Clifford William Lyons, the oldest son of Mena and Garrett Lyons, was born July 4, 1901 in Lake County, South Dakota. He lived on a farm and attended the Clarno Rural School. He accompanied his parents to Tennessee where he attended business school in Memphis. In 1920, his parents moved back to a farm near Agar, South Dakota. Soon after his father died in 1921, Cliff formed a rodeo troupe with friends and in 1922 he moved to California.
He began his movie career as a silent screen cowboy actor in films like “The Saddle King”. He was in the original version of “Ben Hur (1927) and stunted in the original “Beau Geste” (1927). When talkies started in that year, he changed careers and became one of the first and most famous stuntmen in movie history.
In the 1930s, he was the frequent stunt double for Buck Jones, Johnny Mack Brown and Ken Maynard. He also doubled for Tom Mix in Mascot’s “The Miracle Rider” (1935).
In 1948 he began a relationship with John Ford and his longtime friend John Wayne that lasted through 15 films, the first being “Fort Apache” (1948), followed by “The Wagon Master” filmed in Moab in 1950).
In 1960, he was Action Director on “The Alamo”, “The Train Robbers” (1973) and more. In many of the Wayne pictures, Cliff wound up doing stunts as well as coordinating and second unit directing.
He also worked in a variety of other films such as “Ben Hur” (Charlton Heston), “They Died With Their Boots On” (Errol Flynn) and “Mighty Joe Young” (Ben Johnson). Ben was also co-starred with Harry Carey, Jr. on “The Wagon Master”.
Cliff was one of the original members of the Board of Directors of the Hollywood Stuntmen’s Hall of Fame. He donated many large photos of himself with such stars as Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, and Buck Jones, as well his unique stunt bag.
Here is a letter Cliff received from John Wayne in 1955 regarding his work in “The Conqueror” which was filmed in St. George, Utah.
In 1938, 20th Century-Fox Studios starred Tyrone Power and Henry Fonda in “Jesse James”. Cliff Lyons was hired to double both the actors when Frank and Jesse are riding hard to avoid capture after attempting to rob the bank in Northfield, Minnesota. The studio went to Noel, Missouri, in the extreme southwestern corner of the state. The Elk river provided a convenient Ozark stream for background visual effect, especially during chase scenes, when the drama was intensified by the splashing hooves of galloping horses.
Frank and Jesse (Fonda and Power) suddenly come to the edge of a high precipice overlooking a mountain stream. There is no alternative but to jump over the cliff with their horses. And they do. And back in 1938, when the movie was made, jumping over a cliff meant jumping over a cliff with a real horse and rider. That’s where Lake of the Ozarks came in.
Actually jumping into a shallow stream from a high cliff was an impossibility. So a plunge into Elk River was out of the question. The same held true for every other Ozark cliff and river. Except at Lake of the Ozarks. In 1938 it was the only deep water lake in the region. And it had plenty of cliffs along its shoreline. So the production crew moved up here for the shoot.
They settled on a 70-foot high cliff between mile markers 21 and 22. The cameras would be angled to show the cliff and some of the lake, but the broader expanse of water would be off camera so as to give the impression that our heroes were jumping into a small river. And since there was an element of danger here, only one horse would actually go over the edge. The spliced footage from two cameras would give the impression that two riders made the jump.
No horse could be trained to make that jump, so the chosen steed was placed on a slippery platform known as a tilt chute. With stuntman Cliff Lyons in the saddle, one end of the chute was lifted and horse and rider slid over the abyss.
In the first moment of the scene all four of the horse’s hooves were together as it tried to prevent the slide. Once in the air, the animal flailed wildly and instantly turned over.
Lyons was okay as a rescue boat fished him out of the water. And the horse, too, had survived the fall. But once in the water the now panicked animal thrashed about uncontrollably, and before the rescuers could get a rope on the terrified horse, it had drowned.
(Courtesy of Deborah Duffy)
Above, Lyons in the white suit with John Wayne and Susan Hayward (on horseback) in a production still from
THE CONQUEROR (RKO, 1956). Howard Hughes was the producer, the director was Dick Powell, and Lyons was the second unit director in charge of stunts and action sequences.
Wayne portrayed Genghis Khan
The spectacular cliff jump scene was included in the final cut of the film. But public outcry over the death of the horse raised a furor in Hollywood. As a result, the Motion Picture Association of America granted the American Humane Association the rights to monitor the treatment of animals in all future stunts.
So today, when you read in the end credits that “no animals were harmed in the making of this motion picture,” know that it all dates back to a regrettable incident at Lake of the Ozarks.
The Hall of Fame is proud to announce that it is moving all of its memorabilia back from storages in Vancouver, Washington to Moab (home base) very soon.
To make a tax-deductible donation to the Hollywood Stuntmen’s Hall of Fame BUILDING FUND, mail your contribution to 81 W. Kane Creek Blvd. - #12, Moab, Utah 84532. Phone: 435 -260-2160. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Website: www.stuntmen.org. On Facebook, look up Falling For Stars. Then Artist of the Stars. Then Stunt Stars and Legends. The Hall of Fame is a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving the history of the stunt profession of motion pictures and television and to honoring stunt performers the world over.
Anyone interested in making a tax-deductible donation may do so by sending it to 81 W. Kane Creek Blvd. - #12, Moab, Utah 84532. Phone number is 435 260-2160.