Kitty O'Neil, Famed Hollywood Stuntwoman and Daredevil, Dies at 72

Courtesy Ky Michaelson
Kitty O’Neil

A protege of Hal Needham, she doubled for Lynda Carter on 'Wonder Woman' and drove a three-wheeled machine to a record speed of 512.71 mph.

Kitty O'Neil, a deaf Hollywood stuntwoman, daredevil and protege of Hal Needham who doubled for Lynda Carter on Wonder Woman and set a land-speed record as the fastest woman driver ever, has died. She was 72.

O'Neil died Friday at Eureka Community Hospital in Eureka, South Dakota. Her longtime friend, former stuntman Ky Michaelson, told The Hollywood Reporter that she died of pneumonia and had recently suffered a heart attack.

Five-foot-2 and 97 pounds, O'Neil worked on such movies as Airport 1975Two-Minute Warning (1976), Airport '77, Damien: Omen II (1978), Foul Play (1978), The Blues Brothers (1980) and the Needham-directed Smokey and the Bandit II (1980).

She accomplished her most famous Hollywood stunt in 1979 when, dressed as Wonder Woman, she plunged headfirst 127 feet from atop the Valley Hilton in Sherman Oaks onto an inflatable air bag set up on the hotel's pool deck.

"If I hadn't hit the center of the bag, I probably would have been killed," she told The Washington Post in 1979.

O'Neil was set on fire during her career and was the first woman to pull off a "cannon-fired" car roll, in which an explosive charge under the vehicle propels it to rise up and tumble over and over.

On Dec. 6, 1976, the native Texan shattered the land-speed record for female drivers, posting an average speed of 512.71 mph while piloting a hydrogen peroxide-fueled, three-wheeled machine over a 5/8th-mile straightaway in the Alvord Desert in Oregon.

O'Neil also raced boats, dune buggies and motorcycles and was a champion three-meter and platform diver. She had her own Barbie doll, and Stockard Channing portrayed her in a 1979 CBS telefilm, Silent Victory: The Kitty O'Neil Story.

"She scared the heck out of me," Michaelson told THR. "I never met a human being that had no fear." In the Mojave Desert in 1977, O'Neil drove a rocket dragster built by Michaelson to a top speed of 279.5 mph.

Kitty Linn O'Neil was born on March 24, 1946, in Corpus Christi, Texas. Her father was an Irish oilman and her mother a full-blooded Cherokee Native American who became a speech therapist. She contracted measles and smallpox when she was 4 months old and lost her hearing. Her parents didn't know she couldn't hear until she was 2.

"My mother pushed me to read lips," she told People magazine in 1977, "but she didn't push me in sports — I did that myself. Because I was deaf, I had a very positive mental attitude. You have to show people you can do anything."

O'Neil took up the sport of diving, and in 1962 she moved to Anaheim to train with two-time Olympic gold medalist Sammy Lee. Her hopes of competing in the 1964 Summer Games in Tokyo were derailed when she broke her wrist and then contracted spinal meningitis, which threatened to paralyze her.

In the '70s, O'Neil joined Needham's racing team, and he trained her to become a stuntwoman. She was the first female to join Stunts Unlimited, an elite group of performers co-founded by Needham; there were fewer than 40 members when she came aboard in 1976.

O'Neil set the women's water-skiing record of 104.85 mph and once drove a boat 275 mph. She retired in 1982 with nearly two dozen speed records on land and water.

"I'm not afraid of anything," she said in 2015. "Just do it. It's good when you finish, [you know] you made it."

O'Neil always regretted not getting the opportunity to top the male driver record of 630.388 mph set by Gary Gabelich at Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah in 1970. She even thought breaking the sonic barrier (about 767 mph) was within her reach.

In 1993, she relocated to Eureka. "I got tired of living in L.A.," she said. "I don't like the big city, too many people. So I moved here and fell in love with it. The people are so friendly."

Some of her racing and stuntwoman memorabilia can be found in the town's Eureka Pioneer Museum.

O'Neil had no children and no survivors, Michaelson said. She was romantically involved with Needham and another stuntman, Duffy Hambleton. (Michaelson said she was never married to Hambleton — portrayed by James Farentino in the Channing telefilm — contrary to news stories over the years.)

Rhett Bartlett contributed to this report.