Frank Henson, 'Return of the Jedi' and 'Temple of Doom' Stuntman, Dies at 83

Frank Henson - Obit- Publicity -H 2019
Courtesy of Jon Auty

He worked with Harrison Ford on both films and on six James Bond movies during his six-decade career.

Frank Henson, the British stuntman who fought Harrison Ford in the climatic broken-bridge sequence in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and grappled with Mark Hamill aboard a speeder bike in Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, has died. He was 83.

Henson died Thursday following a short illness in a hospital in Sussex, England, stunt historian Jon Auty told The Hollywood Reporter. His wife and son were by his side.

"He had a simple lesson in life: If someone is good to you, you should be good to them in return," Auty said. "I will miss the times we had discussing his life and remembering the good times. Also, when he laughed, the room lit up. That's a gift."

In a career that spanned six decades, Henson worked on such James Bond films as the spy spoof Casino Royale — doubling the female assassin driving a Jaguar — and Sean Connery's You Only Live Twice, both released in 1967; 1983's Never Say Never Again and Octopussy (in the latter as a clown in the circus sequence in which Roger Moore has to defuse a nuclear bomb); A View to a Kill (1985); and The Living Daylights (1987), Timothy Dalton's 007 debut.

His credits also included Star Wars (1977), The Long Good Friday (1980), An American Werewolf in London (1981), Top Secret! (1984), Brazil (1985), Willow (1988), Without a Clue (1988) and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991).

On British television, he was the vehicle stunt coordinator on police drama The Sweeney, stunt arranger on The Professionals and a stunt coordinator in Heartbeat.

In his 2018 autobiography, The Luck of Losing the Toss, Henson wrote about the impact his minor roles of a Stormtrooper, a Rebel commando, a biker scout and a skiff guard in Return of the Jedi (1983) had on his career.

"This is without doubt the biggest movie that I worked on. It's one of the reasons I decided to write this book," he said. "Every week I still receive fan mail and requests for autographs from all over the world for the small parts I played in it. Goodness know what Harrison Ford's mailbox is like!"

His book title came from a coin toss he lost on set of Jedi that forced him to take the role of "Biker Scout," a Stormtrooper that speeds through a forest chased by Luke Skywalker (Hamill) and Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher). Skywalker ends up unseating Henson from his racer, and he hurtles into a tree.

"Lucas had me at his studios in the blue room," Henson recalled this year. "My vision of the scene wasn’t terribly strong as all I could see was the blue screens and the cameras pointing at me. But this had made me realize what a great director Lucas really was as he would yell at me, 'Frank, remember you're going 200 miles per hour in redwood forest!'"

Henson later worked with Ford in another blockbuster, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), as stuntman (shaved head and all) to Indian actor Amrish Puri, who portrayed the villainous Mola Ram. ?The film's climatic sequence sees famed stuntman Vic Armstrong (doubling Ford) and Henson dangling from a broken-rope bridge above a crocodile-infested river.

"For the combat sequences, Vic and I used his fan descenders to drop down the cliff face, from 120 feet up, then fight each other, before dropping down again. This was dangerous, but the device gave us both peace of mind, and we had a pile of boxes stacked beneath us in case we fell off," Henson recalled.

But not everything went according to plan. Henson hooked his safety belt too low in one take, causing him to spin over. "Vic looked genuinely worried when he grabbed me to start pummeling me," Henson wrote. "'I thought you'd broken away,' he grunted as we fought above the crew. The sequence looked brilliant when it was finished."

Ford requested that Henson also film the close-ups of the sequence with him since Puri was inexperienced in stunt fighting.

Earlier in Temple of Doom, Henson chases Indy, Short Round (Jonathan Ke Quan) and Willie (Kate Capshaw) in a hugely entertaining sequence through a coal mine. At one moment, he's pulling on Short Round's arms as Indy, in the neighboring speeding mine cart, is gripping the young actor's feet.

Part of that sequence was filmed using miniature clay figurines injected with flexible foam, with Henson immortalized as a 10-inch-tall, stop-motion puppet.

In his prologue of his autobiography, Henson remembered shooting in 90-degree heat in the desert for the hugely secretive Return of the Jedi. For the Sarlacc Pit battle, he was to launch off a plank 15 feet in the air and land in a foam pit.

"The ground rushes up quicker than adrenaline," he said. "I roll over in the air. As I land, my feet sink into the foam, which catches my legs, but my body falls forward, violently stretching me. My ankle snaps — it's agony."

When the ambulance arrives, the paramedics ask him what film he is working on. Henson replies, "Blue Harvest," the fake working title the cast and crew were sworn to call the Lucas production.

Born in Whitehawk, Brighton, on May 2, 1935, Henson grew up in an estate housing people displaced by poverty. "My mother wrapped me in blankets and put me in a chest of drawers to sleep in," he wrote. "She would swap clothing coupons — everything was on ration for people's second-hand clothes." 

He never met his father, who deserted the family, and his mom would remarry. One of his five stepbrothers, Jimmy, drowned in a water tank at age 6. "His death has haunted me ever since," he said.

Before entering the film business, Henson was a hairdresser in Yorkshire, washed dishes in Soho, worked the door at nightclubs, dug trenches, sold firewood and drove race cars. At age 18, he joined the Army in National Service and became a paratrooper.

His first credited movie work was as a stunt driver on John Wayne's Brannigan (1975).

Henson is survived by his wife, Marion, and son, Mark, a stunt coordinator on TV's Vikings and films including Sherlock Holmes (2009) and Gravity (2013).