ends for Willie Harris of Las Vegas.

Harris was one of the first members of the Black Stuntmen’s Association, which formed in Los Angeles in 1967. The group helped break the color barrier in the stuntman profession, which was almost strictly white until the late ’60s — with white men and women commonly wearing makeup to double for black actors.

“It was racism, pure and simple,” says the 68-year-old Harris, who retired from stunt work after suffering a back injury in 1974. “They didn’t want to pay us the same price or give us the same protection they were giving white stuntmen, and a lot of guys were getting hurt.”

The group faded away in the late ’70s when black stuntmen were able to get jobs and became members of the Screen Actors Guild, Harris said. He revived the Black Stuntmen’s Association when he moved to Las Vegas in 2004 and registered the group as a nonprofit organization, which now helps minority children.

The U.S. House of Representatives this month issued a resolution honoring the Black Stuntmen’s Association and the Coalition of Black Stuntmen and Women for their “dedication in pursuing equality and justice for all people.” Harris and more than a dozen members of his group are attending a reception today in Washington, D.C. The honorees include Las Vegans Jophery Brown, who used to double for Morgan Freeman, and Evelyne Cuffee, one of the first black stuntwomen, and two of the co-founders of the Black Stuntmen’s Association, Henry Kenji and Calvin Brown, Jophrey’s older brother.

Calvin Brown often doubled for Bill Cosby, who was instrumental in getting blacks into the stunt business, Harris said. “He refused to let a white man double for him.”

Harris also credits the 1971 movie “Dirty Harry” with opening the doors for black stuntmen.

“A lot of my friends and I did stunts in the movie,” Harris says. “We proved to Hollywood we could do stunts.”

The Black Stuntmen’s Association also filed lawsuits against a number of studios, including Disney and Warner Bros. “The lawsuits forced them not only to use blacks, but also other minorities,” Harris says.

Harris grew up on a plantation in Mississippi. As the Vietnam War was heating up, Harris — who is 6 feet 8 inches — played basketball for the Air Forces Special Services, first in New Mexico and then Los Angeles. After his discharge in 1967, he stayed in Los Angeles and pursued a career as a stuntman, hooking up with Calvin Brown and others just before forming the Black Stuntmen’s Association.

“No one would hire us,” Harris says. “They said we didn’t know what we were doing, we weren’t ready.”

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