I’ll bet everyone who reads this blog has seen Steve McQueen’s The Great Escape. Released in 1963 (about the same time as the original Mustang company folded), I believe The Great Escape is one of the greatest movies ever made. If you’re you’re into bikes (hey, you’re reading this blog, so you gotta be!), you know about the scenes showing Steve McQueen racing away from the bad guys on a motorcycle…
The purists among us recognized that the movie dudes took some liberties here…McQueen was on a 650 Triumph in the film, and the Germans didn’t use Triumphs. The movie folks modified the Triumph to make it look like a German military bike because it would have been a lot harder doing this scene on an old and underpowered BMW. And, the guy who jumped the bike over that barbed-wire fence wasn’t really Steve McQueen…it was a previously-unknown desert racer and stuntman named Bud Ekins (more on him in a bit).
Here’s the original, actual Triumph motorcycle used in that movie…
So, how did all this come about?
Most of you probably know that Steve McQueen was a serious motorcycle guy. In his day, he was an avid collector, racer, and rider. McQueen got into motorcycling almost accidentally. A guy who owed McQueen money offered to give him a Triumph motorcycle to repay the debt, and McQueen said okay (this is good stuff…it’s what actually happened…I can’t make up stuff this good!). McQueen took his bike to the local Triumph guru to learn how to ride it, and that guy was none other than a racer and mechanic named Bud Ekins. The two guys became riding buddies and (pardon the pun) fast friends.
So, fast forward a bit, and McQueen’s got this gig to star in a movie called (you guessed it) The Great Escape. There are cool motorcycle scenes in it, including the iconic jump scene shown in the video above. McQueen’s bosses wouldn’t let him do it, so McQueen turned to his buddy, Bud Ekins. Bud had never been involved in any Hollywood stunt work prior to this request.
Ekins and McQueen met with the folks in charge of the movie and learned that the script required jumping a 15-ft fence. Ekins explained that the highest he had ever jumped
a motorcycle was perhaps 5 or 6 feet, but he thought he could do it. McQueen and Ekins worked at it, building up Ekin’s ability to jump greater heights through a series of experiments with ramps, velocity, and ropes. When Ekins felt confident, they filmed the scene above. In one take. That’s all it took.
Ekins negotiated a whopping fee for his jump: $1000. Yep, that’s right…there aren’t any zeros missing. It was a cool thousand dollars. It almost seems laughable now, but at the time, it was the highest fee Hollywood had ever paid any stuntman, and it made news.
Imagine that: A thousand bucks for one stunt. Wow.
Ekins made the jump, and his stuntman career took off. Just about any action scene you’ve ever seen in any movies during the last 50 years or so (if it involved a motorcycle or a car) had Ekins doing the real driving. In Bullitt, he drove both the Mustang (the green car, that is…not a Mustang motorcycle) and the motorcycle that crashed during that iconic chase scene. In The Blues Brothers, that was Bud behind the wheel of Belushi’s and Akroyd’s trashed out police car. In Smokey and the Bandit…well, you get the idea.
McQueen died young a long time ago. Ekins passed away just a few years ago, and I was lucky enough to get to go to a tribute for him at Warner Brothers Studios (you can read about that awesome event here). There were a lot of speakers at that event, including big wheels in the movie business, McQueen family members, Ekins family members, and Jay Leno. The thing that stuck in my mind was one of the speakers telling us that during the ’60s and ’70s a lot of guys, if they could pick anyone they wanted to be like, well, they’d pick Steve McQueen. But if you asked Steve McQueen who he wanted to be like, the answer was always instant and consistent: Bud Ekins.