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William "Bill" Hickman (January 25, 1921 – February 24, 1986) was a stunt driver, actor, and stunt coordinator from the 1950s through to the late 1970s. Hickman played a major role in terms of development and execution in three of the greatest movie car chase sequences of all time: Bullitt, The French Connection and The Seven-Ups, all shot on actual city streets.
Early career and James Dean
Bill Hickman was already an established stuntman by the time The Wild One was being filmed and his expertise on motorcycles landed him work on the Stanley Kramer production. At some point during the project Hickman was injured and was unable to continue. It is never clear whether he was hurt while filming a stunt for the movie, although one account (by the late Clyde Earl) had him taking a spill in a motorcycle race not connected with the film. However, Hickman is clearly shown in several of the publicity stills from The Wild One.
Hickman spent some of these earlier days as driver and friend to James Dean, driving Dean's Ford station wagon towing Dean's famed 550 Spyder nicknamed “Little Bastard”, and often helping and advising him with his driving technique.
He was driving the Ford station wagon and trailer following Dean on the day of his fatal accident and was the first person on the scene.
Hickman was an extra in Dean's 1951 feature movie debut, Fixed Bayonets!.
A rare personal quote from Bill on his friendship with Dean: "In those final days, racing was what he cared about most. I had been teaching him things like how to put a car in a four-wheel drift, but he had plenty of skill of his own. If he had lived he might have become a champion driver. We had a running joke, I'd call him Little Bastard and he'd call me Big Bastard. I never stop thinking of those memories."
In another interview with James Dean expert Warren Beath, Hickman is quoted as saying, "We were about two or three minutes behind him. I pulled him out of the car, and he was in my arms when he died, his head fell over. I heard the air coming out of his lungs the last time. Didn’t sleep for five or six nights after that, just the sound of the air coming out of his lungs."
Stuntman work in Bullitt
While Hickman had many small acting (mainly driving) parts throughout the '50s and '60s, he mostly paid his bills with his stuntman work.
He sustained a couple of significant injuries during this time, including breaking several ribs in a bad trick-fall in the film How to Stuff a Wild Bikini (1965).
In a nice professional driver's touch (before compulsory restraints were introduced in California), Hickman's character buckles his seat belt before flooring it at the beginning of the pursuit by the Forest Green Ford Mustang 390 G.T., driven by Steve McQueen, thereby indicating to the audience that we are about to go on a truly wild ride.
In those pre-digital days, the dangers were real: in one shot Hickman accidentally loses control and clips the camera fixed to a parked car. The chase climaxes with his Charger careening off into a gas station at which the fuel pumps erupt into a massive fireball.
Prior to the filming of the chase sequence, Hickman and McQueen did endless days of high-speed, close-quarter driving in practice for the actual chase.
Comments and film of Bill talking about his work are few and far between, although in the featurette shot at the time, Bullitt: Steve McQueen’s Commitment To Reality, Bill can be seen discussing the chase with McQueen on location.
The French Connection
As with Bullitt, The French Connection (also produced by Bullitt's producer, Philip D'Antoni) is famed for its car-chase sequence.
What differs from the usual car chase is that Gene Hackman’s character is chasing an elevated train from the street below (the scene was filmed in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, with most of the action taking place on 86th Street).
This chase was performed in real traffic, as Hickman drove the brown 1971 Pontiac LeMans at speeds up to 90 mph with Friedkin manning the camera right behind him, and at one point Hickman hits a car driven by a fellow stunt driver who missed his point; this scene was kept in the film by Friedkin as it added reality to the whole sequence, however, the scene where the woman steps out into the street with a baby carriage was staged.
Hickman also had a supporting role in the film as federal agent Mulderig, who played an antagonist of sorts to Gene Hackman's character.
Bill performed yet another memorable chase sequence for the 1973 film The Seven-Ups (in which Hickman again worked with Philip D'Antoni, who had also produced Bullitt and The French Connection).
In The Seven-Ups, Bill drove the car being chased by the star of the film, Roy Scheider, who is heavily doubled by Hickman's good friend and fellow stuntman, Jerry Summers.
The chase itself leans heavily on the Bullitt chase, with the two cars bouncing down the gradients of uptown New York (à la San Francisco's steep hills) with Hickman's 1973 Pontiac Grand Ville pursued at wheel-breaking speed by Scheider's Pontiac Ventura.
Even the engines of Scheider's Pontiac and McQueen's Mustang sound alike, and during the car chases in both films there is an almost complete lack of dialogue, although the reason why these chases work so well (and why Hickman himself was so highly regarded) is their gritty realism and the danger of each tire-busting slide, accompanied by close camera angles and camera-cars moving at high speed and parallel to the action car so you actually get to see the nervous faces of the actors behind the wheel.
In the accompanying behind-the-scenes featurette of the 2006 DVD, Hickman can be seen co-ordinating the chase from the street, where we also see another example of how memorable (and dangerous) these sequences were: on cue, a stuntman in a parked car opens his door, only to have Hickman's vehicle take it completely off its hinges, where (from the behind-the-scenes footage) we see the door fly off at such a force it could easily have killed the close-quarter camera team set-up only yards away (it missed them only by chance).
The end of the chase was Bill's own idea, an 'homage' to the death of Jayne Mansfield, where one of the cars smashes into the back of an eighteen-wheel truck, peeling off its roof like a tin of sardines.
Bill moved on to more stunt coordination work in films as the 1970s wound down, notably The Hindenburg and Capricorn One. He staged the motorcycle chase in Electra Glide In Blue, starring Robert Blake, and also appeared as a driver in the 1969 Disney film The Love Bug and as the military driver for George C. Scott in the Academy award-winning movie Patton. He had many bit parts in classic television series of the '50s and '60s, such as The Man from UNCLE.
Bill Hickman died of cancer in 1986 at the age of 65.
His legacy is some unforgettable films with some of the best examples of car control ever to be seen on screen.