The three balls of flame, beautiful and terrifying, roar up and out of the top floor of the three-story apartment building, rolling across the sky in a burst of angry crimson and orange. The blast lasts only a second, but it makes the people watching from the ground flinch. “Jesus,” someone gasps. Production assistants mutter into their headsets. Cast members of NBC’s Chicago Fire, waiting to be called for the next scene, just gape.
“All right,” a voice bellows through a bullhorn. “The next one is real.”
Above them all, in the apartment from which the blast emanated, an unruffled Rick LeFevour seems less concerned with their reaction than with the stuntman standing next to him, who is about to go flying through those flames and out a window on the next take. As the go-to stunt coordinator for Illinois’s $350-million-a-year TV and film industry and a top Hollywood stuntman for more than 35 years, LeFevour knows the importance of having your mind right before a “gag.” Especially if that stunt involves a trio of mortar-launched propane fireballs chasing you down a 40-foot drop.
To be precise, this particular scene calls for stuntman Kenny Richards to take a running start inside the apartment, smash through a breakaway window, and, just as the mortars explode behind him, lift his head and fling out his arms. Then, after all that, he needs to wrench his body around, middrop, so that when he hits the inflated bag below, he won’t land on his stomach and maybe crack a couple of ribs or, worse, do a header and break his neck.
If it were someone else coordinating the stunt, Richards might have his doubts. But this is Rick LeFevour, the guy who leaped off a five-story tower in place of Bill Murray in Groundhog Day; who, while doubling for Kurt Russell in Tango and Cash, jumped from a prison wall in the pitch-black, snaring a zipline on the way down; who nearly knocked himself out plummeting 80 feet into the Calumet River for the Chuck Norris flick Code of Silence; and who fell eight stories backward through a window on Lake Shore Drive for a movie called Through Naked Eyes. An expert stunt driver to this day, he was at the wheel in the second Fast and Furious installment; rolled a bus on Wabash in Wanted, skidding it for a block in a hail of sparks; flipped a grenade-struck police car on Lower Wacker in The Dark Knight; and squeezed a Brinks truck through a narrow passage of Fenway Park before tumbling it over in Ben Affleck’s The Town. But perhaps his most memorable onscreen moment, or at least the one most often cited in his presence, is from Risky Business, when, standing in for Tom Cruise, he clung to the hood of the Porsche that plunged into Belmont Harbor—a scene punctuated with the indelible line “Who’s the U-boat commander?”
And so, as LeFevour walks him through the choreography of what is about to happen, Richards simply nods and gets into position. Performing a final check before a crew installs the breakaway glass, LeFevour strides up to the near-floor-to-ceiling window opening and peers at the ground 60 feet below as casually as a mountain goat perched over a sheer rockface.
And then, moments later…
“Fire up!” squawks a voice on the bullhorn as propane-filled pipelines hiss to life, triggering curtains of flames all around. The crew below locks eyes on the window.
“Roll cameras!” says someone else.
“Here we go,” the voice intones.
A pause. And…
Today there’s no fire, no kabooms, no wild car chases, no falls from terrifying heights, no Batmobiles, no fake fights, no spark showers from skidding buses, no collapsing stairwells, no fire trucks T-boning one another in the shadow of the city’s skyscrapers. Not at the moment, anyway.
LeFevour leaves all those things in the rearview mirror when he heads home every night to Woodstock and the 1930s barn that the Chicago native and his wife, Gina, remodeled two decades ago. Still, he is a stuntman, and so amid the quiet setting—the snowy fields stubbled with snapped-off cornstalks, the lonely back roads that wind around his multiacre wooded property—there are a couple of ATVs parked in front, a tricked-out dune buggy with roll pipes in the garage, a stable of horses handy for a fast ride across the veld. “We try to have some fun out here,” LeFevour says with a grin—“we” meaning him and his wife and their two sons and daughter. (The children, now ages 17 to 22, have “all worked with me a little in the movies,” LeFevour says. One of his sons is even contemplating a career in stunt work. “I told him to play golf or tennis.” Chimes in Gina: “Didn’t work.”)
“We’re beating up Tom Cruise there,” LeFevour says, pointing to a photo on a wall just off the living room, before moving on to the next image. “I killed Maureen O’Hara with a shotgun in that one.”
And: “That was one of the tallest high falls I ever did. The water hit me and, like, punched me in the ribs, knocked the wind out of me. I felt like I’d been hit with a two-by-four.”
And: “There’s Chuck Norris punching me. Great guy.”
If you saw LeFevour at the supermarket, you’d probably think he was a dad with a honey-do list rather than a fire-jumping, tower-falling, car-crashing stuntman. At just under six feet tall, fighting the hard fight against middle-aged spread, he says that these days he’s often cast as an “ND”—a nondescript extra—sometimes with a line or two. “I was joking [with a cast member] the other day and told him, ‘If you see me in a movie, I’m probably about to die horribly.’ ” Indeed, you can catch a brief glimpse of LeFevour’s face in the squad car in The Dark Knight—just before the Joker unloads a grenade launcher on him.
Now in his 50s, LeFevour doesn’t do as much stunt work himself as he once did—not that he doesn’t still get calls. “I was asked to do Superman again this year,” he says, “and I turned down [the new] Terminator last year.” It’s not just age that has him pickier about jobs; LeFevour’s coordinator work on Chicago Fire the past three years has kept him too busy. The locally shot action drama, which was just renewed for its fourth season, probably does more stunts per episode than any TV drama ever has. And not just any stunts, but elaborate set pieces with big flames—some of the trickiest and most demanding scenes to pull off. “Until I did Chicago Fire, I was still doing a lot of big stunts myself,” LeFevour says. “But this is a busy show, and you’re knocking out so many a week. If I’m not on the set actually running things, I’m prepping the next one.”
“Because Rick comes out of feature films, he treats the stunts on this show like they’re for a $100 million movie,” says Sandy Bookstaver, the director of several Chicago Fire episodes, including the one with the third-story fireballs. “I’m talking total Die Hard shit. We’ve done a seven-story stairway collapsing. We’ve done guys hanging off roofs. Gutters collapsing with power lines about to hit them. Drive-by shooting scenes. They all feel big. They’re all feature quality. But Rick makes them happen in episodes that take nine or 10 days to shoot rather than nine months.”
So ambitious are the stunts that viewers likely assume they were done with some greenscreen trickery. But one of the show’s calling cards is its commitment to authenticity. “Rick does it right,” declares Steve Chikerotis (or Chick to everyone on the set), a former deputy district chief with the Chicago Fire Department and the man charged with keeping things authentic. Chick says this between takes of a complicated scene involving a “brain fire”—industry parlance for a wave of flame rolling across the ceiling in a pattern that looks like the folds of intracranial gray matter.
It’s LeFevour’s job to conceive of, design, and choreograph such stunts, then walk either a stunt professional or an actor through them step by step, keeping especially close watch on safety issues. Where once he was the man engulfed in flames, now he relies on a team of professionals who belong to Midwest Stunts, an organization he founded in 1981 to meet rising demand as the film industry started to explode in Chicago. The list of projects, many of them filmed locally, for which LeFevour has served as stunt coordinator reads like a Wrigleyville bro’s Netflix queue: The Dark Knight, the Superman reboot Man of Steel, the 2006 Sean Penn film All the King’s Men, the Starz series Boss, Showtime’s Shameless, and USA Network’s Sirens, among others. “He is the first guy you call if you’re shooting a stunt in this town,” says veteran character actor and Chicago native Christian Stolte, who plays fireman Randy “Mouch” McHolland on Chicago Fire.
On that show, where many in the cast are young, fit, and gung ho, LeFevour tries to use the actors for stunts as much as possible. “We’ve got some good athletes,” he says. Sometimes, though, “I’ve got to be the bad guy and say no. God forbid something happens, but with a stuntman, you can put someone else in. With an actor, the show shuts down for three months.”
When LeFevour does give the actors a green light, “he trains us very thoroughly,” says Charlie Barnett, who plays firefighter Peter Mills. “He’s got the one side of watching our butts and making sure everything is on point, but he also allows us to jump into stuff, which is fun as an actor.”
Fans may be starstruck by the cast (especially Taylor Kinney, a.k.a Mr. Gaga) but the actors, to a person, seem awed by LeFevour. “He drove the car in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” gushes Joe Minoso, who plays fireman Joe Cruz, referring to the scene where a parking attendant takes a priceless 1961 Ferrari 250 GT California Spyder airborne on a Chicago street. “That’s the story I tell everyone. How cool is that?”
But it’s when LeFevour gets back in front of the camera—of late as the primary stunt driver for Chicago Fire and its companion series, Chicago P.D.—that he earns the real “We’re not worthy” salaams. “When he’s wheeling through the city, just watching him terrifies me,” Minoso says. “When you see it on the screen, you say, ‘Holy shit.’ ”
In some respects, LeFevour’s career path was not an uncommon one for a stuntman: He started out working as a cowboy and rodeo rider. And like most men in those professions, he came from the West—only in his case, it was the West Side of Chicago. His family lived in the Austin neighborhood, then moved to neighboring Oak Park when he was a toddler.
“I grew up in the ’60s, when a lot of the TV shows were westerns,” LeFevour says. “So I had this thing for horses. Roy Rogers was my hero.” His five brothers provided a ready supply of cowboys and Indians, heroes and villains. But while they all liked to jump off the garage and shinny up trees, LeFevour recalls, he was “always the guy climbing—and falling out of—the highest tree.”
His mother, who died in 2010, was dubious of his profession but said in a 1992 Chicago Tribune interview that she couldn’t fight fate: “He had a rocking horse, and instead of rocking it, he bounced it off the floor. When he got a little older, you’d find him in the alley with boards set up with all sorts of Evel Knievel ramps. He was always the one that was the instigator of wild things.”
“Since he was old enough to talk, it was horses, it was action,” recalls older brother Terry, now a Chicago lawyer. “We were always getting stitched up, but Rick was the most risk-taking of all of us. So it didn’t surprise me that stuntman was his career choice.”
When LeFevour was in high school, a family friend would invite him to the Morton Grove stables where he kept a horse. “Instead of going to parties, I’d drive up there and ride with this guy,” LeFevour says. At 17, he participated in a 600-horse drive across South Dakota organized by Casey Tibbs, an old cowboy and rodeo performer who worked as a stuntman in the 1950s and ’60s. Three Hollywood crews tagged along to get footage for westerns they were shooting. “So I got to be an extra for the first time,” says LeFevour.
He impressed Tibbs enough on the 80-mile journey that the veteran stuntman offered LeFevour a chance to ride in a rodeo and Wild West show at a theme park in Japan. “I really wasn’t thinking about college yet—I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do—so I was like, Yeah, I’m going.” LeFevour soon found himself sprawled across the floor in saloon brawls and being shot off the roof of Old West buildings at high noon. “We’d do wagon wrecks and fights,” he recalls. “A lot of it we were learning by experimenting.”
Which is how he learned to do a high fall. The theme park’s crew “would dig a pit in the street about five feet deep, fill it with futons, then cover it with straw. We’d disappear through it when we fell in,” LeFevour recalls. “When the stunt was over, the guys would come running over to see if you were out cold. We just thought that’s the way you did it.” (Later, while LeFevour was doing stair falls for one of his first gigs stateside, the other stuntmen gave him quizzical looks. “They were like, ‘Don’t you have any pads?’ I said, ‘You guys get to wear pads?’ ”)
He moved back to Chicago for a while, doing stunt jobs here and there, before heading out to California. His first Hollywood film wasn’t exactly a blockbuster: Chesty Anderson, U.S. Navy, an R-rated 1976 comedy that was just a step up from softcore porn. LeFevour chuckles while recounting how he got the work: “My dad knew a guy in Hollywood who was making movies. I talked to him, and he goes, ‘I’m living in Beverly Hills. Why don’t you come stay with me.’ He was living with the girl who plays Chesty, in Neil Diamond’s old house. I’m sleeping on the couch. There’s a pool. She’s running around being chesty. I thought I’d finally made it big.”
LeFevour’s family members were less than impressed when they saw a screening of the film in Chicago. “It had car chases and fights, but also girls running around with their boobs out,” LeFevour says. “My grandmother slapped me on the back of the head. My mom was giving me the stink eye. My other grandmother kept asking, ‘Where are the horses?’ ”
LeFevour moved to Colorado to study business at Regis University. But after he graduated in 1980 with a communications degree, he decided he wasn’t cut out for life behind a desk. He would go “full tilt,” as he puts it, in pursuit of a stunt career.
After a few more films, including 1980’s The Blues Brothers, he returned to Chicago for good in 1982. “All these movies started coming here, and I was like, I’m going to stay for a while.”
Using Chicago as his base, he got steady work in the city and around the world. His growing reputation landed him in several John Hughes films: Sixteen Candles, Ferris Bueller, and Home Alone. Among other credits, he appeared in The Color of Money (in which he doubled for Tom Cruise), Backdraft (in which, as a stand-in for Billy Baldwin, he “saved” a mannequin from a burning building), The Fugitive (in which, in place of Tommy Lee Jones, he chased Harrison Ford through drainage tunnels), and Rudy (in which he flew through the air engulfed in flames from a deadly steel mill explosion).
In those days, “fall guys” lived by the stuntman’s code: No matter how many stars you stand in for, no matter how much time you get in front of the camera, you never draw attention to yourself. “We didn’t talk about what we did,” LeFevour says. “You were either a stuntman or an actor, and if you were a stuntman, you stayed in your trailer until they needed you.”
Generally, he kept his distance from the stars. But he did bond with a few, including John Candy, whom he worked with in Planes, Trains and Automobiles. “He had what was, at the time, a state-of-the-art hockey game that played our national anthem and the Canadian national anthem,” LeFevour recalls. “We had to stand up and salute with him. Then we’d drink Labatt beer and play hockey in his room until the early hours of the morning. We’d be like, ‘Hey, John, we gotta work tomorrow.’ He’d be like, ‘Naaah! Where ya goin’?’ ”
For the most part, LeFevour has avoided serious injury. He’s broken his collarbone twice, but otherwise his war wounds have been limited to “a lot of black-and-blue marks and sore parts,” injuries known as “thumpers.” He’s had his share of close calls, though.
For Steal Big Steal Little, a 1995 caper starring Andy Garcia, LeFevour had to dangle from a hot air balloon by a rope until he was low enough to jump onto the back of a horse. “When I was descending, the balloon went totally sideways and I went flying all over the place,” he recalls. “We probably flew for another mile, mile and a half, with, like, 30, 40 guys on horses trying to get under me.” Eventually, the balloon outran the horsemen as it headed rapidly for the ground. “I come in bouncing”—and here LeFevour lets out a cartoonish brake-screech noise—“and we crash in this hay field. That one got my attention.”
So did a stunt he performed for Tango and Cash. For that one, he had to run off the top of an 80-foot building at full speed, snare a cable on his way down, and slide 300 feet over a prison wall. Through a driving rain. At night. Then fall perfectly onto an airbag. “The director is telling me all this, and I’m just nodding. I go back to the hotel, and I’m like, Oh man, am I really going to do this?” On the first take, he nearly clotheslined himself on the cable and went plummeting onto the bag. On the final take, he grabbed the cable, zipped across, and, just as he passed over one of the two big airbags, pushed a release button. “When I landed, I kind of did a header.” He nearly slipped off the rain-slick bag, his feet protruding from the end. “The director freaked out a little,” he recalls. LeFevour just shrugged; he had gotten the stunt done.
On a specially rigged, fire-resistant set tucked inside one of Cinespace Chicago Film Studios’ two jet-hangar-size buildings in South Lawndale, LeFevour, in a firefighter’s jacket, stalks a smoke-filled apartment. He’s running through the details of another complicated stunt for Chicago Fire.
The script calls for the firefighter Otis, played by Yuri Sardarov, to get trapped in a fully engulfed room and then toppled by a fireball blast. In rehearsal after rehearsal, Sardarov, in full gear, lugs a hose along a hallway, enters the room, and feigns getting blown back by a huge explosion—virtually every step coordinated and supervised by LeFevour. One advantage of a fire department drama, LeFevour tells me in between takes, is that the actors are already in protective firefighting turnouts—boots, jackets, helmets, and respirators.
To achieve authentic-looking smoke without choking the actors, the effects department uses something called “white smoke,” a vegetable-based nontoxic variant of the real thing. (In the old days, LeFevour says, “we used to burn tires.”) Propane jets planted around the room fuel the fire. Immediately after each take, a special crew piles in, blasting the various spots with fire extinguishers. Sardarov, drenched with sweat and exhausted, kneels in his gear, waiting to go again.
This continues for some 10 hours, the work interrupted only for a quick dinner and, later, some pizza. Near the end, an assistant supplies LeFevour with a couple of Advil in a little cup, which he gulps down before returning to a consultation with one of his stuntmen. “Long day,” he says.
When the episode airs, the scene will take up a grand total of three minutes. It will also be the most memorable three minutes of the episode.
The star stunt of the past several weeks, however—one of the biggest ever attempted by Chicago Fire, in fact—is the window-leaping, triple-fireball-exploding high fall.
On “Action!”—just as LeFevour had directed him—Richards crashes through the breakaway window at a full sprint. As he does, a member of the special effects crew, having been briefed by LeFevour on timing, clicks the button to ignite the mortars.
The three fireballs explode at exactly the right moment, framing Richards for a split second before he plunges, executing a perfect roll midair and hitting the airbag on his back. The crew, the cast, and the director applaud—a rarity on set—and shake their heads.
“You set that up perfect,” Richards says as LeFevour greets him near the bag. LeFevour simply smiles.
A couple of weeks later in Woodstock, LeFevour cops to a wistful moment as he was lining up the stunt. “I was looking out the window, thinking, This is a nice one. I used to do a lot like that. It was right in my wheelhouse.” For a second, he says, he even thought of jumping. “I wanted to so bad, but then I thought, Nah. I’d probably get in trouble.”
Besides, there was too much to do. After the stunt, LeFevour was already at work on the next one, showing Richards how to dive off a ladder onto a snow-crusted patch of ground without busting his collarbone. LeFevour pantomimed the correct move, pulling his right shoulder in, releasing it, ducking into a slight crouch. With Richards mimicking his move, the two looked for a moment as if they were dancing.
On his second dive of the day, Richards skidded perfectly on his shoulder. There was no applause for this one. Just a thumbs-up from Richards. And that was plenty for LeFevour.