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A veteran stuntman gets it right or gets killed


WHEN YOU'RE a passenger in the front seat of a tiny car hurtling across the cold macadam at 60 mph and the driver says "Here's a 180 coming up," the thing to say is: "Uh, maybe you could drop me off first."

But this is the part I forgot. So by the time veteran Hollywood stuntman Sean Graham threw us into a tire-squealing, smoke-spewing, 180-degree slide, it was too late to get out. And by the time we did a big four-wheel drift and a reverse 180, which is also called a J-turn, my mouth was contorted in a permanent scream that wouldn't come.

Then we finished with a flying 90-degree slide into a coned-off parking space smaller than your living room couch. When I got out, I had lost all ability to speak.

"That was really ... something," I managed to squeak at last.

"I do that at parties sometimes," Graham said of the 50-mph park job. "You come [roaring] up and slide the car between two Mercedes. Then you get out and everyone's looking and you go: 'What?' You probably shouldn't write that."

Oh, no. I would never write that.

Graham was in town to promote The Italian Job, a caper movie from Paramount that opens this month and stars Mark Wahlberg, Edward Norton and Charlize Theron.

There are said to be some tremendous chase scenes in the film in which Graham, who is Wahlberg's exclusive stunt double, drives a Mini Cooper like a madman, including down a set of stairs and onto subway tracks in front of a speeding train.

Anyway, to hype the movie, he had flown in from Los Angeles and was in a roped-off section of the parking lot at Owings Mills Mall the other morning, slamming through the gears of a tomato-red Mini and sending it into all sorts of spins, slides and stops while being filmed for a local morning TV show.

If Sean Graham's name sounds familiar, you may remember it from that commercial where he's brawling with another guy in a restaurant and the guy hits him with a vase. And suddenly he goes crashing through a window and out a 14-story building and falls 167 feet backward into an air bag in the bed of a Chevy truck.

"Meet Sean Graham, veteran stuntman," a voice intones. "This is what he does for a living, and this is what he drives."

I told Graham I wouldn't fall out of a building for anything in the world, never mind a Chevy truck.

Then I told him I once fell off a stepladder, and that there were still some issues I was dealing with from that.

Graham, who is 34 and compact, with leading-man looks, said that stunt for Chevy was even trickier than it looked, due to a ledge that jutted out 10 stories below where he fell.

"So as you're falling backward," Graham said, waving his arms and pantomiming a panicked free-fall, "you have to gauge where the ledge is and pull your feet in at the last minute."

If you didn't, they'd be vacuuming up pieces of your body for days.

But Graham has been a stunt man for 13 years and says he loves the business, despite the risks and all the injuries he's suffered: shattered elbow, broken femur, fractured ankle, separated shoulder -- the list goes on.

I asked him about some of his hairiest stunts and he went to his truck and pulled out a video camera. Then he slipped in a tape of a stunt he did at the wheel of a 1972 Plymouth Duster for a Lee jeans commercial that will air soon.

In the video, you see this yellow Duster hit a ramp and go flying through the air and spinning like a fighter jet, doing two full revolutions before landing with a violent crash.

"I hit the pipe at 64 mph and the car spirals in the air 127 feet," he said.

I asked him to rate the danger of that stunt on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being: have the coroner stand by.

"Oh, that's a 10 for sure," he said.

For that stunt, he was all strapped down with a full harness and helmet, and even his elbows were belted to his side to prevent them from flying out on impact.

"You do that one one time," he said.

Then again, was it any more dangerous than driving a motorcycle around a blind turn between the wheels of a speeding 18-wheeler, a stunt he performed for The Italian Job but which ended on the cutting room floor?

"You either make it or you get killed," he said matter-of-factly. "I was bummed they didn't use that one."

Some in his business don't make it, of course.

In between spins in the Mini, Graham told me about his good friend, Harry O'Connor, a stuntman who was killed last year.

O'Connor was doing a stunt for the movie XXX, starring Vin Diesel, in which he was parasailing behind a speedboat and supposed to go under a bridge.

You can probably see where this is going.

They did one more take, and this time O'Connor didn't make it under the bridge.

"Maybe once a year, someone in this business gets killed," Graham said.

Being a stuntman can be lucrative -- the top ones earn seven-figure salaries. But O'Connor's death caused Graham to reflect seriously on the dangers of the business.

So did the birth of his son last year -- Graham is married to Hollywood stuntwoman Tabby Graham, and they named their first child Reef.

"But you can't go into [stunts] tentative," he said. "If you get cautious and you don't grab it full tilt and commit to what you're doing, you can get hurt."

"If you're scared, you're in the wrong profession."

When I left him, he had just finished one last rubber-burning spin across the macadam.

And I thought: This is not the guy you want parking cars at your next party.

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