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Stunt work runs in the family

When Doug "Digger" O'Dell Sr. watches a cop car racing through the mean streets of L.A. during an episode of the TV show "Southland" on Tuesday nights, he can be forgiven if his chest swells with pride.

After all, the young man driving in the show's car-chase scenes or fighting the bad guys in south Los Angeles is following in O'Dell's footsteps.

That would be Doug O'Dell Jr., 31, a 1998 graduate of North Medford High School, who doubles for series star Michael Cudlitz.

" 'Southland' is as close to 'Adam 12' as I've ever seen — it's the real deal," said O'Dell Sr., 63.

He ought to know. He was a stunt man on the popular 1960s show about two LAPD patrol officers. He also worked on other TV shows and countless movies.

"We do have the same kind of format as 'Adam 12,'" acknowledged O'Dell the younger. "It is about real-life instances in L.A., about two cops in a car going out everyday on the street. Sometimes there are car chases, sometimes foot chases, sometimes bank robberies. It's always something different."

After moving to Southern California from his native Medford after high school, he got started in the movie business by working as a production assistant for a few years.

From there it seemed natural for him to graduate into the stunt world his father knew. He was already an expert at driving high speeds with both cars and motorcycles.

"When he was 3 years old, I got him on a mini three-wheeler," the senior O'Dell said. "He started on that right away. Now, anything with a motor on it, he's after it."

"I like anything with a motor — that's always been my deal," his son said. "I've never been much into ball sports."

Since he began working in Hollywood, the younger O'Dell has worked with such stars as George Clooney, Tom Cruise, Hugh Jackman, Mike Myers, Keanu Reeves, Jerry Seinfeld and Steven Spielberg. His movie resume includes "Daredevil," "Constantine," "Cat in the Hat," "Spongebob Squarepants" and "Twilight."

He was also one of three stunt men who did a commercial for Fox in which they doubled for NASCAR greats Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Jimmy Johnson and Jeff Gordon in the Daytona 500.

The young O'Dell first doubled for Cudlitz on a Fox TV show called "Stand Off."

"We look very similar," O'Dell said. "In fact, when I'm on the 'Southland' set dressed in my cop uniform, I always have someone coming up and saying, 'Hey Mike.' "

During the chase scenes, two cameramen sit in the back seat, shooting over his shoulder.

"You can see my profile, which makes it real believable," he said. "When they are shooting over my shoulder, you can't tell the difference."

His father, who doubled for actor Paul Newman while doing stunts on the 1974 movie "Towering Inferno," also started out in cop shows, including "Mod Squad."

"I was clean-cut back in those days when everybody else had long hair," he said. "So they always had me doing a stunt for an actor playing a cop.

"It was just a natural thing for Doug (Jr.) to do the police thing," the father said of his equally clean-cut son. "I love the fact he has gotten hooked up to the TV show that is equivalent in my eyes to 'Adam 12.' "

All members of the Screen Actors Guild, the stunt men and women — also called stunt devils — are paid daily or weekly rates, with higher pay for more challenging stunts.

Back in his day, stunts were a little less studied than they are now, observed the senior O'Dell.

"You would wet your finger to see which way the wind was blowing, then just did it by the seat of your pants," he said. "The whole thing about doing stunts now is safety."

As a father, he appreciates that focus, given his son's participation in the business.

"Of course, you also have to perform and make your actor look as good as you can," he said. "But it's more of a science now. Before, we would just hop on and — brrrroom! — go get it done."

A lot of time is spent today working out how to best pull off a stunt without any hitches, his son agreed.

Both father and son have suffered a few broken bones doing stunts, which they figure comes with the job.

When confronted with a difficult stunt, the young man will often call his father to talk it through.

"I do it all the time," he said.

When he isn't working on a stunt out of his home in LA, the younger O'Dell lives in Medford, where he and his father restore muscle cars as both a hobby and business.

"A lot of guys spend a lot time in the gym," the young O'Dell said of preparing for a stunt. "But we are active outdoors, riding motorcycles and doing other things."

"Anything that has to do with the outdoors, we're out there doing it," his dad added. "But you have to be in pretty good shape. A motorcycle can wear you down and hurt you if you don't have the experience or the endurance."

Some might wonder whether stunt drivers ever have problems with speeding tickets.

"Nope, I try to obey all the traffic laws," the son stressed.

"I've got a really good traffic record," his father said. "But I may have had a couple of tickets years ago."

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or e-mail him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.

Stunt men Doug O’Dell Jr., left, and his father, Doug O’Dell Sr., talk about the challenges of pulling off stunts for Hollywood movies and television shows. Mail Tribune Photo / Jamie Lusch - Jamie Lusch