Once Upon a Time There Was a Movie Called “The Gypsy Moths”

In 1964, I launched my magazine, DZ-USA, to promote the sport and contribute something other than doomsday predictions at a time when the man on the street viewed a parachutist as a daredevil looking for a place to die. In that same year, I was invited to appear on “The Joey Bishop Show” in Hollywood to represent the sport. There, I met John Frankenheimer, who was promoting his move “Grand Prix,” and Lyle Cameron, who produced Skydiver magazine. John was very interested in what Lyle and I had to say about the sport. He stated that he’d always wanted to make a movie about it and would contact us if a future project came up.

Four years later, John agreed to direct the MGM film “The Gypsy Moths,” with a screenplay by William Hanley based on a story by James Drought. John called me to see if I could help get the project off the ground. The media coverage of parachuting was sensational at the time, and there was even talk of banning the sport in the United States. The film would promote the sport at a time when it really needed favorable exposure.

I suggested that John contact Carl Boenish, who had a growing reputation for filming formations at sport parachute clubs. Carl jumped at the chance of being a photographer on a real movie set. Jumpers Russ Benefiel, Bill Ledbetter, Mike Milts, Jerry Rouillard, Garth Taggart and Dave Thompson also signed on, paying their dues and joining the Screen Actors Guild.

The movie, which filmed in Benton, Wichita and 10 other locations in Kansas, starred Burt Lancaster, Gene Hackman, Deborah Kerr and Sheree North. The stunt jumpers, along with photographers Boenish and Jay Gifford, made more than 1,300 jumps during filming. The only injury occurred when Thompson broke his collar bone during a landing. For close-ups of exits, MGM purchased or leased a Jet Ranger helicopter which could keep up with the Howard aircraft. Although the helicopter never appears in the final film, there would have been no movie without it. Also interesting is that the plane that appears on film was actually two planes. They were identical (down to the scratches in the paint), and even had the same registration numbers, a highly unusual situation that the Federal Aviation Administration needed to approve and will probably never happen again.

One of my jobs was to find a source to provide smoke canisters that attached to the jumpers’ boots. My friend, Jim Garrison, flew in the canisters three times a week with his Cessna 185. It was also my idea to have each parachute packed with a bag of flour to accent the openings.

Boenish, Gifford, Milts and Benefiel roughed out most of the stunts at Elsinore, California, prior to performing them in Kansas. At first, Boenish was in charge of all aspects of the skydiving scenes, but Frankenheimer eventually put Milts and Rouillard in charge of the overall organization and re-assigned Boenish to handle the freefall photography. A high point in the aerial footage was Benefiel making six cutaways on the same jump. It took Tony Fugit and I two hours just to pack the chutes (and to make sure he couldn’t jettison the last one). In another scene, Taggart opened four chutes around him and landed in a barnyard under all of them. Milts and Rouillard also did a routine to make it appear they had fallen out of the airplane without a parachute.

They removed their jackets in freefall to release the thinly packed conical parachutes they had hidden underneath. Rigger Jerry Helms made the batwings associated so closely with the movie. They slowed the jumpers’ fall rates from about 120 mph to just over 100 mph and were the first batwings used in freefall since they had been banned in the 1930s.

Those involved with the production were very interested in getting the details right. Frankenheimer took two flights in the skydiving plane so he could experience what the jumpers did. And Lancaster, who insisted on everything being authentic, asked Rouillard to show him how to pack a parachute.

I stayed in touch with Frankenheimer until he died of a heart attack in 2000. Some of his last conversations with me were about the movie and how proud he was of it. However, he was sorry that it was not more successful, which he attributed to the lack of a promotional budget. He also regretted killing off Lancaster, the star, 20 minutes before the end of the movie. He thought the movie suffered because of the ending.

I hope you get your hands on the movie; it’s the best thing this side of stepping out the door. In 1968, sport parachuting needed what John Frankenheimer put on film. Come to think of it, are we out of the woods yet?

Gene Hunnell  |  C-2982 | Corpus Christi, Texas

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