Jeannie Epper, trailblazing Hollywood stuntwoman, dies at 83

Jeannie Epper, a pioneering stuntwoman who performed in more than 100 films and television series, has died. She was 83.

Epper died Sunday night of natural causes surrounded by family at her home in Simi Valley, a spokesperson confirmed Monday.

In a long career spent bursting through doors, kicking down walls and falling off roofs, Epper changed the course for women in the industry when she became Lynda Carter’s stunt double on the 1970s TV series “Wonder Woman.” It was Epper, standing in for Kathleen Turner, who was swept down a mudslide in “Romancing the Stone” — for which she received a 1985 Stuntman Award for most spectacular stunt in a feature film.

In a blond wig, Epper took the blows for Linda Evans in those iconic catfights with Joan Collins on the nighttime soap “Dynasty.” It’s Epper’s stunt-driving that audiences see when Shirley MacLaine throws Jack Nicholson from her Corvette in the movie “Terms of Endearment.”

Epper’s prolific credits include stunt work in “The Bionic Woman,” “Charlie’s Angels,” “Robocop,” “The Italian Job” and “Kill Bill: Vol. 2.” Epper was profiled alongside fellow stuntwoman Zöe Bell in the 2004 documentary “Double Dare.”

She has been called the “godmother of stuntwomen” and “the grand matron of Hollywood stuntwomen,” working well past retirement age. At age 74, she performed stunts in the 2015 comedy “Hot Pursuit,” starring Sofia Vergara and Reese Witherspoon.

“She certainly qualifies to be one of the greatest stunt coordinators,” said director Steven Spielberg, who worked with Epper on “Catch Me if You Can” and “Minority Report.”

She was born Jean Luann Epper in 1941 to John and Frances Epper, both professional stunt performers. In the 1920s, Epper’s father immigrated to the United States from Switzerland and established a riding academy in Los Angeles where he later became a stuntman for movies, specializing in horseback stunts and doubling for actors including Ronald Reagan and Gary Cooper.

Jeannie Epper grew up in North Hollywood with five brothers and sisters — all of whom worked as stunt people. Her three children and grandchildren also went into the family business.

Epper was a skilled rider, and at age 9, she broke into stunt work, riding a horse bareback down a mountain for a 1950s TV show, becoming one of the first professional child stunt doubles.

“My father said it could be dangerous, but he knew I was an excellent rider,” she told The Times in 1999. “He kept telling me to keep my head up, but that’s about all. I think he didn’t want to over-concern me. There’s a fine line between being concerned and destroying someone’s confidence.”

The series marked the start of Epper’s game-changing career in the male-dominated industry.

Although Epper came from a family of stunt people, it was typical when she began working for men to wear wigs while doing stunts for female actors. But thanks to persistence and shifts in attitudes and fashion, Epper changed the business.

“Actresses began saying, ‘I don’t want a hairy-legged guy doing this for me,’” she told The Times in 1999. “And women were wearing less and less clothes in front of the camera, and it was so obvious it was a man.”

Later, as a stunt coordinator, Epper recalled dealing with men who resented taking orders from a woman.

While working on the 1980s police series “Cagney & Lacey,” she described a guest actor who not only couldn’t throw a convincing punch but also refused to be instructed by a woman, allowing only other stuntmen on set to show him what to do.

“He threw the punch well enough to shoot the scene,” she said. “But he still couldn’t throw it like a man.”

In 2019, on the occasion of being honored at the Artemis Women in Action Film Festival, Melanie Wise — a producer, actor, stuntwoman and founder of the organization — said of Epper, “Jeannie inspired a wave of women to get into stunts. They are in awe of her.”

Epper was a founding member of the Stuntwomen’s Assn. of Motion Pictures and an honorary member of the Stuntmen’s Assn. of Motion Pictures.

She is survived by husband Tim Kimack, daughter Eurlyne Epper, son Richard Epper, five grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. She was preceded in death by son Kurtis Epper, who was also a stunt performer.

Times staff writer Nardine Saad contributed to this report.

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