Having paved the way with her work on 'Wonder Woman' and 'Dynasty', Jeannie Epper created a lasting legacy in Hollywood that has helped countless women in her wake
Ten years ago, Jeannie Epper was hired for a V8 juice commercial. It was a fairly standard gig, at least for a stuntwoman: She'd drive a car up a ramp and jump it through a ring of fire. Perhaps not so standard was her age at the time, 68. But Jeannie Epper, widely considered the greatest stuntwoman of all time, has been defying standards and expectations (and death) her entire life.
"Jeannie inspired a wave of women to get into stunts," said Melanie Wise, whose Artemis Women in Action Film Festival is honoring Epper in April. "They are in awe of her."
Now 78, Epper has slowed down on the more dynamic types of stunts she did in her younger days -- leaping onto moving horses or swinging on a rope across a ravine -- since a bum knee and late-in-life health challenges have slowed her down some. (Some is relative though; just a few months ago Epper allowed herself to be bound and duct-taped to a chair with a gun to her head on The Rookie.) "I like the adventure, the adrenaline, being able to do things a normal person can't do," she said. Still, even if Epper never does another stunt, she's left an indelible mark on television and film.
Colleagues say Epper's IMDb page doesn't do her career justice, which is astonishing considering it's packed with over a hundred credits -- not the least of them being playing Lynda Carter's stunt double on Wonder Woman for years. You may not recognize her face, but if you've seen Kathleen Turner careen down a mudslide inRomancing the Stone, you've seen Jeannie Epper. That legendary, knock-down, drag-out brawl between Alexis and Krystle on Dynasty? That was Jeannie Epper, too. If you've seen The Bionic Woman or Charlie's Angels or Robocop or 2 Fast 2 Furiousor The Italian Job, you've seen Jeannie Epper fight, jump, fall, and claw her way to the top of the heap in the stunt world, becoming an inspiration for countless women behind her. Long before new talents like Sophia Crawford and Shauna Duggins would make Sarah Michelle Gellar and Jennifer Garner look like warriors on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Alias, before CGI was a thing, and way before Hollywood joined the #MeToo movement and jumpstarted the Time's Up campaign, Jeannie Epper had been kicking down doors for women on-screen by... kicking down doors on-screen, or more accurately, bursting through doors, falling off ledges, or, as she did just a few years ago, getting hit over the head with a (rubber) shovel.
"She's as tough as old nails," said her friend and collaborator Andy Armstrong, a legend in his own right who coordinated the stunts for The Amazing Spider-Man and its sequel. "And she's tougher than most men you'll ever meet."
That might be because it's in her genes. Epper's father, John Epper, was a stuntman. Especially savvy with horse work, John worked in the days of Errol Flynn and Ronald Reagan; he stunted in Spartacus. Jeannie's brothers, Gary, Tony, and Andy, and her sister Stephanie became stunt performers, too. Her sister Margo briefly did stunts as well before leaving the business. Born and raised in the Los Angeles suburb Simi Valley, young Jeannie liked to climb trees and ride horses as a child, never even considering so-called rules about what activities girls were supposed to do. "We were wild," she said of herself and her siblings. "We were tough like our brothers. I wasn't tough off-screen -- I was girly. I'm of slight build, really feminine, and I didn't look like what you thought a stunt person would look like. But I was feisty, like a Chihuahua."
After a brief stint in Switzerland for schooling as a teen, Epper joined the family business, despite her father's mild reservations. Technically, she did her first stunt at age 9, riding a horse bareback down a cliff. But her first adult gig was at age 18, when she was shot off of a moving horse -- a dangerous move called a saddle fall, which can turn fatal fast. Other than simple, low-impact exercises, she didn't train, at least not in the way we think of "training" now to include specialists, meal prep, and healing rituals. And while these days it's en vogue to specialize in one area, say martial arts or underwater work, Epper did all types of stunts. When Shirley MacLaine tosses Jack Nicholson into the ocean from a Corvette in Terms Of Endearment, that's Epper's precise and controlled stunt-driving. Film requires performers to do multiple takes, too, so when she slid down a muddy hill in Romancing the Stone, she did it over and over, cold and soaking wet -- a feat that requires both physical endurance and unwavering mental stamina. Stunt performers routinely go home with whiplash or a concussion, appreciative that things could have been much worse; Epper said she's seen a person die in a stunt gone wrong. "I've never been scared," she said. "But I've always had respect for the stunt."
By the 1960s, she'd done dozens and dozens of stunts, but the arrival of Wonder Woman in 1978 opened up opportunities that remained the exception for women for decades to come. Action movies and TV shows rarely starred women in leading roles, so there weren't many jobs for stuntwomen. And in a practice known as "wigging" that lingers to this day, what jobs there were often went to men wearing women's costumes. Wonder Woman changed that, and Epper's career trajectory.
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"TV has been ahead of the bell curve for a long time," said Wise, whose Artemis Women in Action Film Festival celebrates films that put women at the center of the action. From Wynonna Earp to Game of Thrones, she said, television has done better at providing opportunities where film has lagged. (After all, 40 years passed between the Wonder Woman series and the movie -- the first female-led superhero flick to be budgeted and marketed on the same level as a male-led superhero movie.) Gender bias has been even more pronounced in the stunt world, where, for a long time, chauvinistic beliefs about women's physical abilities kept them locked out of the industry. But the female stunt performers who do break into the industry face outsized obstacles that men don't, starting with riskier work. Debbie Evans, Epper's protégé and friend who is especially adept at motorcycle stunts, summed up the double standard with this scenario from a job she did: "The guy on the back of the motorcycle had on hockey pads. I'm in a short skirt, sandals, and a tank top." That, and other injustices are changing, though. "I've been more vocal because of what [Jeannie] taught me," she said.
Jeannie broke ground just by showing up and doing the job. But the work came with challenges besides bruises. Sexism and sexual harassment were unofficial, unwelcome job hazards, even if her famous relatives shielded her somewhat from unwanted advances. "I had three brothers that would kill them," Epper said, not to mention the damage she could inflict on her own. "'I'm the kind that would push them through the wall."
When talking about herself and her career, Epper tends to use self-deprecating humor and downplay both her contributions to the industry and the conditions she worked under in the early days, but the hurdles did exist. "A lot of people don't realize that was the climate," said Armstrong. "Women that were cute were a target. If they were serious about something, they'd invariably get called a 'bitch.'" Evans grew up playing and tumbling with boys as a kid just as Epper did, but she had to learn to navigate male colleagues' behavior and language at work. "What [Epper] taught me was that it's important to not let them believe they have a chance," Evans said. "There are so many nuances she taught me, which I knew from playing with guys anyway, but she confirmed: It was OK to say no, to not just [give in to sexual harassment] because you felt like you had to."
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Epper knew how to get her male bosses to listen to her when she objected to a stunt; if there was a job where being off a quarter of an inch could mean life or death, she just didn't do the stunt. "I didn't have phones to call and ask [someone what to do], so I just had to go by my instincts," she said. "I had to go by what I thought was right and wrong. So they'd either change it or get somebody else. I've never been replaced, but I got them to change [the stunt]." Epper's regrets are few, but being ahead of her time cost her at least one dream. "I always wanted to be stunt coordinator," said Epper, speaking of the supervisory role above stunt performer. "It's coming to be now, but it was the wrong time for me."
Self-effacing and funny, Epper downplays the enormous impact she's had on TV and film ("I get embarrassed. I just do what I do.") perhaps because, as a born-again Christian, she credits God for her success and for bringing her through some rough periods. Her siblings have all passed, and one of her three children died of an overdose. Once disposed to nights of carousing and dancing on the bar countertops, she became a Christian at age 33 when, as she put it, "I woke up one day, and my life became too much for me."
As much as Epper's known for her contributions to the stunt work, Evans believes the most important part of her legacy has to do with the people she's helped along the way. "[Female stunt performers] have a place because of the work she did, the way she gracefully stood up for women, and the way she loved others. She'll be most remembered for the way she touched people's lives," Evans said. She often goes to Simi Valley to see Epper and drives her to jobs like the one she did for The Rookie. "I've seen her talk to people who were down and out, and pretty soon they're crying in her arms," Evans said, her voice cracking with emotion. "Wherever she goes, she touches somebody's life."
Already the recipient of the stunt world's highest honor in the industry -- she received the Taurus World Stunt Lifetime Achievement Award in 2007 -- Epper hasn't figured out what she's going to say when she accepts her award from the Artemis Women in Action Film Festival in April. "I'll say, 'Hey thanks,'" she joked. "I just don't want to hear the [timer] beep." It's not that public speaking scares her -- few things do, as you might imagine -- although the toughest woman in Hollywood does have her fears.
"I'm a normal human being," she said. "I hate snakes, I hate spiders. I'm scared to get on that damn freeway! It's not so much that I can't drive, it's the other people! I'm human. I was just given a gift."