The worst thing that ever happened to Neil Summers is when he was bitten by a rattlesnake and died.
Well, maybe that wasn’t the worst thing.
There were the times Summers was set afire, blown up, and he and his horse had to jump off a moving train, plus the thousands of times he was shot and the hundreds of times he was killed.
“To be able to spend your life doing something you love is a wonderful thing,” says Summers of his 36 years in the film industry. Summers is a veteran movie stuntman, with literally hundreds of famous films to his credit. “I’m proud of being a survivor in this industry,” he says.
Summers—born in London, England, raised in Phoenix, Ariz., but now a resident of Kanab, Utah (pop. 3,564)—grew up watching Westerns. His all-consuming dream was to be a cowboy in the movies. “I loved the Indians, posses, and the bad guys. It was all so exciting to me,” he says.
During summer vacations from Camelback High School in Phoenix, Summers lived his dreams, often hiring out as a horseback rider in Westerns being filmed nearby. He eventually made his way to Hollywood in 1969 to step up his film career. California held promise for a young man interested in Westerns, who was good with horses, and didn’t mind getting shot.
He has been working ever since. Summers’ credits are astonishing. The list includes hundreds of famous movies and television shows—Gunsmoke, Dick Tracy, Death Valley Days, True Grit, Grizzly Adams, Barnaby Jones, and Outlaw Josey Wales to name a few. Not many men can boast they’ve been shot by Clint Eastwood and killed by John Wayne. More recent film work includes appearances in Robocop, Shawshank Redemption, Ocean’s 11, Bad Girls, and JAG. Five films were made with Wayne, his personal hero.
“He was hard to work for,” comments Summers, “but he was the best of the best.” An accolade that likewise describes Summers among Hollywood stuntmen.
“Neil Summers is a stuntman deluxe,” Western columnist Pierce Lyden once wrote. Longtime fellow Hollywood stuntman Whitey Hughes concurs: “Neil has been an absolute blessing to the motion picture industry; a professional who’s good at his work and never says a bad word about anyone.”
Over the course of his career, Summers has spent a lot of time shooting in and around Kanab. “It was great a while back,” he recalls. “You’d see Sidney Poitier or Jack Nicholson strolling down Center Street or sitting around the pool at Parry Lodge.” As a result of recurring exposure to southern Utah film locations, Summers fell in love with the area and eventually purchased land. He and his wife, Karen, recently made their home in Kanab, and the couple relishes its quiet peacefulness.
“I love it here,” admits Summers. “The clerk at the grocery store actually thanks you for your business and hopes you’ll come back soon.”
Away from the movie sets and rolling cameras, Summers indulges in his passion for attending film festivals and collecting Western movie memorabilia. He is often a featured guest at cinema festivals throughout the West, and his Western memorabilia collection, which includes more than a million photo stills, is considered one of the most complete in the country. Summers is also exploring the possibility of obtaining a grant to open a film history museum in Kanab that would include his vast collection.
“It’s been a terrific life,” he says. “I’ve gotten to meet all my heroes.”
Meanwhile, with no immediate plans to retire, Summers continues his movie stunt work—content to enjoy, when he has the time, the beauty of Utah’s red rock countryside … in between getting snakebit, shot, pierced by arrows, and falling from horses.