Throughout the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, Jean Coulter was a leading stuntwoman in Hollywood, racking up hundreds of credits on shows like Charlie’s Angels, Wonder Woman, M*A*S*H*, and Days of Our Lives. She is perhaps most recognizable from Jaws 2, in which she played the ski boat driver who attempts to set the villainous shark on fire. Coulter rarely acted; she preferred to stick to stunts where her likeness was obscured and tailored to be indistinguishable from the stars for which she doubled. She worked in the shadows and experienced routine sexual harassment on set. She was among the first women in Hollywood to speak out about it publicly—in 1980 she filed a lawsuit against stunt coordinator Roy Harrison and Spelling-Goldberg Productions.
She told her story in a 1986 issue of TV Guide, years before sexual harassment in Hollywood was scrutinized regularly and taken seriously by the media. She says she paid dearly for rejecting Harrison’s advances—she claims she was blacklisted and work dried up to the point of her having to leave Hollywood in 1987.
Jezebel recently interviewed Coulter by phone and the essay below is the result of our discussion on life in and after Hollywood.
I was raised in the movie business. We lived about four blocks away from the Warner Bros. lot, and my father, Russell C. Menzer, was the head of the art department at that studio. There were four kids in my family, and we all went right into the business. We were acting, we did a Jell-O commercial, we took on some work as extras. My sister, Lori Martin, became a big child star in the ’50s. On NBC’s National Velvet series in the ’60s, she played Velvet Brown, the role Elizabeth Taylor made famous in the 1944 movie of the same name.
Out of all of us, my sister worked the most. I went to school, but when I turned 18, I started working back in the business again. I got into stunt work because I’m an outdoor person, and I’m very sports-minded. When I was a kid, we took all kinds of lessons. My sister’s show was about a horse, so we would go ride all the time. We had a pool in the backyard, so I swam. The next street over, we had a recreational center, so I played tennis and dove off of the high boards. We just did sports all the time.
Once I started working in the business, I would take any kind of lesson I thought would help, whether it was judo or karate or boxing or gymnastics. I studied car work with race car driver Bill Elliott at the driving range down at San Pedro, where they trained police officers. The stunt guys on set would also teach me different things, like how to take a slap. For that, you have to loosen up your neck, because when you get slapped you have to jerk your head to the left or right and you can put your neck out. You have to be pretty limber. It starts to come automatically, once you get the hang of it.
I never turned down a job. It got to the point where they’d call me and I didn’t even know what I’d have to do. No matter what they were asking of me, and whether or not I went in knowing how to do it, they knew they could rely on me because I had the timing, the balance, and the strength. I’m also a very fast learner. You just have to tell me one time and I pick it up. But then there are a lot of things in this line of work you can’t just learn ahead of time, like jumping out of cars. You’ll know how you have to get out and how you have to roll, but nothing goes like it’s planned. You just have to go with the flow and make it work. I always knew my way out, how I could get out if something went wrong. You always have to keep that in the back of your head.
I believe my first stunt role was as a hostage and I had to get dragged down the street. I don’t even remember the show, but it was the early ’60s. Universal was my home lot, they kept me working all the time. IMDb is missing about 350 of my official credits. Additionally, I did a lot of my early work on my E-card for the Screen Extras Guild, so my name didn’t always appear in the credits.
The earliest stunt credit of mine listed on IMDb was for Ironside, and you wouldn’t believe what I had to do on that movie. I had to dive into the Sausalito Bay, which was full of houseboats and filthy, at 3 a.m. It was 30 degrees outside and I was in a little teeny skimpy dress that shrunk up to show everything. I had to save a guy on fire—literally, on fire—who had jumped out of a houseboat. I swam to him, put him out, and dragged him to shore. It was very difficult. You’re so darn cold, you can barely move.
When I got the job doing stunts for Charlie’s Angels in 1976, that’s when I felt like stunt work became my career. I knew I had it. They had me doubling all three girls on the pilot. I would go from wig to dress from wig to dress. It was a hard day’s work, but it was great, and everything worked for me. I did a ton of episodes.
For Airport ’77, I was the first woman in the history of the movie business that Universal made stunt co-coordinator on a big feature.Stunt coordinators set up the shot, they visualize what they want to see on film, they work with the director, they hire the doubles to do the stunt work. You have to know what the double can do—they’ll break you or make you. Coordinators choreograph the stunt, too. You have to be an expert in stunts in order to be a coordinator. You have to be a walking dictionary of the ways to pull off whatever the scene calls for. If you haven’t done it before, how would you know how to set it up or how it works?
After I got the Airport ’77 job, the women in my business thought for sure this was our big break. In the end, my friend J.D. David said to me, “We thought we were going to have it made after you got in there, but nothing happened. Nothing.” That was true for a long time. The guys had it all tied up and, for the most part, still do. When producers are looking for a stunt coordinator, they’re much more likely to look for a man. It’s pure misogyny. They think that because a man is stronger than a woman, they can do it better, but that’s not true. We have so much talent. We see what they see; we can do what they do. It’s been more than 40 years since Airport ’77, and we’ve only seen small advances in the field. Deadline addressed this issue at length in 2015 with “No Females in Fall Guy Frat,” an article about the continued exclusion of women from stunt work.
Timing and experience are crucial to stunt work, but so is confidence. If I was scared for my life on set, I couldn’t do the stunt. I knew that if I ever had it in my brain that I was afraid, it wasn’t going to work. If I felt I was going to get hurt, I knew I shouldn’t be there. I would visualize the whole stunt and once I started, I didn’t have time to think. Your brain takes over and your body does what your brain tells it. For me, that worked perfectly. I had to do a job where I jumped out of a wagon and landed facedown on a spot. The horses in the scene were running like 35 miles per hour. For me to jump out of that wagon and land face down on a certain spot should have been really difficult, but I never thought about it. I programmed my mind and I hit my mark every time.
Stunt work was easy for me. It was dealing with the rest of the stuff that wasn’t. During the ’60s and ’70s, I was regularly sexually harassed on set, but I had a knack for dealing with that. I could smile and laugh and make everybody like me. When they made those jokes about my body or whatever, I would say something funny. For a long time, I could get around the guys coming onto me. Of course, in the end, I didn’t.
I was kind of pretty at the time. I had won beauty contests, and I had a good body from working out all the time. I got it from all the men. One day I walked on the set and the guys were catcalling me and laughing at me. My heart was pounding. I was so scared. Because of the way I looked, they were saying, “You’re the stuntwoman? Sure. Okay.” I had a hard stunt to do that day, so I not only had to deal with these guys making fun of me but I had to think about what the job was. Thank God it went off smoothly. I did a great job. After that, the guys weren’t laughing at me anymore. They were telling me how great I did and that they were sorry for what they said. When I showed up on set, respect wasn’t a given—I had to repeatedly prove myself in order to earn it. I found a lot of men had contempt for me until they got to know me. Then I wouldn’t have a problem anymore. I become like their little sister.
It wasn’t just catcalling and propositions. I was working with one big stunt coordinator and he wanted to take a picture with me. I said, “Fine.” He called someone over, we set up for the picture, and he grabbed my breast. I have that picture still. That’s the kind of thing they would do to me. It was heartbreaking. I’m really shy and I don’t like that. I didn’t want to laugh it off, but I had to. I had to just walk away. You couldn’t make a big deal of it, or they’d do it all the time. You also didn’t want to make waves, you didn’t want to make enemies, you had to figure out the right thing to say so that you didn’t hurt their feelings or make them mad. It was like walking a tightrope all the time. Luckily, I had it in me to put on a brave face no matter how depressed I’d feel, no matter if I was just biding my time before going home and crying. I didn’t let people see those times, and I know that a lot of women went through them. That was just the way it was then.
It wasn’t just stuntmen, either; I got it from producers and directors, too. Once, I was sent out by my agent to a house on Coldwater Canyon for an interview with a big-time director. He answered the door in a bathrobe. I was scared to death. He told me to come in and go to the bathroom to put on a bikini he had for me. “I want to see what you look like in a bathing suit,” he told me. I said, “Okay.” I went in and was shaking like crazy. I had to put on this skimpy bikini. I walked out into his living room and I said, “Okay, here I am.” I turned around. I turned around again. And then I waited a second. He started to say something and I walked back to the bathroom and changed before he could get anything else out. Once I came out, he was sitting on the couch. He said, “I wanted to talk to you about this part.” I said, “Okay. What about it?” He explained it to me and then interrupted himself. He asked me to sit next to him and give him a back rub. I said, “I think I’m finished here.” I walked out. Of course, I didn’t get the part. It wasn’t that he wasn’t good looking, but my policy was: I choose who I want to go out with.
There were very few stuntwomen in the business when I got started. They were doing those cowboy shows in the ’50s, so it was all men. In the rare event that there was a need for a stunt double of a woman, men would wear wigs and stand in for them. That was one of our struggles in the ’60s, getting the wigs off the men so that we could work. In fact, the push to end “wigging” continues even to this day.
We would jump one hurdle only to be faced with another. Once we got the jobs, we never had equal pay. I made a quarter of what the guys made doing the same stunt work. There were men who would come to work and wouldn’t even have to do a stunt—they’d be there to help the stunt coordinator make sure everything went right, and get paid five times as much as I was, even when I was doing the big stunts on the movie. It sounds insane, but it’s the way it was. I’m sure it’s still that way.
It wasn’t until Charlie’s Angels that I hit the highest annual pay I received in the industry: $40,000. That was a huge amount for a woman. But I was also working all of the time. Most stuntwomen didn’t work 200 days a year. I don’t know anybody who did in those years. I was doing like five television series. I went from job to job. It took its toll on my body. One day, I was doing a stunt and I was just all beat up. My shins had bumps the size of eggs. You just have to keep going. The next day I went snow-skiing. I found that if I didn’t keep moving and working out, the injuries would get worse and the pain gets worse. In all, I sustained very few injuries considering everything that I did. When I think of all the stair-falls and high-falls and jumping out of cars, I was just lucky. I had impeccable timing. My body was in good shape.
As I motored along in my career, I tolerated sexual harassment—until I didn’t. My career, disposition, and life, for that matter, changed in 1980 when I was hired to work with coordinator Roy Harrison on a Spelling-Goldberg Productions pilot that never made it to series. I had worked for him a few times before that and every time I did, something went wrong.
To film the pilot, I flew up to San Francisco—there was a production office up there. I stayed in the same hotel as Harrison and he propositioned me. “Why don’t you come to my room and cuddle with me?” he asked. I said, “No, I don’t think so. I’ll meet you in the production office.” We were scheduled to meet there the next day. And that was that, or so I thought.
When I showed up to the production office the next day, he showed me the call sheet. He told me, “You’re going to run up to the car, and I’m going to have the other girl drive the car off.” He has assured me when I took the job that it would involve a lot of car work—in fact, that’s what convinced me as I wasn’t really enthusiastic to take on another job given my full plate at the time. Of course, after I refused an invitation to his room, suddenly my role changed. I said, “Wait a minute, that’s not what you said when you hired me.” He said, “Well that’s the way it’s going to be.” I said, “You don’t need me here. You have a stuntwoman. She can do the whole job.” He said, “Are you saying you don’t want to do it?” I said, “That’s right, you’re wasting money. I don’t want to do it.”
In the middle of the production office, he yelled out to the unit manager, “Get her on the first plane out of here!” He turned to me in front of everybody and said, “You’re blacklisted. You’ll never work a day in your life in this town.” I said, “Fine,” and I walked out. I wasn’t taking him seriously at the time. I grew up in the business. My whole family was in the business. I was the top stuntwoman. What did I have to worry about? He was slimy and everyone knew it, but he supplied a lot of work. He ran shows for Aaron Spelling. He had way more power than I did.
(Editor’s note: To TV Guide in 1986, Harrison denied the harassment allegations. “There’s no validity at all to her charges,” he said, according to the magazine’s report.)
Not long after, I got a job for 20th Century Fox to double somebody. The stunt guy, Jimmy Nickerson, was there and another stuntwoman. We were standing there talking and up walks Roy Harrison. He looked at the coordinator and said, “Get her off the set, she’s blacklisted.” The stunt coordinator said, “I’ll pay you for the day, but I can’t use you.”
Harrison followed me from job to job. I was asked to be on a precision driving team with Wally Crowder. I showed up with my husband at the time. We were standing there talking to Wally and up walked Roy Harrison. He said, “Get her off; she’s not on this team.” That was it. The year before I was blacklisted, I worked 199 days. The year after, I worked 12. The blacklisting had worked.
I had filed a lawsuit against Harrison and Aaron Spelling in 1984. Another stuntwoman who had a similar experience with Harrison considered joining my lawsuit, but she ended up quitting the business altogether. I hung in there for a few more years. Soon after I filed my suit, I secured work on the James Bond movie A View to a Kill. The stunt coordinator’s girlfriend was on the set of that movie and we became friends. One day at her house, she told me that the stunt coordinators had gotten together and planned to go to court and say that I went to bed with every single one of them. That broke my heart. To think that other men would do that? I was friends with them, and I didn’t ever date industry people, anyway. I was crushed.
Eventually, I gave the legal fight up. My attorney told me the statute of limitations was up. I said to him, “There’s no statute of limitations when you’re blacklisted—it’s ongoing,” but he said it made no difference.
I gave up on Hollywood and left in 1987, after 25 years in the stunt business. I was losing everything. Work came in a slow trickle after the blacklisting. I wasn’t making the money that I once did. I had a big home that my father designed that I built and worked on. I had to sell it—I couldn’t make the payments. I also had to sell my business, Camera Cars Unlimited, which was a company that rented cars outfitted with generators for filming that I devised and then opened with my ex. I had to get rid of everything. I had to get out of town. I had $50,000 in the bank and went through it in months. And then I started borrowing on the house.
Worst of all, I lost my dreams. I wanted to direct. I could have been a great director. I got a little taste of it and I was good. It all fell through.
I moved to Yosemite with my then-husband. I bought a camper and lived in the camper until I bought a mobile home and put it up just to get something up. Winter was coming and I needed a place to live. My kids were over 18 at the time, and they’d already moved out. They were pretty much on their own. I started a business designing T-shirts, but that didn’t really work out. I also did stained glass and I sold that to the big hotel in Yosemite. I ended up getting into real estate to make ends meet.
I’m not bitter about the way things went for me. I’ve always been a happy person. Life is life. You can make it hard on yourself by being stressed and not letting things go. I know women who have done that and it’s miserable. You can never be happy when you’re so obsessed about what happened in the past. You have to get over it because life moves on and whatever hurt you is not the only thing in life.
I’ve never been resentful, but I have been sad. Today, I do radio shows, I’m writing a book about my life, I exercise every day, and I’m fighting cancer for the fifth time. I could have done great things in the business, I know I could have. But it wasn’t meant to be, so here I am.