When Dan Koko Was Offered a Cool Million to Set a World Stunt Record, He Really Fell for It

UPDATED 09/17/1984 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 09/17/1984 at 01:00 AM EDT

The man's got to be a nut," said one bystander in a crowd of several hundred milling around outside the Vegas World Hotel in 106° heat last week. "I wouldn't do it for love or money," said another, as the Las Vegas fire department cordoned them off and an ambulance pulled ominously into view.

Suddenly the noise hushed. Twenty-five stories up, Dan Koko, a 30-year-old part-Cherokee stuntman, appeared on the roof. Clad in tennis shoes and a brilliant blue jumpsuit with a multicolored eagle embroidered on the back, he climbed higher, up a 90-foot scaffolding to a tiny platform 326 feet above the ground. As the loudspeakers below blasted Van Halen's song Jump, Koko crouched, muttered an Indian blessing his grandfather had taught him and threw himself spread-eagled into space. "My last thought," he said later, "was 'it sure looks a long way down.' "

Four seconds later, after plummeting at a speed of 98 mph, Koko landed unhurt on his back on a 22-foot-high, 2,000-pound custom-made air bag. With his leap, he became the new holder of the world "high fall" record, bettering the 311-foot dive set by fellow stuntman Dar Robinson, who jumped from a helicopter into an air bag in Buena Park, Calif. in 1978. Another stuntman died trying to break that record the same year. (The Guinness Book of World Records no longer publishes high fall figures because so many deaths have occurred.)

After the fall, Koko smiled and gulped down a glass of water as his two brothers and crew whisked him into a 1967 Rolls-Royce for a ride around the building to the lavish hotel's entrance. Inside, $1 million in cash awaited him—the highest prize ever paid for a high fall. That was the amount guaranteed by the hotel's flamboyant owner, Bob Stupak. "Koko walked in here, offered me the deal and I took it," says Stupak, a high roller. "I make fast deals. There's no board of directors here. I own the place. A million is no big thing anyhow when you consider most of it would have gone to Uncle Sam."

Koko had previously gained notoriety for himself and Stupak's hotel on May 19, when he set the world "fire fall" record by leaping off the roof (only 250 feet that time) in a blazing, flame-resistant suit. "All the preparations are done carefully," Koko said. "I never like to gamble. Once I lost $20 and it made me furious."

For last week's leap, the veteran stuntman again took every precaution. His air bag, which cost $45,000, was designed by John Scurlock, a former engineering professor, and came equipped with two giant fans. "With those fans blowing air in there at 300 mph, it's going to hold its shape no matter how big a tear it may get," Koko said. Nonetheless, he tested it by jumping out of the hotel from the 11th and 18th floors. "He's not a Hollywood daredevil," says Scurlock. "He's a professional stuntman, one of the best."

Koko sort of fell into stuntwork accidentally. The son of an Italian father and a Cherokee mother, he grew up in Cherokee, N.C., where his father, a construction worker, taught the Indians how to build their own houses. When his dad moved the family to Hay-ward, Calif., Dan took up track, setting a state record in the 120-yard high hurdles while in high school. He also won 32 medals in track meets throughout the U.S. between 1972 and 1974. After high school Koko got a job designing glass bottles while attending night school to learn how to operate precision tools and draw blueprints; later he got an associated arts degree from Chabot College. One day during those years of struggle, a friend offered him a job in a low-budget film. All he had to do was crash a car. "I was working all week to make $500 and there I made it in one day," he recalls. "I went straight to the Screen Actors Guild and got my union card." Koko excelled, and went on to work in 1941, Hooper, and a variety of TV shows.

He plans to donate part of his $1 million to the Motion Picture Association for American Indians, which he founded last year with his girlfriend, actress Terri Crane, 36, who is part Choctaw. "They're bringing people into this country to work in films when we still have American Indians living on reservations who could be trained as electricians, lighting directors and cinematographers," explains Koko, who took a year off to raise money for the Indian community in 1983.

But jumping remains his work, and Koko had scarcely been on the ground a few hours when he was thinking about new heights—this time the 630-foot-tall St. Louis Gateway Arch. Doesn't he ever get scared? "If I don't have more than a 50-50 chance, I don't want to do it," Koko says, as though those were enviable odds. "The hardest part is getting ready mentally. It's not a natural thing, letting go and diving into air."

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