Rules to live by when you’re getting lit on fire at work?
“You have to hold your breath,” advises Gilroy High School alumnus John Dixon.
“Make sure everybody on your crew likes you,” he adds, jokingly.
Battling sea scalawags in “Pirates of the Caribbean,” playing a Soviet soldier alongside Harrison Ford in the latest “Indiana Jones” installment or kicking Kiefer Sutherland in the stomach on the set of “24” sounds like a sweet gig, although professional daredevil Dixon will tell you: Stunt work has its harrowing drawbacks.
If things don’t go as planned, “you’re dead, and you don’t get to spend (the money),” he cautions a group of Christopher High School students, agog at the $3,800 Dixon once made in two seconds for free-falling 70 feet off a building.
That particular stunt was filmed on the set of “Burn Notice,” a high-octane TV spy thriller now in its sixth season.
It’s been decades since Dixon, 44, declared at the age of 7 to his parents, “I want to be a stuntman” after watching the Wild, Wild West Stunt Show at Universal Studios theme park in Los Angeles. Following high school graduation in 1986, the former Gilroyan – who grew up riding horses – landed a job with the Medieval Times Dinner & Tournament in Southern California. Nowadays, he’s working as a body double for actor/comedian Steve Martin.
While shooting scenes for the 2009 remake of “Pink Panther II,” – “I’m right behind Steve everywhere he goes,” says Dixon – on standing in for the snowy-haired star of blockbuster classics such as “Father of the Bride.”
“He’s an older guy, and he’s not very coordinated,” Dixon added. “But he’s very funny.”
In a climate where dwindling state funding threatens permanent curtain calls for non-core subjects in schools, CHS drama teacher Kate Booth – one of Dixon’s oldest friends – is on a mission to keep the horizon of career possibilities wide open for Gilroy’s youth.
Where the public has a tendency to pass the arts off as “play time,” Booth wants her students to know: Not all artists are starving.
“I think we get kind of myopic in Gilroy, and I want to make students aware that there’s a bigger world out there, and there’s cool stuff that you can do with the arts,” she said. “Part of my job is to show students that.”
So Booth put in a call to Dixon, her longtime “fearless” childhood buddy who drove up from Los Angeles last week to show CHS drama students how to properly beat each other up (the pretend way).
“Do NOT swing until you get instructions,” bellowed Booth, circling a group of 20 students who partnered up inside the CHS theater while participating in a staged punching tutorial.
If the hands-on lesson in feigned drop-kicking wasn’t titillating enough, students had a chance to rummage through Dixon’s handy trove of stuntman accessories. Essentials such as special harnesses and protective pads travel everywhere with Dixon in a large, black duffel bag.
“That’s the actual vest he wore? Can I touch it?” squealed one student, reaching a hand out toward a “jerk” vest worn by Steve Martin during several action scenes shot for “Pink Panther.”
With 50 places for pullies to hook into it, the $700 garment can withstand 4,200 pounds of pressure and allows the stuntman or actor to be suspended in the air, Dixon explained.
Student Nathan Kizzia, 15, tried Dixon’s “gatorback” on for size. The protective shell straps on around the waist and softens a blow to the back or stomach.
“That didn’t hurt,” said Kizzia, un-phased after a classmate high-kicked him in the back.
Dixon also brought with him a video montage of his past gigs; a visually thrilling resume filled with flames, falling and fighting. One clip shows Dixon – dressed as a Medieval guard in the 2001 Martin Lawrence film “Black Knight” – getting shot with a flaming arrow, falling 8 feet off a wall and rolling onto a thatched roof that was soaked in diesel fuel.
“I fall down for a living,” Dixon jokes. “Gravity does the rest.”
“He was always that way as a kid,” recalls Booth. “Not stupid – but fearless. He was the kind of guy that would try anything. You had to be careful of what you said to him, because he just might try it.”
Whether the apple falls close to the tree is up to Dixon’s son, Owen. The 8-year-old already has one credit under his belt after landing an acting role in a TV web series. At the age of 5, Owen was offered a job as a stunt performer in the 2010 film “Little Fockers,” however Dixon turned it down.
“He was too young,” Dixon said. “Also I want it to be something that he wants to do. I’m not going to book him on any job without his permission.”
After performing in live shows at Knott’s Berry Farm, Universal Studios and in Vegas, Dixon’s TV/movie career (which includes body doubling, stunt performing and stunt coordinating) got rolling in 1994 with “Naked Gun 33 and 1/3.” Dixon’s lengthy repertoire now includes “Armageddon,” “Star Trek: Enterprise,” “Charmed,” “National Treasure,” “Mission Impossible – Ghost Protocol,” “Big Love,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Victorious,” two movies from the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise and the latest “Indiana Jones” installment, to name a modest sampling out of more than 100 credits.
While playing a Soviet soldier in “Indiana Jones: Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” a “surreal” career highlight for Dixon was grabbing the iconic fedora hat from Harrison Ford’s head and haughtily throwing to the ground.
As a die-hard childhood fan of the original film series, however, manhandling his hero’s wardrobe felt somewhat sacrilegious.
During the scene’s first take, Dixon recalls timidly removing the hat from Ford’s head and “gingerly” setting it down.
“Steven (Spielberg) walks over and says, ‘John, you’re not supposed to give a (expletive) about that hat,’” laughed Dixon.
In an industry of 400 full-time people that sees an average one to two deaths per year, Dixon – a stuntman with more than two decades of experience under his belt – has weathered his risky profession relatively unscathed. There are some war stories, of course: Broken bones, cuts, bruises and contusions, not to mention that one time Dixon got knocked out while falling down a chimney in place of Steve Martin on the set of “Pink Panther II.”
“That’s the reason you do the work and the actor doesn’t,” said Dixon. “You go in and take your knocks and bruises and go home and cash your check … I’m fortunate enough to still have all my own teeth.”
Dixon recalls, with a grimace, shooting an opening action scene for “Crystal Skull” that required Indiana Jones to outrun a cadre of Soviet thugs while nimbly traversing a labyrinth of warehouse rafters. The 15-minute film sequence “wrecked” three stuntmen, required 27 takes and took three-and-a-half months to shoot.
Industry veterans approaching their 40s frequently opt for stunt driving or behind-the-scenes work with gear rigging and stunt coordinating, Dixon said.
As a successful professional whose roots trace back to playing the trumpet in the fifth grade, acting in the South Valley Civic Theater and performing with the Gilroy High School mime troupe (yes, GHS used to have a mime troupe), Dixon reminded students, “I would not be able to do what I’m doing today if I wasn’t able to get involved in all the types of stuff that Gilroy has to offer … experience everything you can experience.”
Booth said she plans to regularly invite other GHS and CHS alumni with careers in the fine and liberal arts to come share with students.
Seeing electives slowly dwindle from schools’ course offerings is a “shame,” Dixon added, “because that’s such a way out for so many kids.”
He hopes his visit to CHS piqued interest in the prospect of pursuing a career in the arts.
“As long as you do what makes you happy, then you’ll be successful in anything you choose to do,” he said. “It’s not a pipe dream. It can absolutely happen.”