Eric Norris' career started with a bang-literally. It threw him 20 feet through the air and he landed on his head.
The novice stuntman, then just 18, was on the set of the 1985 action flick Invasion U.S.A., starring his father, legendary action hero Chuck Norris-so the younger Norris was eager to make a good impression. His first big stunt called for him to run by a building and, when it exploded, fall down from a safe distance away. But someone on the set detonated the pyrotechnics early, sending him hurtling through the air and depositing him in a dazed heap.
"I landed on my head and I was wearing a red bandana, so [my colleagues] thought I was bleeding," Norris recalls. "But they picked me up and saw I could keep working. I fell 20 times on that show. It was all gunfire and running around and getting killed. It was a ball!"
Since then, Norris has been set on fire, thrown from motorcycles, and punched and kicked more times than he can count. He's been shot at, blown up, knocked down, thrown from cliffs, and tossed off buildings. But in recent years, his specialty has been crashing cars.
"You have to be athletic and have good control over your body, but you also have to have a good head on your shoulders," says Norris on the art of crashing a car, speaking from a film set in New Orleans. "You have to be able to think on the run because you need to be able to adjust if that car goes out of control."
While Norris obviously has connections in the business through his father, it was actually his uncle, Aaron Norris, the stunt coordinator on Invasion U.S.A., who gave him his first job. The stunt world is an insular universe, says Norris, and barring connections, the best approach is to simply walk on a set and introduce yourself to a stunt coordinator-then hope for an opportunity.
Talented stuntmen often get promoted to stunt coordinators, who oversee the rest of the stunt crew, or even second-unit directors, charged with filming entire scenes, such as shoot-outs or car chases. Norris has done both. Currently, he's often the stunt coordinator on the television show Prison Break. His recent stuntman credits include Rush Hour 3, The Great Debaters, Mission Impossible, The Good German, War of the Worlds, and Talladega Nights.
His box of tricks is impressive. For Universal Soldier, he did a "full burn," breathing out of an oxygen tank and donning a fireproof mask as flames engulfed him from head to toe. On Talladega Nights, he performed a "cannon," in which a two-foot-long segment of telephone pole is shot straight down into the asphalt from a cannon in the center of a car, causing the car to flip.
Of course, he's also had his share of close calls. While filming an episode of Walker, Texas Ranger several years ago, Norris was performing a stunt requiring him to drive up a "pipe ramp"-a pole set at an incline that causes the car to fly through the air. Upon impact, the car unexpectedly caught fire.
"I had a full fire-protection suit on, but I still got third-degree burns on my hand," Norris says. "That one got a little scary because they had to come in and get me out."
Another time, he had to deftly crash a motorcycle going 50 miles per hour, but mistimed his braking and was thrown violently to the ground.
So what makes Norris keep doing it?
"It's just the whole adrenaline rush you get," he says. "Just getting in there and doing a good job and the excitement. It's a lot of fun."Visit Portfolio.com for the latest business news and opinion, executive profiles and careers. Portfolio.com© 2007 Condé Nast Inc. All rights reserved.