She stunt-doubled for Lucille Ball and Bette Davis. But you probably haven't heard of her.
In an industry run by men, Polly Burson changed the game.
Jeannie Epper is a stuntwoman extraordinaire.
She doubled for Lynda Carter in the 1970s TV show "Wonder Woman," she slid down a 200-foot mudslide in "Romancing the Stone," and she jumped through a plate-glass window at 66 years old.
It’s easy to see why she’s one of Hollywood’s most famous stuntwomen, but where did she learn the tricks of her trade?
According to Epper, it all goes back to Polly Burson, the “Queen of Western Stuntwomen.”
Burson doubled for some of cinema’s biggest stars in an era when men had a monopoly on stunt work.
Born in 1919 in Oregon, Burson was a real-life cowgirl who performed trick riding stunts for audiences across the world, often appearing alongside Western celebrities like Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. But eventually, she packed her saddlebags and headed to Hollywood. As she put it, “After rodeoing, stunt work seemed like whipped cream.”
But becoming a stuntwoman in the 1940s was easier said than done.
The industry was an “old boys’ network,” and usually, men would don skirts and wigs to double for leading ladies, stealing jobs from their female counterparts.
Couple that with a major wage gap, and you can see why Hollywood stuntwomen were few and far between.
But Burson didn’t back down, and in 1945, she got a job on a serial called "The Purple Monster Strikes."
Playing a villainous Martian, Burson took a dive off a 75-foot cliff, reportedly earning $150 for the fall.
Her next big stunt was for "The Perils of Pauline." Doubling for comedian Betty Hutton, Burson rode a galloping horse next to a speeding locomotive, grabbed onto a boxcar ladder, and pulled herself aboard. She actually had to perform the stunt three times because the director was having so much fun shooting the scene.
Soon, Burson was one of the biggest stuntwomen in the business, doubling for stars like Doris Day, Lucille Ball, Ginger Rogers, Bette Davis, and Sophia Loren.
Burson also appeared in some of Hollywood’s greatest films. She made a 60-foot fall from a tower in "Vertigo," she was dragged into the depths in "Creature from the Black Lagoon," and she showed off her riding skills in "True Grit." Occasionally, Burson also doubled for men, like the time she played a Native American horseman in "Pillars of the Sky."
Then, in 1951, Burson became the first female stunt coordinator (aka “ramrod”) for a Hollywood film.
On a picture called "Westward the Women," Burson was in charge of all the stunts involving the female crew. While she didn’t have complete control over the movie, this was still a huge step in the right direction. 16 years later, Burson would become a charter member of the Stuntwomen’s Association of Motion Pictures, the first organization to support and champion female stunt doubles.
Despite her success, Burson still faced sexism on the job.
In 1963, John Wayne was starring in a Western-comedy called "McLintock!" In one scene, two female characters were supposed to tumble down a flight of stairs. Even though Burson was working on the movie, Wayne was worried she might get hurt so he used stuntmen dressed as women instead.
While he meant well, Burson didn’t need to be patronized. She’d taken more risks than any A-list actor, and as she put it, she would keep putting her life on the line until her body told her to quit.
Unfortunately, Burson's career essentially came to an end while filming 1974’s "Earthquake," a disaster movie with some insanely dangerous set pieces.
For one stunt, Burson was hit with 3,000 gallons of water. As a result, she broke a leg and several bones in her face. Even worse, Burson later learned the scene was just a trial run for the special effects. According to author Mollie Gregory, nobody had actually been filming.
After "Earthquake," Burson decided it was “time to quit the business.” While she appeared in a few more films, she spent most of her time organizing horse races for female jockeys, appearing at rodeos, and at one point, sailing from Hawaii to New Zealand on her own schooner.
But while she was no longer part of the Hollywood scene, people still remember her amazing contributions to women on the silver screen.
In addition to winning the Golden Boot Award from the Motion Pictures & Television Fund, she was also inducted into the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame, the ProRodeo Hall of Fame, and the Hollywood Stuntmen’s Hall of Fame.
On April 4, 2006, Polly Burson passed away at the age of 86.
She left behind an impressive collection of jumps, falls, and fistfights, preserved in films like "The Ten Commandments," "Spartacus," and "Some Like It Hot."
Burson also made an incredible impact on the Hollywood system.
She inspired a new generation of stuntwomen and paved the way for future behind-the-scenes stars. For that, we can all be thankful.