Gary Kent, the iconic B-movie stunt performer, actor and director who worked with Peter Bogdanovich, Richard Rush and Monte Hellman and served as an inspiration for Brad Pitt’s character in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, has died. He was 89.
Kent died Thursday evening at an assisted care facility in Austin, his son Chris Kent told The Hollywood Reporter.
Kent suffered two of his most painful injuries as a stunt performer in Rush films. He sliced up his arm on broken glass during a barfight fracas in Hells Angels on Wheels (1967) and was run over by an out-of-control motorcycle in The Savage Seven (1968), where he shared scenes with Penny Marshall.
His half-century stunt career came to an end on the set of Bubba Ho-Tep (2002) when he tumbled down a hill and damaged his leg, but he kept at it as a stunt coordinator, working as recently as 2019 on Sex Terrorists on Wheels.
The amiable Kent played a gas tank worker (and handled special effects) for Bogdanovich’s career-launching Targets (1968) and was a thug (and did fire stunts) in Rush’s Psych-Out (1968), a hit man in Hell’s Bloody Devils (1970), a motorcyclist in The Incredible 2-Headed Transplant (1971) and a rapist in Angels’ Wild Women (1971).
Tarantino interviewed Kent as he was putting together his script for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019), according to Joe O’Connell, who directed Danger God, a nifty documentary about Kent that was released in 2018.
In Tarantino’s film, Pitt portrayed the charismatic Cliff Booth, a stunt double for Leonardo DiCaprio’s fading actor Rick Dalton, in an Oscar-winning turn.
Gary Warner Kent was born on June 7, 1933, on a ranch in Walla Walla, Washington, and raised about four hours north in Renton, Washington. He attended Renton High School and the University of Washington, where he studied journalism and was a backup quarterback and pole vaulter for the Huskies.
Kent left college to enter the U.S. Naval Air Force and was posted at Corpus Christi, Texas. There, he handled publicity for the famed flight demonstration squadron the Blue Angels and acted on local stages. He then moved to Houston and wrote, directed and acted at the Alley and Playhouse theaters.
Kent came by bus to Los Angeles in 1958 and worked in film production offices while landing parts in movies including Legion of the Doomed (1958), King of the Wild Stallions (1959), Battle Flame (1959), The Thrill Killers (1964) — as a psychopath — and Ted V. Mikels’ The Black Klansman (1966).
His career took off when he talked Jack Nicholson into hiring him for two Hellman-directed Westerns shot back-to-back in 1966 in Kanab, Utah: the Nicholson-penned Ride in the Whirlwind and The Shooting.
He doubled for Nicholson in those movies, impressing the actor with his willingness to fall off a horse without the use of landing pads.
In 1969 films, Kent wielded an ax in One Million AC/DC and batted his friend and fellow stunt performer John “Bud” Cardos in Satan’s Sadists.
While he was making low-budget flicks at the Spahn Ranch in the San Fernando Valley, he encountered Charles Manson and members of his “family,” which he made sure to tell Tarantino about.
Behind the camera, Kent served as an assistant director on Al Adamson’s Dracula vs. Frankenstein (1971) and was unit production manager on Phantom of the Paradise (1974), directed by Brian De Palma.
After he was sent to Dallas to helm a film for which financing fell through, he stayed to write and direct the new age drama The Pyramid (1976). The movie was included in the recent book TCM Underground: 50 Must-See Films From the World of Classic Cult and Late-Night Cinema.
Kent also wrote and directed Rainy Day Friends (1985), which featured another of his great stunt pals, Chuck Bail — he played the stunt coordinator in Rush’s acclaimed The Stunt Man — and Esai Morales as cancer patients.
Kent continued to act well into his 80s in independent films. On a poster for Danger God, he wears a T-shirt that says, “Stuntmen don’t fear death, they defy it!”
His memoir, Shadows & Light: Journeys With Outlaws in Revolutionary Hollywood, was published in 2009.
Kent was married four times. Survivors include his children, Chris, Greg, Colleen, Andrew, Alex and Michael, and his grandchildren, Ethan, Nicolette, Timothy and Hannah.
In a 2018 interview with The Austin Chronicle, Kent said he was fortunate to have worked in the “golden age of stuntmen.”
“CGI really changed things,” he said. “I just did a film working as a stunt coordinator, and they didn’t have the money to hire stuntmen. They had some fights in the script, so I asked the actors if any of them had done stunts before. They all raised their hands, but none of them had really done stunts before. Maybe they threw a glass of water or something, but a stunt is rolling cars or doing high falls. It’s challenging. Nowadays every actor thinks they’re a stuntman.”