Ernie Orsatti, Stuntman Who Took Quite the Fall in 'The Poseidon Adventure,' Dies at 80

Courtesy Noon Orsatti

Ernie Orsatti

He famously dropped more than 30 feet through a skylight in the 1972 disaster film.

Ernie F. Orsatti, a veteran stuntman and stunt coordinator who got his start by taking a stupendous fall through a glass skylight in the 1972 disaster movie The Poseidon Adventure, has died. He was 80.

Nicknamed "The Legend," Orsatti died Sept. 12 in La Quinta, California, after suffering a hemorrhagic stroke, his son, Noon Orsatti, a stuntman and stunt coordinator just like his father, told The Hollywood Reporter.

Their family has a rich history in Hollywood.

A son of a player with baseball's famed "Gashouse Gang" — the St. Louis Cardinals of the 1930s — Ernie Orsatti portrayed Terry, the boyfriend of Pamela Sue Martin's character, in The Poseidon Adventure, produced by "Master of Disaster" Irwin Allen and directed by Ronald Neame.

On the day before the stunt was scheduled, Orsatti was informed that Allen "wanted him to do the fall. The actor replied, "'I'm not a stuntman. You want me to do that fall?'" he recalled in the 2006 video short The Poseidon Adventure: Falling Up With Ernie.

The stunt called for someone to cling to the edge of an upside-down table, let go and plunge 32 feet to land on his back onto a skylight in the doomed ocean liner's inverted ballroom. After some apprehension, Orsatti agreed to do it.

Stunt coordinator Paul Stader told him, "'Do not lean your head back, you'll break your neck. Pick a point, look at it and let go,'" he remembered. "I picked my feet up into what you call an 'L' so I would be falling straight away from the camera with my hands out — and then it knocked me colder than a cucumber."

They got the shot in one take. "They wanted me to register terror, and they surely must have gotten it," he once said. "I was scared to death.

"The actors who were off that day, like Gene Hackman and Ernie Borgnine, showed up with their families to watch the shooting. I asked Gene what he was doing here and he smiled and said, 'We've all come to watch you die.' He took pictures and everything."

He became a familiar face at annual gatherings of Poseidon Adventure fans.

Ernest Frank Orsatti was born in Beverly Hills on Feb. 13, 1940. His mother, Inez Gorman, was a noted opera singer. His father, Ernie Ralph Orsatti, doubled for Buster Keaton in Sherlock Jr. (1924) and was a speedy outfielder and first baseman for the Cardinals from 1927-35. (The team won the World Series in 1931 and '34.)

An uncle, Victor Orsatti, was a Hollywood talent agent who represented the likes of Judy Garland, Betty Grable, Sonja Henie, Edward G. Robinson and Frank Capra, and a brother, Frank Orsatti, was a top-notch stuntman who served as Arnold Schwarzenegger's double in The Terminator (1984) and stood in for Burt Reynolds for many years.

Ernie F. Orsatti was a model for Foster Grant sunglasses and an excellent swimmer who trained under Johnny Weissmuller and thought about competing in the Olympics. In 1968, he appeared in the low-budget LSD film The Acid Eaters and as a soldier in The Green Berets, starring John Wayne.

He also had small roles in other action movies like The Mechanic (1972), The Last American Hero (1973), Allen's The Towering Inferno (1974) — as a firefighter in the glass-elevator rescue scene — and Viva Knievel! (1977) and on such TV shows as Mannix and The Incredible Hulk.

But after his tumble in The Poseidon Adventure, he mostly made his money in stunts. He got thrown through a window in the pilot for Hill Street Blues in 1981 and worked in scores of films and TV shows, including three Death Wish movies, I'm Gonna Git You Sucka (1988), Hot Shots! (1991), Alien: Resurrection (1997), American History X (1998), NYPD Blue, Charmed, The Practice, The Closer and Big Love.

Orsatti did many films with Noon, who has credits ranging from Back to School (1986) and Beetlejuice (1988) to John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017), Black Panther (2018) and Avengers: Endgame (2019).

Survivors also include his wife of 46 years, Lynda; grandson Rowbie, also a stunt performer; granddaughter Allie; great-granddaughters Raya and Mira; and a half-brother, Rex Pierson, a stuntman, too.

Rhett Bartlett contributed to this report.