The wild, crazy, horse-ridin', wagon-wreckin', back-breakin', Batman-punchin' story of Nebraska's stuntman family

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The Hudkins family was good at violence, both real and imaginary.

Ace, Clyde, John, Dick, Acey. Born in Lincoln or about 30 miles north in the town of Valparaiso. They got their start as high school athletes, became professional pugilists, stuntmen, entrepreneurs, outlaws. Pretended to get hurt for a living or really got hurt for a living. They're all dead now, but not a one of them died in a boxing ring or on a movie set. (Though they came close a few times.)

You had tough-as-nails boxer Ace Hudkins (a.k.a. "the Nebraska Wildcat”), who won the vast majority of his 200 career fights, never to be knocked out. He came close to a world middleweight title twice.



You had Acey Hudkins, Ace’s nephew. He almost died after he dove off the side of a fake submarine in a “Batman” movie.

And you had John “Bear” Hudkins, another of Ace’s stuntman nephews. Bear broke his back on the set of a Western. He was riding a horse alongside John Wayne and Henry Fonda (another Nebraskan) when the animal stumbled, toppled and landed on Bear. Bear had to have his spine fused but was back to work within a year.

The Hudkins gang wrecked wagons and felled horses for countless Westerns. They stunt-doubled for John Wayne and Lee Marvin, George C. Scott and Spencer Tracy. They taught Bette Davis and James Cagney how to ride a horse. They taught horses how to be ridden by Bette Davis and James Cagney.

Hudkins Bros. Stables was among Hollywood’s largest horse suppliers in the Western’s heyday. Right next to the Warner Bros. studio, the stables at one point provided as much as 70 percent of the horses and livestock used by Hollywood. Roy Rogers’ Trigger came from the Hudkins stables. So did the Lone Ranger’s Silver.

The fact is, if you saw a man fall off a horse on the big screen in the middle decades of the 20th century, there's a decent chance a Hudkins had something to do with it.

“They worked with the major studios,” said Kristine Sader, great-niece of the elder Ace Hudkins. “Pretty much anybody at Warner Bros. in the ’30s and ’40s, they worked with. Anyone who needed horses."

Sader, who lives in Nevada, wrote a book about her family: “Ace Hudkins: Boxing With the Nebraska Wildcat.”

Now she's working on a follow-up that covers the Hudkins family’s movie careers. She wanted to put it all in one book — the boxing, the horses, the movies. But she had to split it up. Just one book would have been too long.

This family had too much of a story to tell.

The Nebraska Wildcat

Ace Hudkins (born in 1905 in Valparaiso) was arguably Nebraska's second-best professional boxer of all time behind Terence Crawford.

He started boxing when he was a kid, picking up fights throughout the state. Before long he left to box in Los Angeles, where he would prove himself a formidable fighter and a major draw in a boxing-crazed town.

He never won a world title, but he came close. He fought middleweight champ Mickey Walker twice, losing both times to decision. In 1995, long after his death, Ace was inducted into the World Boxing Hall of Fame.

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Illustration of boxer Ace Hudkins that ran in The World-Herald in 1967.

Ace had a face like a boxer — mushed, misshapen, ready for more. Sports writer Paul Gallico said of Ace: “He was tough, hard, mean, cantankerous, combative, fast, courageous and filled at all times with bitter and flaming lust for battle.”

That lust tended to get Ace in trouble outside the ring.

Ace fractured a man’s skull with his bare fist in a street fight and was arrested on a charge of assault with a deadly weapon. Another time, after he'd given up boxing, Ace went into a Hollywood cafe looking for a fight and pulled a gun on the bartender. The bartender, who had his own gun, shot Ace twice in the chest. Ace almost died but eked on through after multiple blood transfusions.

Ace’s trouble stemmed from the bottle. He was arrested and fined many times for intoxication and disturbing the peace — in L.A., Omaha and elsewhere. He was banned from the Ak-Sar-Ben race track after he used it as the arena for one of his drunken brawls.

Throughout the ’30s, headlines read:

“Ace Hudkins, Fighter, Is Arrested For Drunkenness”

“Ace Hudkins Is In Trouble”

“Ace Hudkins Is Arrested Again”

“Ex-Pug Fined, Ordered to Join AA”

But in time the Nebraska Wildcat settled down with his wife, Mildred, and adopted son, Bob Herron (who grew up to become a professional stuntman). After a life of fighting, Ace found new purpose in the worlds of horse training and moviemaking.

A 1958 newspaper feature showed a very different Ace Hudkins, middle-aged and mellowed-out. The article described him as quiet, subdued and great with animals:

“His natural easy, calm manner is fine for a spooked nag, and he can quiet down an excited horse with a pat and a word.”

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Ace Hudkins in his prime.

Hudkins Bros. Stables

Shortly after Ace Hudkins’ fighting career ended in the early ’30s, he got a job offer from an old Nebraska friend.

The friend was Wahoo native Darryl F. Zanuck, then working at Warner Bros. Zanuck was the Oscar-winning producer of more than 200 films, including “All About Eve” and “The Grapes of Wrath.” He was one of the giants of old Hollywood and the longest-surviving of the major studio bosses.

Zanuck’s offer to Hudkins was a job horse-wrangling for the movies. Given the popularity of the Western at the time, it was a pretty good gig. Ace later parlayed the job into starting his own horse ranch with his older brother Clyde, also born in Valparaiso.

The Hudkins Bros. Stables set up shop across seven acres in north Hollywood, and over the next few decades the stables would rent out thousands of horses to the major studios. The Hudkins brothers were among the most popular equine suppliers in, as it was billed at the time, “the horsiest town" in the world.

Hudkins horses galloped and cantered through countless TV shows and movies, including the “Lawman” and “Cheyenne” series. The brothers provided most of the 500 horses used in the Gary Cooper Western “Springfield Rifle.” They taught Edward G. Robinson how to ride a horse and Al Jolson how to mount a mule.

When Roy Rogers went to the Hudkins stables looking for a horse for his first starring role, he found a Golden Palomino stallion with whom he grew instantly attached. He agreed to pay Ace Hudkins $2,500 for the horse, whom he renamed Trigger. Rogers was making only $75 a week at the time, and it took him several years to pay off his horse. But the investment paid off. Rogers and Trigger would co-star in 80-plus movies and 100 episodes of “The Roy Rogers Show.”

To underline horses' contribution to the industry, Clyde Hudkins once noted that the 1954 CinemaScope Western “The Command” involved 41,862 “horse-hours.” 

“Horses are just like humans,” Clyde said in 1941. “Some can act; some can’t. There are hero horses, villains and comedians. Once in a while you’ll find some awful hams.”

The Hudkins brothers trained their horses for stunts and acting. They taught them how to nod their heads when they heard a whip crack; how not to spook at gunfire; how to fall without hurting themselves.

Right as the Hudkins brothers were getting into the horse-training business, Hollywood was finally starting to treat animals better.

In the old days, movie productions would bring horses to the ground using the “Running W,” a savage device that tripped horses mid-gallop, often leading to their deaths. By the ’40s, the practice was banned, and the American Humane Association was on set, ensuring that horses (and other animals) weren't being abused. The AHA is still the group that makes sure “No animals were harmed in the making of this film."

The regulations changed the way movie horses fall. Instead of being tripped, maimed and shot, horses were trained over many years to fall on command onto soft ground. This made the skilled horses at the Hudkins stables quite valuable.

The Hudkins brothers loved their horses. They felt differently about the movie stars.

Clyde liked to claim his horses were “smarter than the actors that ride on ’em.”

Beyond their gifted equines, the Hudkins stables served as one of the chief sources of wagons and carriages for the movies: Conestogas, Victorias, chariots, circus wagons, stagecoaches, whatever old-timey wheels your movie needed. In 1958, the (Louisville, Kentucky) Courier-Journal claimed that “villains have held up more Hudkins coaches than ever were robbed in all the history of the old West.”

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Clyde Hudkins standing on a chariot used in the 1933 movie “Roman Scandals.”

Because Hudkins Bros. Stables had so many stunt horses on hand, it became a base of operations for countless stuntmen, a few with the last name of Hudkins.

The Stuntmen

Stunt work is still a dangerous job. Things can go wrong and do go wrong. But now the profession comes with regulations that were nonexistent back in the Hudkinses’ heyday.

Omaha-native stunt performer Nick Stanner (“Black Panther,” “Venom” and almost 100 other credits) said that one of his favorite things to do on set is listen to stories from the old-timers.

“The stories from the old stunt days, they’re just crazy," he said. "Now there are so many regulations and things that have to happen first. But back in the day, it was, ‘Alright, you ready? Go for it!’”

The Hudkins stuntmen were very much part of this “Go for it!” era.

Ace Hudkins did a little stunt work after his boxing career ended, but it was the next generation who made it the family trade. Ace’s nephews John, Dick and Acey worked on scores of movies and TV shows.

John “Bear” Hudkins was by far the family’s best-known stuntman. Born in Lincoln in 1918, he was a 5-foot-11, 185-pound natural athlete. He scored a football scholarship at UCLA. But when his father died and the family needed money back home, Bear quit school and took a job on his uncle Ace’s ranch, the first step toward a life in the business.

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John "Bear" Hudkins is one of the men bailing out of this overturned wagon during a stunt for John Wayne's 1949 film "The Fighting Kentuckian." Photo courtesy of Western Clippings

Neil Summers, a stuntman and actor who worked with Bear, wrote that his old friend had a “reliable, no-nonsense reputation as a man who came to work and got the job done in a spectacular way.

“When you watch classic action-filled Westerns and see a ferocious wagon wreck — or turnover, as they are called in the business — chances are real good you’re seeing the expertise of Bear Hudkins, one of the best wagon men ever to perform in films,” Summers wrote. “Wagons were not Bear’s only stunt, and he, along with other stalwarts of the stunt profession, did horse falls, fights, transfers, saddle falls, doubling for actors and anything else the script called for.”

Bear doubled for a whole lot of movie stars: Lee Marvin in “The Professionals,” George C. Scott in “Oklahoma Crude,” James Cagney on the “The Oklahoma Kid.” He doubled as and starred alongside John Wayne in several films (more on that in a minute).

Over a near-50-year career, Bear put up more than 100 acting and stunt credits; not just on Westerns but TV shows like “The Untouchables,” action movies like “Dirty Harry.”

In a 1992 L.A. Times article, Bear (who died five years later) reminisced about the crazy days before the use of safety equipment. Instead of air bags, the stuntmen of his era used cardboard boxes to break their fall.

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John "Bear" Hudkins does a saddle fall for the 1953 film "Column South." Audie Murphy can be seen behind the barricade. Photo courtesy of Western Clippings

Bear recalled one of his stunts he’d never heard of anyone else doing: Diving from a galloping horse through a small stagecoach window.

“It was all done for real back then,” said Omaha film historian Bruce Crawford. “Obviously there were no CG special effects of any kind. It was real men doing real stunts.”

Sometimes getting real hurt and real dead.

To get an idea of the danger inherent to the stunt profession back in the old days, look at one of Bear’s first films —1942’s “They Died With Their Boots On,” an epic Western starring Errol Flynn.

Three men died on that shoot. One stuntman had a heart attack. Another fell from a horse and broke his neck. The third man to die, stuntman/actor Jack Budlong, insisted on wearing a real saber during a cavalry-charge scene. He got his wish but at a great cost. During the shoot, an explosion sent him flying off his horse and landing on his sword.

The ‘Fort Apache’ accident

Bear got banged up on a lot of movies. Falling off horses all day will do that. But only once did he come close to death.

Things went bad on the set of a John Ford/John Wayne movie, 1948’s “Fort Apache.”

Bear doubled for the Duke in several films, and was good friends with him, too. (Incidentally, another Nebraska stuntman, the aforementioned Stanner, is now working on a new movie with John Wayne’s grandson, actor Brendan Wayne.)

On the set of “Fort Apache,” with Wayne and Henry Fonda nearby, Bear’s horse stepped in a hole, tripped and fell on top of him, crushing him into the ground and breaking his back.

The incident actually spurred a minor crisis in the movie industry. The film was shot in Arizona, and after Bear fell off his horse, the state learned that it was liable for his injury pay. Because of Arizona’s 65 percent compensation law, the state paid Bear a weekly salary of $235 (nearly $2,500 in today's money) while he was laid up. Arizona officials worried that if high-paid movie stars like Wayne or Fonda fell off their horses, their compensation pay might bankrupt the state. They asked the studios to sign liability waivers, making Arizona a less enticing place to shoot a movie.

In any case, doctors fused Bear's spine, and he was back at work shortly after. He did stunts for another 40-plus years, his last role in Sam Raimi’s 1995 Western “The Quick and the Dead.”

Bear died two years later, at the age of 79, not from an act of old-West derring-do but heart failure in his sleep.

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John "Bear" Hudkins, right, rides alongside John Wayne in the 1969 Western "The Undefeated." Photo courtesy of Western Clippings

The ‘Batman’ accident

On the DVD commentary track for 1966’s “Batman: The Movie,” actors Adam West and Burt Ward (respectively, Batman and Robin) talk about a particularly frightening moment during the shoot. They were filming the climactic fight scene on the Penguin’s submarine (shot in a lake on 20th Century Fox’s Malibu Ranch) when they noticed they were missing a stuntman.

They soon found him — out cold at the bottom of the lake. He had dived in following a fake “POW!” from Robin and hit his head on an underwater post, knocking himself out and nearly breaking his neck. Fortunately, the crew found the stuntman in time.

(The shot of the stuntman's dive made it into the movie. He’s one of the Penguin’s henchmen, the one wearing the green hat.)

The stuntman has long been identified as Ace Hudkins, the Valparaiso middleweight who would have been 61 years old in 1966. But Ace’s great-niece Kristine Sader says that everyone has it wrong. There was another Ace Hudkins, the elder’s nephew and Clyde’s son. He went by Acey. He was the one who almost died jumping off a supervillain's submarine.

Acey's stunt career appears to have been erroneously absorbed by his uncle’s, their legacies lumped together. This is why there’s only one “Ace Hudkins” on IMDB.com. The page has him doing movie stunts at the same time he was battling Parkinson’s disease. In fact, his page has him doing stunt work several years after his death.

The confusion is fitting in a way. For a family so immersed in the art of American mythmaking, their stories were bound to get mixed up. Hollywood cares about the legend, not the facts. When it comes to putting on a good show, truth's got nothing to do with it.

* * *

More notable Nebraska stunt performers

The state has a weirdly rich history of men who got paid to hurt themselves safely in the name of entertainment. 

Harold Lloyd

From: Burchard, Nebraska

Lived: 1893 to 1971

Famous star of the silent film era known for doing his own dangerous stunts, which included hanging from the side of building and a gag with a prop bomb that lost him a few fingers. Known as “The Third Genius” of silent comedy, after Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton.

Highlights: “Safety Last!,” “The Freshman,” “Speedy.”

 

Hoot Gibson

From: Tekamah, Nebraska

Lived: 1892 to 1962

The rodeo champ who became one of Hollywood’s first stuntmen, then one of its most famous cowboy stars. Of his many accomplishments, Gibson once rode a motorcycle off a 23-foot drawbridge.

Highlights: He starred in hundreds of films, many of which are no longer available to watch. One was 1914’s “The Squaw Man,” one of Hollywood’s first feature-length Westerns. His final role was in 1960’s “Ocean’s 11.”

Chuck Hayward

Born: Alliance, Nebraska

Lived: 1920 to 1998

The son of Nebraska cattle ranchers, Hayward left home to join the rodeo and eventually found work as a horse-wrangler in the movies. After Hayward did stunt work on the 1949 John Wayne Western “The Fighting Kentuckian,” he and the Duke became lifelong friends, working on 23 movies together. Hayward also doubled for such actors as Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen.

Highlights: “The Searchers,” “McClintock!,” just name a John Wayne movie. Hayward did stunts and acted in movies up through the ’80s, including “Airplane!” and “The Blues Brothers.”

Worth noting: Hayward did stunt work alongside John “Bear” Hudkins in John Wayne’s “The Alamo.” Then with Bear and Acey Hudkins in Howard Hawks’ “Rio Lobo” (1970). And in an impressive feat of Nebraska synergy, Hayward, Bear Hudkins and Hoot Gibson all played a part in the John Wayne/John Ford movie “The Horse Soldiers” (1959).

Ted Mapes

Born: St. Edward, Nebraska

Lived: 1901 to 1984

The actor and stuntman of hundreds of films who doubled for Gary Cooper and Jimmy Stewart in their Western roles. Mapes was an advocate for animal safety. When he retired from stunt work, he became an on-set observer for the American Humane Association, making sure the animals were well-treated.

Highlights: “Winchester ’73,” “Broken Arrow” (1950), “The Far Country.”

Alex Sharp

Born: In Omaha

Lived: 1921 to 2008

Longtime stuntman who turned to writing “Bonanza” episodes when, he told a newspaper, “the ground started to get too hard.”

Highlights: “Bonanza,” “Gunsmoke,” “In the Line of Fire,” “Dirty Harry.”

Jack Montgomery

From: Omaha

Lived: 1891 to 1962

A Montana-raised rancher who took a shot at Hollywood stunt work and made a long career of it.

Highlights: “The Ten Commandments” (1923), “Red River” and “Three Godfathers.”

* * * 

Correction: An earlier version of this story had an incorrect hometown for Hoot Gibson. 

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