By Michael Ireland, Senior Correspondent, ASSIST News Service firstname.lastname@example.org
STUDIO CITY, CA (ANS – Feb. 10, 2015) -- As the quiet figure of Bob Yerkes quietly slipped into the recent Hollywood Prayer Network glittering HOLLYWOOD HONORS 2015 event, where he was to be one of those honored, along with others like Pat Boone, Gavin MacLeod and Rosey Grier, you would never have guessed that this man had been defying death with his extraordinary stunts for about 68 years.
So ANS founder, Dan Wooding, who was there to cover the gathering at the CBS TV studios in Studio City, California, managed to grab him for an interview and asked him first of all how his name is pronounced. He laughed and said, “Yerkes; it rhymes with circus!”
Born Brayton Walter Yerkes on February 11, 1932, this legendary American stuntman began a life of acrobatics in the circus as a teenager and went on to work as a stuntman in such films as “Back to the Future,” “Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi,” and “Hook.”
Yerkes said, “I started tumbling down at the Santa Monica Muscle Beach, which they now call Venice Muscle Beach, when I was eleven, and then I ran away and joined the Clyde Beatty Circus at fifteen and joined an acrobatic act.”
He actually got started in the circus at the end of 1946. Born and raised in Santa Monica and also Culver City, Yerkes remembers being at Palms Grammar School around the 4th grade with Robert Blake; and then went to Hamilton halfway through the 9th grade, “and that’s as far as I got. That’s when I ran off decided to use my body for a living instead of my mind.”
Yerkes doubled for Arnold Schwarzenegger one time in a movie called “Commando” – “just one stunt, winging through the air and landing on an elevator that was going down.”
He also starred in “Back to the Future” doubling for Christopher Lloyd in the scene where Lloyd’s character is up on the clock sliding to the ground. “And then they used that in ‘Back to The Future 2 and 3.’ Then I was in the disaster film earthquake ‘Towering Inferno’ -- all these different disaster films. I was in so many thousands of films, that I can’t remember them all!”
Yerkes told Wooding that while stunt-doubling, he’d been “knocked out many times and broke my legs three times. In fact the first time I broke my legs was in France. The name of the movie was ‘Breakout’ with Charles Bronson. We were getting ready for the stunt and the guy says ‘break a leg,’ and I broke them both!”
Then, while in Canada, Yerkes got a concussion when scaffolding fell over and hit him in the head. “As a result, I have a terrible time with my memory, but I’m getting better. It used to be when I would talk I wouldn’t be able to finish a sentence. But now it’s a good excuse for my senior moments.”
Yerkes will celebrate his 83rd birthday on February 11 – and he’s still doing stunt work. “In fact, stuntmen say ‘if it’s dangerous, give it to Yerkes. He’s dispensable.’”
He recalled that his last role took three and a half months “playing a Cardinal, they hung me up and set me on fire in ‘Angels and Demons’ with Tom Hanks.”
Yerkes was asked about his faith in Christ. “My mother and dad never mentioned God, but then when I was with Ringling Brothers -- I think it was ’56,’57, I remember reading the Bible and I told myself, ‘I’ll read it and list all the contradictions.’ I really didn’t know anything about it. It took me a year and 4 months to finish it and when I had finished it, I said, ‘This couldn’t have been written by men unless they were God-inspired.
“So since then I read it, never belonged to any particular church, because I’m always traveling. And then, I remember I came and played in Hollywood and I had a little group on the Ringling show and we’d read the Bible together and we worked here. Jimmie Dodd, from the Mouseketeers, was in a group and he spoke to my people. So then I started calling my group ‘The King’s Ring.’ Then, I helped with a lot of different ministries and the Jesus People when they started that back in the ‘60s.
“I’ve been to a lot of different ministries and have been helping them get going, but the entertainment business is where I felt most like reaching people.”
About receiving an award at the HOLLYWOOD HONORS 2015 event, Yerkes said with a huge smile on his face: “It just swells my head up and I pop out the few hairs I have left! It’s nice, but the one I want to give the glory to is Jesus. I’ve got to say, ‘He’s the greatest stuntman there ever was -- He stood in for everybody. He specialized in ‘high work’ up on a cross.”
He added, “That was my specialty too -- high work. Trapeze and stuff like that. I won the ‘Best High Word Award’ in in 1985 in New York on the Statue of Liberty. I doubled Fred Ward in a movie called ‘Remo Williams.’ They had scaffolding around it -- they were refurbishing it -- and I whipped around 300 and some feet.
“Doing the acrobatic act, I used to work the old Madison Square Garden with Ringling Brothers. I also worked in the Catskills all the time. So it’s been an interesting life.”
Yerkes said he’s never really written much about his life -- “I only got halfway through the 9th grade -- besides I’m trying to get everybody to read that other Book!”
However, he discovered on a visit to the Museum of Transportation, while working in England, that in 1895 his great grand-father Charles Tyson Yerkes took $20,000,000 over there and formed the Underground Group and built the Tube system in London. “And what I (also) didn’t know, before that he’d built the Chicago elevated trains too.
“So I’m glad I didn’t get any of the money -- then I’d have had a love for money and wouldn’t be able to do summersaults. Although my summersaults are getting lower and lower now…”
Photo one: Dan Wooding interviews Bob Yerkes
Photo two:Bob Yerkes (left) with the Flying Alexanders