Farewell to the Danger God: Gary Kent (1933-2023)

The stunt legend who called Austin home died this week

The late, great stunt performer and filmmaker Gary Kent, who died this week in Austin at the age of 89 (Image Courtesy of Joe O'Connell)

There's a difference between legendary and simple fame – a mystique, a danger. Whatever it was, Austin stunt performer and filmmaker Gary Kent, who died Thursday in a South Austin hospice at the age of 89, qualified for legendary status, even if much of his career was invisible.

Born in 1933 in Walla Walla, Washington, near the Montana state line, his farming family moved to suburban Seattle. After graduating from Renton High School, Kent started studying journalism at the University of Washington, becoming a backup quarterback for the Huskies, but quit school to join the U.S. Naval Air Corps. That's how he ended up in Texas, posted to Corpus Christi, where he met his first wife, Joyce. Sationed to Texas to handle publicity for the Blue Angels, Kent took up community theatre as a hobby. When he finally left the Navy, he and Joyce relocated to Houston, and he took acting further, appearing at the Alley and Playhouse theatres. Then, in 1958, the pair took the big leap and moved to Los Angeles and a career in Hollywood.

Initially, it was a hard scrabble life, working in film production offices, securing a few bit parts, and (vitally for his future career), getting work as a stunt double for Robert Vaughn and Richard Strauss on Mission: Impossible. However, Kent got the big break he'd hoped for when Jack Nicholson convinced B-movie legend Monte Hellman to hire him as stunt coordinator for a pair of cheapie horse operas he was filming back-to-back it: The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind.

This kickstarted a career of high action and controlled danger in front of and behind the camera, as Kent became the go-to stunt coordinator and performer for drive-in, grindhouse, and exploitation directors like Richard Rush, Ray Dennis Steckler, Al Adamson, Ted V. Mikels, Peter Bogdanovich, Don Jones, and Don Coscarelli. His fingerprints were over late-night classics like Satan's Sadists, The Incredible Two-Headed Transplant, The Return of Count Yorga, Freebie and the Bean, and The Thrill Killers (on the set for which he met his second wife, Rosemary Gallegy). Kent's fingerprints were on those films, along with a few bumps, scrapes, bruises, and occasionally a little blood: He sliced his arm open during a barfight scene in 1967's Hells Angels on Wheels and was run over by a motorcycle on the set of 1968's The Savage Seven.

Gary Kent and Penny Marshall on the set of 1968's biker exploitation film The Savage Seven

This was the era and level of filmmaking where hanging around a set and never saying no could get you a long way – and Kent was willing to do anything. Stunts, acting, cinematography, special effects, unit management, he'd do it, and behind the scenes he was also working on his own scripts. He finally got his chance at directing in 1971 with the now-lost X-rated relationship drama Secret Places, Secret Things (a film Kent claimed to have never seen in its completed form). Then he was hired to work on a project in Dallas: When he got there financing fell through, and he took the opportunity to write and direct New Age psycho-drama and future Turner Classic Movies cult favorite The Pyramid. That's where he met his third wife, Tomi Barret: They later appeared together in 1982 slasher The Forest, released just after they moved to Austin in 1981.

Of course, an onscreen life in stunts only last as long as the body will allow, and Kent had to give up on dives and punches when he suffered a leg injury on the set of 2002's Bubba Ho-Tep. It was in retirement that he finally had the time to pull back the curtain a little bit on his career on horses and in flames, and an eager audience – one educated on his work through Austin's obsession with the wild and weird cinema in which he made his name – was waiting for him. His 2009 autobiography, Shadows & Light: Journeys With Outlaws in Revolutionary Hollywood became a minor smash, with author and director Owen Egerton calling it his favorite book on filmmaking ever. His story made the inevitable leap back to the silver screen with Danger God, (originally titled Love and Other Stunts during its 2018 festival run), filmmaker and friend Joe O'Connell's documentary chronicling a life of broken hearts, broken bones, and movie memories.

This is when Kent truly became a legend, a connection to an era of hard grind filmmaking, of low-budget credibility and creativity. He started appearing in front of the camera again, as filmmakers gave him small parts in retro-exploitation flicks like Virgin Cheerleaders in Chains. His presence became totemic, iconic – legendary.

Kent's family has let it be known that, in accordance with his wishes, he will be cremated and then his ashes will be spread in the Pacific.

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Obituary, Gary Kent

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