Death Cheats the King of Movie Daredevils, Dar Robinson

UPDATED 12/15/1986 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 12/15/1986 at 01:00 AM EST

Late in the evening the man sat alone in the corner of a cocktail lounge, working intently with a pad and pencil. With his customary precision, master stuntman Dar Robinson, 39, was calculating the forces that would play on his body the next morning when he rammed a motorcycle into a highway guardrail at 45 mph. On location near Page, Ariz, to film this spectacular crash for Million Dollar Mystery, Robinson wanted to minimize his risks. As he checked and rechecked his figures, stuntwomen Diane Peterson and Dawn Grant stopped by and marveled at his slide-rule exactitude. "Never forget this," Robinson said, looking Grant in the eye. "It's the one little detail you overlook that'll get you."

The stunt last month worked beautifully. At the moment of collision Robinson hurtled off the bike and into a ravine, landing unhurt—out of the camera's view in an air bag. Everyone was pleased, except the stuntman who insisted on a second take so that he could "really fly over those two trees." Then, relaxed and confident after completing his most dangerous assignment for the film, Robinson mounted a motorcycle for a routine chase sequence. He roared past a roadside camera with two other stunt bikers in pursuit. But as he disappeared out of camera range around a mountain curve, Robinson fell victim to some overlooked detail that he was the first and perhaps the last person to recognize. While his colleagues cruised to a stop, the performer they called "King of the Stuntmen" lost control of his bike, plunged off a bluff and smashed into a gulley strewn with razor-edged boulders. He died of massive internal injuries before reaching the hospital.

It was an ironically mundane demise for Dar, whom many considered the world's greatest stuntman. "If you were to write a tragic ending to a career like Dar's," says Million Dollar Mystery producer Steven Kesten, "you'd have him go out on the wings of the most magnificent stunt ever attempted."

Even then, Hollywood would have been hard-pressed to come up with some daring feat that Robinson was incapable of pulling off. Holder of 21 stunt records, he once leapt off Toronto's CN Tower, the world's tallest freestanding structure, falling 900 feet before a wire cable fastened to his harness yanked taut. He once made a 311-foot-high fall from a helicopter onto a 24-by-28-foot air bag and rode a sports car out of a cargo plane at 12,000 feet. Commanding as much as $250,000 for his most hair-raising accomplishments, Robinson miraculously never broke a single bone in his 19 years of television and movie work. Among his greatest admirers was Burt Reynolds, who used him extensively in the crash-packed Sharky's Machine and Stick. "As far as high falls, Dar was the best in the business," says Reynolds. "And in terms of sheer courage, he had no peer."

A tumbling and gymnastics enthusiast as a young boy in Van Nuys, Calif., Robinson had an innate talent for derring-do. "Dar always knew where he was even when he was upside down," says his father, Jeff, a former trampoline dealer. "He was a natural, like a cat." Delivering a truckload of his father's rental gym equipment to a production studio one day, Robinson, then 20, landed a part in a commercial doing acrobatics in a giant milk bottle. His reputation grew when he did stunt work on Paint Your Wagon and doubled for Steve McQueen in a cliff jump for Papillon. Then, appearing on the 1977 NBC special Super Stunt 1, he stunned the stunt community with an amazing performance: He jumped from the wing of a prop plane in mid-flight and maneuvered in free-fall to climb aboard another plane that was diving alongside.

Though he had a cocky air in the face of his workplace dangers, Robinson was not immune from jitters. "Even the King got scared sometimes," says his best friend, Pat McGroaty, 34, a fellow stuntman. In fact, Robinson recently had been talking about making a career change. "He felt you can't push your luck too far," says Cathy Lee Crosby, who hosted Robinson's 1980 ABC-TV special, The World's Most Spectacular Stuntman. Adds Morgan Fairchild, a onetime girlfriend: "He was getting tired of the danger and wanted to get more involved in stunt coordinating."

Despite those reservations about his work, Robinson told his wife, Linda, 30, that he'd never been happier in his life. A former beauty queen, Linda is the mother of Robinson's son Landon, 18 months (he had two other sons from a previous marriage: Sean, 12, and Troy, 15). "We talked about the danger," Linda says. "But like everybody else, I thought Dar was indestructible."

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