Drugs, Tragedies and ‘Charlie’s Angels’

Guest blog: “Before coke, Bobby was a great guy. He was our protector. He was like a teddy bear. But coke changed him…”

 

Legendary stuntwoman Julie Johnson says she first became aware that “Charlie’s Angels” had a coke problem on Jan. 3, 1979. The show was filming on location at Indian Dunes that day at a dirt airfield out by Magic Mountain, some 30 miles north of Los Angeles.

“I was sitting in the back seat of the stunt car – an old Ford station wagon – waiting for the driver to return,” Julie (below right) recalls. “I had the window down when a member of the crew in jeans and a white T-shirt walked by and yelled out to someone up ahead, ‘Bobby got the last of the coke this morning! God damn it!’”

Bobby, she knew, was Bobby Bass, her stunt driver that day. They’d just finished four practice runs of the stunt they were going to do that day. During a brief break before shooting the scene, Bobby had gone into the "honeywagon" – a restroom on wheels – and that’s when Julie heard someone say that he’d gotten the last of the coke.

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What she didn’t know, at first, was that the crew member was talking about cocaine.

“My first reaction was: ‘Who drinks Coca-Cola at 9:30 in the morning? And why are they out of it?’” she laughs. “That’s how naïve I was.”

That day’s stunt called for Julie and veteran stuntwoman Jeannie Coulter to bail out of the backseat of the speeding station wagon and hit the ground rolling. After a quick summersault, they’d both spring to their feet and charge a small plane about to take off with the bad guys. The entire "gag" – as stunts are known in the business – would depend on the driver slowing the car down just before they jumped so it wouldn’t be going too fast when they hit the ground.

But Bobby, she said, had gotten the last of the coke that morning, and Bobby was in no mood for slowing down.

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“Before coke, Bobby was a great guy,” Julie says. “He was our protector. He was like a teddy bear. But coke changed him.”

And not for the better.

When Bobby returned from the honeywagon, they drove to their mark, waiting for the assistant director to call for action. Julie, doubling for Farrah Fawcett, wore a blond wig with huge curls – the same as Farrah’s, who was said to have “the most famous hair in the world.” Jeannie, sitting to her right in the backseat, was still fussing with the blond wig she was wearing to make her look like Cheryl Ladd.

Stuntman Howard Curtis, sitting in the front passenger’s seat, was on the walkie-talkie to the assistant director – the AD.

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“We’re ready to roll,” Curtis yelled into the walkie-talkie, as Bobby revved the engine nervously, waiting for the go from the AD.

“Bobby,” Julie yelled above the engine noise, “are you sure of your speed and when to slow down? Should we rehearse it one more time?”

Bobby let off the gas. “No,” he said, the car suddenly quieter. “I’ve got it.”

“Let’s go!” Curtis yelled into the walkie-talkie.

“OK,” the AD squawked back. “Come ahead.”

The stunt car began rolling and was soon speeding down the dirt runway. In the backseat, Jeannie started fidgeting with her wig again.

“Jeannie,” Julie whispered, “if you don’t feel right…”

Jeannie stopped fussing with the wig and gave Julie the thumbs up.

Julie, however, says she could tell that something was wrong: The car was going too fast. Up ahead, she could see the flag that had been planted in the runway to serve as the mark for their bailout, and it was coming up too quick.

“Slow down, Bobby!” she remembers yelling from the backseat. “Slow down! Slow down!”

As they approached the mark, Julie and Jeannie opened their doors and prepared to jump. At that moment, Bobby was supposed to slow down hard, but as the girls were halfway out of the car, he suddenly hit the gas, sending both backdoors slamming into them.

They were too far out now to climb back in, and with the doors continuing to pound them, there was no way to jump and gracefully tuck and roll as they’d planned.

“The last thing I remember,” Julie says, “was my legs starting to fall, and I saw the back wheel – and I thought, ‘If my legs go, I’m going under the wheel.’ I knew that if my legs went down another inch, I’d have been dragged under the car and the wheel would have run right over my legs. So I kicked off as hard as I could. My head and neck hit the ground first.”

They both hit the ground hard, tumbling like rag dolls thrown from a speeding car on a dusty back road.

When the dust cleared, Julie lay flat on her face, her body convulsing violently.

Jeannie, meanwhile, was having a near-death experience.

“After I hit the ground,” Jeannie recalls, “I heard a big bell in my head and I went up into a bright light and it was dead quiet and very bright. I looked down and I could see everyone on the ground and I could see Julie flailing on the ground in convulsions.”

After a few moments, Jeannie, still delirious, got up and started running toward the stunt car that had been chasing them, not knowing where she was or what she was doing.

Farrah and Cheryl Ladd, who had been watching the scene from the sidelines, were horrified as the accident played out before them. Cheryl, seeing Jeannie staggering to her feet, rushed over to her to stop her from running headlong into an oncoming chase car. 

“She had to come and stop me,” Jeannie says. “I didn’t know what I was doing. I was out of my mind, trying to complete the scene. She ran up and held me.”

Ronnie Rondell, the show’s second unit director, ran to help Julie, followed closely by Farrah.

“Julie! Jesus, stop shaking!” he yelled at her, throwing himself on her convulsing body to keep her still and to prevent further injury. “Julie! Stay still! Stay still! Don’t move!”

Suddenly, Julie stopped shaking and lay still on the ground. She was unconscious, but she was alive. Ronnie’s quick thinking may have saved her life – or from a life in a wheelchair. Julie came to a few seconds later. “I think I broke my back,” she moaned. “I can’t feel my legs.”

“You’re going to be okay,” he assured her.

“Then why can’t I move my legs?” she asked, each word tinged with fear.

“Because I’m laying on them to keep you still,” Ronnie told her with a nervous laugh, hoping that Julie really would be okay.

“I want to get up,” she said.

Carefully, Ronnie eased his weight off her. “OK,” he said, “but slowly.”

Julie slowly stood, but her knees buckled and she started to fall. Ronnie and Farrah held her up and somebody brought over a director’s chair for her to sit in. Ronnie and Farrah then started peppering her with questions to see if she was okay – to see if she had a concussion.

“What day is it?” Ronnie asked.

“Tuesday,” she answered.

“No,” he told her. “It’s Wednesday. When’s your birthday?”

She struggled to remember.

“What’s your name?” Farrah asked, not waiting for the answer.

Struggling, and then smiling, she said: “Farrah Fawcett.”

Everyone laughed, and all around her, stuntmen and crewmembers reassured one another that she was going to be okay. Someone went back and picked up their wigs, which lay on the dirt road like two dead, blond birds.

Julie and Jeannie had survived – but just barely. The car they’d jumped out of was supposed to be going less than 15 miles an hour, but it was going much faster.

“When Bobby floored it just as we were getting ready to jump,” Jeannie said, “we were probably going 35 miles an hour.”

The near-fatal accident was filmed and used in the “Angels in a Box” episode of the third season.

Julie and Jeannie were put into the backseat of a station wagon and sent to a nearby hospital. On the way, Julie told Jeannie what she’d heard about Bobby getting the last of the coke, and later, while sitting in the hospital’s waiting room, both women knew what had gone wrong with the stunt.

“He sped up,” Julie said, holding her Farrah wig on her lap.

“He was supposed to slow down, but he sped up,” Jeannie agreed, holding her dusty Cheryl Ladd wig on her lap.

No one, of course, could have known it the day that Julie and Jeannie Coulter were nearly killed out at Indian Dunes, but tragedy was waiting in the wings for many of the “Charlie’s Angels” stunt performers on location there that day.

In horrifying succession, one of them would be killed in a terrifying skydiving accident; two of them would be involved in an ill-conceived movie stunt that would leave one of them paralyzed for life; one of them would get the terrible news that his son had been killed in a fiery helicopter crash while shooting a TV show not far from this very same location, and one of them would commit suicide just six months after being questioned by police in one of Hollywood’s most famous unsolved murders.

Veteran stuntman Howard Curtis, who had been riding in the front seat next to Bobby Bass when Julie and Jeannie bailed out of the car that day, would be the first to die.

Ten years earlier, Curtis had been involved in one of the most memorable movie stunts of all time. The film was “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” and when the title characters, played by Paul Newman and Robert Redford, jumped off a cliff into a raging river below, it was Curtis, doubling for Newman, and stuntman Mickey Gilbert, doubling for Redford, who made the actual jump.

Curtis died a hero in 1979 during a skydiving exhibition at Lake Elsinore, Calif., while trying to save an amateur skydiver who’d gotten tangled up in his own chute. When Curtis soared over to try and untangle him, the man panicked, grabbed hold of Curtis and wouldn’t let go. Both men fell to their deaths.

Stuntwoman Heidi von Beltz was out at Indian Dunes the day her fiancée. Bobby Bass almost killed Julie and Jeannie Coulter, and three years later, he nearly killed Heidi, too, while coordinating stunts on “Cannonball Run.” He put her into a stunt car without any seatbelts, and when the car crashed, she was thrown into the windshield and left a quadriplegic.

Tragedy would also find Ronnie Rondell. Six years later, and not far from where Julie and Jeannie were nearly killed, his 22-year-old son, Reid Rondell, who’d followed his father into the family business, would be killed in a fiery helicopter crash while filming a stunt for the TV series “Airwolf.” Reports were that he, too, had been high on coke.

As for Bobby Bass, he would die at his own hand.

But first, the truth of the “Charlie’s Angels” accident would come out at the 1987 trial of Julie’s wrongful termination lawsuit Spelling-Goldberg Productions.

Julie, who claimed she had been fired for complaining about Bass’ drug use on the set, testified that she'd heard a crew member say that "Bobby got the last of the coke," and Jeannie Coulter testified about Bobby's strange behavior and glazed expression that day.

An individual who was on the set the day of the accident told me  that Bobby was a heavy cocaine user and was on coke that day.

Before Bobby testified, Judge Leon Savitch advised him of his Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination.

“During the last few days,” the judge told him, “there have been some statements about you and testimony about you, sir. That may mean that you might want to invoke the constitutional privilege against self-incrimination, which is guaranteed by the Fifth Amendment and by the California constitution.

“A witness is entitled to claim the privilege once he is sworn. It may be that you might be chargeable with various crimes arising out of the events that you might testify to.

“There has been testimony here about your possession of controlled substances – possibly cocaine. And you may be asked specific questions about that."

Bobby swore under oath that he had not taken cocaine that day, but the jury didn't believe him and awarded Julie $1.1 million.

Years later, Bobby would be diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, and his health declined. On his wife of 20 years Norma – Bo Derek’s mother — kissed him on the cheek and left their modest home on Dalton Avenue in Torrance, Calif., to do some shopping.

After she drove away, Bobby, wearing multi-colored pajama bottoms, white socks and a T-shirt, walked into his den,

went to his desk and took a Glock 17 semi-automatic pistol from a drawer.

He placed the extended barrel against his right temple and pulled the trigger. He was dead before he hit the ground.

He was 65 years old, and he left no note.

His suicide deeply saddened the stunt community. He was well-liked by all, and loved by many. In the end, Julie forgave him for ruining her career.

“I always liked Bobby," Julie says. "Everyone did. Before coke, Bobby was a great guy. He was our protector. He was like a teddy bear. But coke changed him. It changed everything."

Adapted from the book "The Stuntwoman: The True Story of a Hollywood Heroine."