Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Unsung Stuntman: Carl Ciarfalio Takes a Bow

Now that the list of Oscar nominees is out, I’m pausing to acknowledge Hollywood’s forgotten men (and women). Stunt performers have been around since the movies began. But they rarely get the recognition they deserve. Take Harvey Parry, who used to stunt-double the great silent film star, Harold Lloyd. Parry’s contracts specified he could not admit to doubling for Lloyd until after Lloyd’s death. But wasn’t Lloyd -- an extremely athletic fellow -- capable of doing his own stuntwork? Modern-day stunt actor Carl Ciarfalio admits this was true, mostly. Lloyd in his prime was “much like today’s Tom Cruise. Tom does almost everything, but not everything.”

Carl Ciarfalio knows a great deal about stuntwork. He should, after 38 years in the business. You’ve seen him on-screen in major films like Fight Club, Mission Impossible III, and The Amazing Spider-Man. He’s got a Roger Corman connection too, having worn the “Thing” suit in Concorde’s underground hit, The Fantastic Four. (More on that later.) It all began when he and a wrestling-team buddy auditioned for a stunt show at Knott’s Berry Farm. Knott’s was looking for big guys who could fall down and be funny. Carl, then digging ditches for a plumber, figured the Knott’s gig would make a great summer job, before he entered Cal State Fullerton. But “within a couple of months I had a cowboy hat and a gun and I was on stage and people were applauding and laughing, and I told my parents, ‘I’ll go back to school one day.’” Instead, of course, he ended up in the school of hard knocks.

A stuntman’s career requires training, as well as a serious approach to one’s craft. I told Carl I’d been on the set of New World’s Big Bad Mama when stuntmen performed a dangerous car flip. They walked away unhurt, then headed for the nearest bar. Carl agrees this often happens, especially on location, but “at the end of the day . . . I like to go home and take a shower and take a deep breath and think about what the day was about. Because you’re only as good as your last gag.”

In his off-hours, does he do crazy things for fun and recreation? “No, ma’am, I’m exactly the opposite of that. There’s a huge difference between thrillseekers and daredevils and professional stunt people. Professional stunt people need to have that A-type personality to be able to step off the cliff or light themselves on fire, but they also need to be able to do it in front of the camera -- hit their marks and then do it a second, third, fourth, and fifth time. So that makes it different than a daredevil who is trying to beat the odds. Scripted stunts, scripted action is much different than jumpin’ off the roof and hopin’ you make the pool.”

Now that he’s an elder statesman of sorts, Carl increasingly works as a stunt coordinator, facing the pressure of keeping his entire team safe from harm. One big challenge: “Low-budget films want it all, and have no money for anything.” In which case, he’ll demand script changes, because “no piece of film is worth an injury or a death.”

As one of the first governors representing stunt performers at the Television Academy, Carl has helped make sure stunt coordinators now receive Emmy recognition. Oscar, though, has yet to catch up. Given the current popularity of action films, he hopes this will soon change. After all, “a James Bond movie would be nothin’ if it was just walkin’ and talkin.’”


  1. FANTASTIC post! I am a huge fan of the stunt industry and the incredible work they do to make the movies and TV shows we love so exciting. My hat is off to Mr.Ciarfalio. I'm sure I've seen his work in dozens of shows. I'll also point out his fun performance as The Thing in that long shelved Fantastic Four movie (cannot WAIT for that post!) He was the single moat effective aspect of an otherwise sadly malnourished production.

    There was a one time syndicated airing of some stunt awards in the mid to late eighties. I don't remember much except for a presentation of an award by Brian Keith and Daniel Hugh Kelly of TV's Hardcastle and McCormick.I wish they'd aired more of these as it was a fun show!

    Thank you Ms. Gray!

  2. You're very welcome, Mr. Craig. I thank you . . and I'm sure Carl thanks you.