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STILL HAPPY AS FALL GUY; NORTHRIDGE MAN, 66, MARKS 50 YEARS DOING STUNT WORK.

Byline: Deborah Sullivan Daily News Staff Writer

After 66 years, Bob Yerkes' knees creak a little when he bends and stretches.

He's a tad stiffer than he used to be when he catapults into a back flip from a swing in his Northridge back yard or gyrates in the air over a trampoline.

Yet despite the tolls of age, this is a man who still can vault from a seven-story window (in a bra and dress, no less) and land safely on an air bag below. And he's not even close to retiring.

``If I get hurt so bad I can't do it, I might,'' he said. ``But once I retire, I'll just fall apart. So I just plan on keeping going.''

With more than half a century of circus and movie acrobatics under his belt, Yerkes is one of Hollywood's oldest working stuntmen, and still executes maneuvers most 20-year-olds would never attempt.

``His reputation is very, very good, he's in very, very excellent shape,'' said Loren Janes, co-founder of the Stuntman's Association of Motion Picture and Television, who rates Yerkes among the top 30 or 40 stuntmen in the business. ``Whatever he says he can do, he can do.''

While Yerkes' wispy white hair and lined face set him apart from his young colleagues, his compact, muscular, Jack LaLanne-like physique is just as fit as theirs.

Not afraid of heights

In September, Yerkes plunged seven stories in a Burt Reynolds cable movie called ``Hostage Hotel,'' torquing his body sideways to reach an air bag located not directly below, but off to the side. And he performed that feat dressed as a woman.

``I thought I was doubling Charles Durning, then they brought out a bra and a dress,'' he said, laughing.

He has swung across the Sherman Oaks Galleria for Arnold Schwarzenegger in ``Commando,'' slid down a rope for Christopher Lloyd in ``Back to the Future'' and even doubled for fellow stuntman Super Dave Osborne.

Through the years he has fallen, fought or jumped for other stars in movies including the ``Batman'' series, ``Return of the Jedi,'' ``Who Framed Roger Rabbit,'' ``Weird Science,'' ``Poltergeist'' and ``Ghostbusters,'' to name a few out of dozens.

In 1986, he received the Best Highwork Award for swinging by one hand from the Statue of Liberty in the movie ``Remo Williams.''

His TV credentials include ``Chicago Hope,'' ``Northern Exposure,'' ``Moonlighting,'' ``Murder, She Wrote,'' ``Dukes of Hazzard,'' ``Wonder Woman,'' ``Starsky and Hutch,'' ``Gilligan's Island'' and ``McGyver.''

A circus child

Born in Santa Monica and raised in Culver City, Yerkes (rhymes with circus) learned acrobatics by tumbling at Muscle Beach in Venice when he was 11. Four years later, his parents divorced, and he ran away to join the Clyde Beatty circus.

``The circus was a close family,'' he said. ``It used to be that town folks didn't want their kids hanging around circus folks. Now circus folks don't want their kids hanging around town folks. It's about the last family entertainment that doesn't need a censor.''

In between circus seasons he did stunts in Hollywood. During on-set discussions he discovered that he differed with some of his liberal colleagues. He became active in Republican politics and in Christian groups, including one that airlifts persecuted Russian Jews to Israel.

``Anti-Semitism is popping up everywhere,'' he said. ``And during the second World War the Christians weren't outspoken enough, so we're not going to make the same mistake again.''

Thirty years ago, he gave up the circus life for a steady stream of stunt work, settling in Northridge in a home he filled with swords, showgirl costumes, carousel horses and glossy shots of himself with Hollywood stars and starlets. He was married for 25 years and had two sons. One died in the Vietnam War, and the other is now a screenwriter.

A stunt mentor

In his back yard, Yerkes possesses a full array of circus gear - a trampoline, a trapeze, air bags, tumbling mats and a Russian swing, which is a device used to catapult performers skyward.

There he has trained and nurtured dozens of young men and women who followed in his footsteps, and has asked nothing in return.

``I used to come here 20 years ago,'' said Steve Lambert, 43, of Northridge. ``There's been a lot of generations that came here to practice and perfect our art. He's a very important person to a lot of people - action people.''

Norbert Phillips, 30, of Encino, who trained with Yerkes at Disney-MGM Studios in Florida, recalled their first meeting.

``I saw this little old man with polio crutches,'' he said, but didn't realize they were stunt props.

When he discovered Yerkes was the trainer, he said, ``I thought, My God, this is what I have to look forward to!''

But watching Yerkes nimbly navigate his backyard circus rigs on a recent weekend, Phillips said: ``Bob is probably the most incredible stunt guy I know.''

Leigh Hennessy, a Silver Lake stuntwoman and trampoline champion, said Yerkes is a role model in longevity.

``I'm not concerned that at 50 I won't be able to do that anymore, because he's still doing it at close to 70,'' she said.

Janes, of the stuntman's association, said Yerkes has survived by being a professional - not a daredevil - carefully planning and executing each dangerous feat.

``People ask, Did Bobby retire?'' Phillips said. ``I say, No, he just did a 70-foot fall the other day.''

CAPTION(S):

2 photos

PHOTO (1) Bob Yerkes of Northridge has set up his back yard to provide stunt training.

(2) Yerkes, who got his start in a circus, is launched into the air while practicing jumps.

Tina Gerson/Daily News
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Copyright 1998, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Nov 5, 1998
Words:942
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