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Sunday 4 December 2016

Obituary: Johnny Kazian

Stuntman who wingwalked and barn-stormed in place of actor Robert Redford

Published 07/06/2015 | 02:30

Johnny Kazian performing in The Great Waldo Pepper
Johnny Kazian performing in The Great Waldo Pepper
Johnny Kazian

Johnny Kazian, who has died aged 81, was an aerial stuntman known as the "King of the Wingwalkers".

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He was Robert Redford's stunt double in The Great Waldo Pepper (1975), George Roy Hill's film about a fictional American "barnstormer", set in the 1920s; his stunts included performing handstands on the wings of a biplane travelling at between 100 and 200mph and clambering around cockpit and wings without harness, ropes or parachute while his plane performed stomach-churning loop-the-loops, keeping himself anchored by clinging to the wing struts with his gloved hands.

One of Kazian's most hair-raising stunts involved grabbing a ribbon from a pole while dangling by the legs from a trapeze bar on an aeroplane flying upside-down only eight feet above the ground.

He saw several wingwalkers and pilots killed over the years. "In my line of work, you don't get injuries. You die," he observed. But he refused to work with wires and harnesses, arguing that they made audiences feel cheated. When performing handstands on a wing, he used a fixed rack to lean against.

Among other stunts in The Great Waldo Pepper he performed the celebrated scene in which Pepper fails to climb a rope ladder from an open-top car to a biplane and smashes through a barn.

Kazian also served as a stunt double for James Brolin in Capricorn One (1977), for David Hasselhoff in the television movie The Cartier Affair (1984 ) and for Lee Majors in The Six Million Dollar Man television series (1974-78) and (as a wingwalker) in The Stunt Man (1980).

On the ground, he made $500 per stunt by riding a motorcycle through rings of flame, leaping from exploding jeeps or falling from high belfries dressed as a Nazi soldier. On a good day, he might pocket $2,000.

John Kazian was born on May 19 1933 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where his father, a designer of hand-woven rugs, had settled after fleeing Turkish Armenia.

John attended the city's Northeast High School before taking a degree in Mechanical Engineering at Temple University.

As a 14-year-old schoolboy he had worked as a trapeze artist at Coney Island, and he later performed with circuses.

In 1950, shortly after the outbreak of the Korean war, Kazian volunteered and trained as a US Navy pilot. During the conflict he suffered a broken arm which troubled him for the rest of his life after it was badly set.

His damaged arm meant that when he returned home in 1954 he could no longer perform as a trapeze artist so he took up wingwalking instead. Kazian formally retired in 1996 but continued to make guest appearances at air shows, arriving in a car with the registration number Stunt 1. Much of the rest of his time was spent boating, fishing and hunting. He remained fit by running two miles every day.

Johnny Kazian, who died on April 23, is survived by his wife Mary Ellen and their daughter and son, Tony, who followed in his father's footsteps and is one of the world's leading wingwalkers.

Sunday Independent

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