Breaking into the Stuntwoman Business and the Stunt Business Breaking
In 1985, I made a transition from martial arts and kickboxing to a full time career as a stuntwoman. In 1982, I had moved from Pensacola, Florida to Los Angeles, California for several reasons. One, my sanctioning body, the WKA (World Karate Association) based out of Westminster, CA was working hard to promote me as a fighter. They were getting me matches on the west coast and it was better if I was geographically closer to the action. Secondly, Gerry Blanck, my long time sensei, coach and sparring partner moved out to Los Angeles after being contacted by an agent to try and break in to the movie business. He encouraged me to come out as well, pointing out that there were few women in martial art action films, and there was great opportunity. I loved Los Angeles and settled on the west side of town, teaching karate and working as a personal trainer at a popular health club in the Pacific Palisades called La Sante, while taking acting lessons at night and training daily.
I met lots of entertainment industry people working out at La Sante, and quickly had an opportunity to read for a part in a film called The Nightstalker (1986), doing a big fight scene with the lead actor Charles Napier. I auditioned and got the part. I had a blast working on the film and met a handful of stuntmen on set who were crucial to the fight scene. At the end of the day, the stuntmen I worked with enthusiastically encouraged me to work in the stunt industry full time, reassuring me that my world title in kickboxing, along with my natural athletic talents, would help me succeed in the industry.
I decided to take the plunge and enter the stunt business full time! I found that I had a natural talent for the stunt industry and the ability to adapt to any job. Physical challenges stimulated me, and I found that I welcomed the stress and adrenaline rush. In 1986, I was cast to stunt double lead actress Brooke Shields in a big budget action film called Brenda Starr (1989). While the film didn’t do well at the box office, it gave me the opportunity to work with dozens of talented stunt people who remembered me and started calling me to work for them. From there, the opportunities never stopped…
At 5’9” tall and 125 pounds, I got the opportunity to double most of the tall A-list actresses, from Kathleen Turner and Darryl Hannah to Sharon Stone. I went on to establish a career doubling leading ladies such as Sandra Bullock, Cameron Diaz, Jennifer Garner, Rene Russo, Bridget Fonda, Jamie Lee Curtis, Ellen Barkin, Kelly Lynch, Kelly Preston, and more. I was at the top of my game, and had a reputation as an exceptional stuntwoman with talent behind the wheel of a car.
In 1989, I was called to stunt double Darlene Vogel on Back to the Future Part II (1989). I was involved in a hoverboard sequence involving Michael J. Fox, Tom Wilson, and the “bad guys,” which included my actress Darlene Vogel. The job was a total blast! We spent our days chasing Michael J. Fox (and his stunt double) on piano wire supported hoverboards throughout this elaborate futuristic outdoor set.
The grand finale involved the bad guys (us) spinning out of control over a large pond, and crashing through a giant courthouse window. The grand finale was filmed separately and much time and planning had gone into the preparation of the stunt. There were four of us crashing through the window, and a cherry picker had pulled us back from the impact point approximately 50 or 60 feet. We were picked up at the hip, and our overhead wires were attached to a single arbor. When the cherry picker released us, we all swung towards the giant window with two white pillars on either side of it.
As we traveled towards the window, we started listing to the left. I was on the far left to begin with, so when we started listing to the left, I realized that I was going to hit the left pillar. Cabled, with no control and nowhere to go, I simply brought my knees and feet up and tried to soften the blow of the pillar when I hit it. As I slammed into the pillar, stopping all my forward momentum, I hoped and prayed that the special effects man with his finger on the release button saw what happened to me!
Unfortunately, all 4 of us were on the same release button, and as the other stunt people swung into the giant, candy-glass paned window, the special effects man didn’t see that I had hit the pillar and released all of us at the same time. Unfortunately, I was dangling next to the pillar outside, 20 feet above the concrete! As I dropped, my life flashed before my eyes. I just knew I was too high up to survive the fall…
Miraculously, I woke up, still on the set and strapped to a board that immobilized my neck, back and legs. The talented on-set paramedics had revived me. I suffered a severe concussion and broke several bones in my face and right arm. My facial plate and brow bone were broken, as well as my right hand and wrist. The canvas flying harness custom made for Michael J. Fox saved me from breaking my back and/or hips. I was hospitalized for several weeks, and over the course of a year, endured four reconstructive surgeries to my face and arm. The following year I endured one more surgery to my jaw, an excruciating 8 hour surgery that ended with me having my jaw wired shut for 6 long weeks.
In 1991, at the end of all my surgeries and hospital visits, I was a mental, physical and emotional wreck. Months of drugs and pain killers, along with surgical anesthesia and other meds, had sapped my strength and wrecked my immune system. I was fatigued, sickly and tired all the time. Although I had started working again in the stunt industry, I was not in top form or anywhere near my pre-accident strong self!
Cheryl Wheeler Sanders was also known as Cheryl Wheeler Duncan.