Bringing Bionic action to life was no easy task. Lindsay Wagner and her photo double Inge Lindgreen would handle some Bionic gags and special props, but it was the professional stuntwomen who took on the dangerous action. The most notable is stuntwoman Rita Egleston, who was Lindsay Wagner's primary stunt double over the three seasons of THE BIONIC WOMAN series. The following is compiled from conversations with Rita Egleston, which she has graciously allowed me to share with you.
HOW DID RITA GET INTO STUNT WORK?
Rita was very athletic in college, playing basketball and volleyball. In the early 1970s she saw stuntwoman Jeannie Epper on a local Los Angeles TV show and thought, “I could do that.” She did some asking around and learned that veteran stuntman Paul Stader was starting a stunt school in Santa Monica, California. Mr. Stader is best known for doubling Johnny Weissmuller in the Tarzan films. Rita initially got the ‘Don’t call us, we’ll call you.’ brush off, but she was persistent and later began her training with Mr. Stader.
Rita’s first paying stunt came in the form of what she calls an “ass transfer.” Doubling Linda Lovelace in the off-beat comedy film LINDA LOVELACE FOR PRESIDENT, the stunt consisted of Rita jumping from a running donkey onto a moving bus. This stunt earned Rita the credit required for membership in the Screen Actors Guild.
Before the character of Jaime Sommers was spun-off into her own series, she first appeared in THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN two-part stories, “The Bionic Woman” and “The Return Of The Bionic Woman.” Stunts for these episodes were performed by Jeannie Epper and Donna Garrett.
Once THE BIONIC WOMAN went into production on its first season, stuntwoman Kevin N. Johnston was hired as Lindsay Wagner’s stunt double. She took on the weekly stunts for the first five episodes, but a reluctance to perform high jumps led to her replacement.
After two years of training with Paul Stader, Rita was ready for the challenge of becoming Lindsay Wagner’s new stunt double. She auditioned for George Robotham, Stunt Coordinator for THE BIONIC WOMAN, and Vince Deadrick, Sr., Stunt Coordinator for THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN. Producer Kenneth Johnson, Director Alan J. Levi, and Lindsay Wagner were also part of the interview process (Lindsay's mother, Marilyn Ball, provided additional input). One of the other stuntwomen also vying for the position was Beth Nufer, who would go on to double Lynda Carter in WONDER WOMAN. Rita was hired for the job and started work on her first episode, “The Deadly Missiles” on February 4, 1976.
On January 19, 1976, Lindsay Wagner and boyfriend Michael Brandon were in a car accident which left Lindsay battered and bruised, along with a lacerated scalp and split lip. In order to give her some needed time to recuperate, production on THE BIONIC WOMAN was shut down for two weeks. When production resumed in early February, the previous production crew was not called back. Production on THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN had just wrapped for the season, so this crew was brought in to complete the first season of THE BIONIC WOMAN. Rita was now Lindsay Wagner’s stunt double, working along with SIX MILL Stunt Coordinator Vince Deadrick, Sr. At the start of the series’ second season, a new crew was assembled. This included Stunt Coordinator Tony Brubaker, who would work on the series into its third season, when he was replaced by Henry Kingi, followed by Craig Baxley.
Much of Rita’s stunt work consisted of high jumps. To make the audience believe that Jaime Sommers had the Bionic ability to jump over a fence, wall, etc., the stunt would be filmed in four parts.
1. Lindsay Wagner would jump up in the air at the start of the jump.
2. Rita would be filmed jumping down backwards from a hidden platform on the other side of the fence or wall and land onto an airbag in a standing position. This footage would then be reversed to give the appearance of jumping up.
3. With the platform hidden on the reverse side of the fence or wall, Rita would do a forward jump down to the other side. It was always important to lead the jump with the same foot in order to maintain continuity.
4. In order to complete the jump, Lindsay would be filmed jumping down off a hidden ladder, box, or simply jumping up in the air and back down.
Rita believed that as a Bionic woman Jaime should be able to jump up and over a railing onto a porch, balcony, etc. So, she invented a jump that creates this illusion. The jump was performed starting on the upper level. Rita would jump down onto a mini-trampoline and be propelled backwards up and over the railing and down to the airbag below. When the film is reversed, the illusion of Jaime’s new jumping ability is complete. This jump was first performed in “Assault On The Princess,” followed by “The DeJon Caper” and “Over The Hill Spy” where it was utilized twice. A forward version of this jump appears in “The Bionic Dog” Part I.
HAIR & WARDROBE
Rita had very long hair, which she had cut shorter prior to being hired as Lindsay’s double. For this reason, Rita wore a helmet-like wig in her early episodes. The wig was later replaced by a hair fall that matched the length of Lindsay’s hair.
Rita did not have pierced ears, so Wardrobe Mistress Shirley Brewer needed to have clip-on and pierced versions of earrings for Rita and Lindsay. Shirley became quite upset when Rita lost an earring while filming a scene on location for “Canyon Of Death.” Rita later got her ears pierced.
Since Lindsay and Rita were not the exact same shape and size, they each had to have their own wardrobe for the series. Rita recalls that the Savage Sommers wrestling outfit in “In This Corner, Jaime Sommers” was designed by Bob Mackie (who was well-known for designing fashions for Cher and The Carol Burnett Show). She also remembers going to Nudie's Rodeo Tailors in Hollywood to be fitted for the embroidered & rhinestoned cowgirl outfit worn in “Road To Nashville.”
During the first season, Director Alan Crosland’s wife asked why Jaime didn’t wear more dresses and skirts, so this wardrobe addition was introduced. Jumping down backwards in a skirt presents the problem of the skirt lifting up, giving away the illusion that Jaime is jumping upwards. To prevent this problem, weights were sewn into the skirt, and double sided toupee tape was also used to tape the skirt to Rita’s legs. Rita did not like jumping in skirts, or holding bags or other props.
The same lifting problem occurred with the pant legs lifting up or fluttering during a back jump. Wardrobe Mistress Shirley Brewer devised a solution using elastic stirrups that were pinned into the pants and went down around Rita’s shoes in order to keep the pant legs in place.
In order to keep Rita’s hair from flying straight up during a back jump, it was sewn down to the back of her wardrobe.
It was not only difficult, but dangerous for Rita to jump in high heels. For this reason they would try to match high heeled shoes with a similar shoe that had a lower, wider heel.
“The Deadly Missiles” - In Rita's first episode, there are two scenes where she kicks in a door. Rita’s grandmother told her that she recognized her leg!
“Fly Jaime” - Jump from cliff stunt: Getting to the cliff jump point was dangerous. There was only a very narrow ledge path. Rita had to perform this jump three times. She was jumping with a bag, and on the first jump the bag threw her off and she turned. Rita miscalculated the second jump and when she thought that she might hit the rocks she said, “Oh, sh*t!” In slow motion this utterance would have been exaggerated and was unusable. Take 3 - all went well.
“Bionic Beauty” - Rita and Lindsay Wagner performed a two-part jump in this episode. Rita jumped from a second story window down to a pad hidden behind some bushes. Lindsay, who was also behind the bushes, then came out to complete the jump down to a lower level.
In the final action scene, Rita recalls skinning her knuckles on the parking garage floor when grabbing up Miss United States' scepter.
“Mirror Image” - After being drugged and trapped in a wooden crate, Jaime is thrown overboard into the ocean. The shot of Rita breaking out of the crate and swimming to the surface was filmed in the tank on the Universal Studios lot. In order to make sure they got the shot, Rita stayed under water for a long time, leading the crew to wonder if something had gone wrong.
“The Return Of Bigfoot” Part II - The running sequence with the jump over the fence at the beginning of this episode was performed by Rita and Lee Majors' double Vince Deadrick, Jr.
One of the most memorable stunts performed by Rita was jumping from a helicopter into the woods. This stunt was performed on the Universal Studios back lot. On the first attempt at the jump, the helicopter arrived at its mark, but blew away the airbag below. Rita was warned by the helicopter pilot not to push off when she jumped. This could cause the helicopter to swing away, then swing back and hit her. Knowing that this could spell disaster, Rita was mindful not to push. However, the simple change of her weight leaving the helicopter did cause it to swing slightly. When landing, Rita hit the edge of the airbag and received a minor injury. During the time that this stunt was being filmed, the Universal Studio Tour trams had to be stopped. Rita held the record for the most trams backed up at 13!
“Assault On The Princess” – Back jump from moving pallet: Since the pallet was moving and Rita had her back to the airbag, the stunt coordinator had to cue her on when to jump. Rita landed on the edge of the airbag and hit her head on the pavement. The jump was performed three times, and Rita probably ended up with a mild concussion.
Over-the-railing back jump on ship: When going backwards over the railing, Rita’s foot brushed the railing, but seemed to pick itself up. This is the first time that this jump, invented by Rita, was used in the series.
“Kill Oscar” Part I – Rita falls to the ground after being ‘gassed’ in the parking lot at the back of the van. There was concern that she landed too close to the van and that she could have been run over when it quickly backed out of the parking space.
During rehearsal of the fight scene at Callahan’s apartment door, Rita hurt Janice Whitby when she didn’t pull her kick while kicking a gas can out of Janice’s hand.
Three-story jump from Callahan’s apartment window: This was the highest jump that Rita had done, so she asked to do it in two cuts. The first part was from the third-story window. Rita did not like three-story jumps, and was unable to control her fall half-way down. The second part was a jump from the second-story window. The two jumps were then edited together into one. When performing this jump, Rita landed on her knee and ended up in the emergency room. She was back on the set the next day.
“Kill Oscar” Part III – Swimming to shore and being chased on the beach by a helicopter: Rita used her own flippers in this scene, but they got washed out to sea.
Rita and Director Alan Crosland were walking out the running path on the beach with the helicopter following them. They stopped. The helicopter stopped also, but it tipped forward. The crew was watching, and from their perspective, it looked like they both would have been decapitated by the helicopter.
“Black Magic” – Rita recalls that guest star Vincent Price always called her “Muffin.”
“Jaime’s Shield” Part I – Rita was to pull a stuntman out of the way when studio lights fell from the roof of a building. She felt that she was too quick pulling him away.
This episode contains an amazing three-story jump out of the Los Angeles Police Academy building window.
“Jaime’s Shield” Part II – Alley scene with Diane Civita. This scene was shot on location in an actual alley with homeless people.
Rita enjoyed the wild ride on the trunk of the police car.
Rita and stuntman Duffy Hambleton rode the police motorcycle up the steps of the Van Nuys court house.
“Doomsday Is Tomorrow” Part I – Along with the many stunts in this episode, Rita also stood in for Lindsay Wagner in several over-the-shoulder shots. One while getting instruction from Oscar and Russ, and the other while walking through the mine field.
“Doomsday Is Tomorrow” Part II – Rita was nervous about walking out onto a beam to reach her jump point down onto the conveyor at the former waste treatment plant.
When falling down the stairs, Rita wore a wet suit under her wardrobe for padding.
In order to be lowered down into the giant round opening, Rita had a special harness made by a parachute maker.
Running away from the release of high-pressure water, Rita was warned not to let any of it touch her because it could pull her away.
“Deadly Ringer” Part I – Portions of this episode were filmed in an actual men’s prison. The crew warned Rita not to be friendly to the inmates.
“Beyond The Call” – The barn used in this episode as the Elign's ranch was located on the Universal Studios back lot. The cow was scheduled to be milked in the morning, but they didn’t get to milk her until after lunch. She was not a happy cow.
“Once A Thief” – Stuntman Victor Huntsburger was supposed to do a back flip when the rug was pulled out from under him. Rita had a difficult time getting the timing right. She pulled the rug once and it came out of her hands. The back flip was scrapped.
Rita recalls being a passenger in Inky's car as it drove up the ramp and into the truck.
“The Bionic Dog” Part I – This episode features a forward over-the-railing jump filmed on location at CalArts.
During the running sequences, Bracken the dog was led on a very fine filament guide line.
It was difficult to get the timing right when jumping over the fence with the dog.
“Fembots In Las Vegas” Part I – While doubling Fembot Tami in the theater fight scene, stuntwoman Sunny Woods was injured during a jump down onto breakaway tables. She was replaced by Jeannie Epper.
Rita had fun being wired up and flown around Las Vegas hanging from the skid of a helicopter. The pilot said that he would never do it again. If something went wrong, he wanted a way to cut her loose.
“Fembots In Las Vegas” Part II – In the final fight scene, the stuntman doubling Carl Franklin wanted to do some crazy stuff near the edge of the balcony, but it was too high for Rita to play along.
“Escape To Love” – Using Universal’s Tower of London set as a German prison, Rita was to climb a rope up the side of the building. She didn’t have the upper body strength to climb up, so she was filmed climbing down, and the film was reversed to achieve the desired effect.
“Over The Hill Spy” – While planning an interior over-the-railing jump with low ceiling clearance, Rita planned to brush her head against the ceiling in order to not smash her head on it. She cleared the jump without a problem.
“Sanctuary Earth” – While performing a dive from the shore into the water, Rita misjudged the jump and ended up landing in the bushes. She called this one of her most embarrassing moments.
“On The Run” – Doing a tumble fall down a snowy hill, Rita missed her mark and headed for the road below. The crew tried to move the airbag to catch her. Two crew guys ended up tackling her in mid-air in order to stop her.
THE BIONIC REUNION
After 10 years, Rita returned to double Lindsay Wagner in the 1987 TV movie, RETURN OF THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN AND THE BIONIC WOMAN. Rita said that she did her best and worst work in this film. The best referring to an amazing back jump from a high-level tower platform, and the worst being a simple jump from a shed roof where she fractured her ankle on the landing.
The tower back jump was filmed by three cameras, but only one angle was used in the final edit. Rita had to figure out how she was going to perform this stunt. She just remembered, “Step one, step two.” ‘Step one’ being the first foot off the platform, and ‘step two’ remembering to bring the other foot down. Rita landed into cardboard boxes.
An additional jump sequence was also performed, but was not used in the final edit of the movie. A glimpse of this stunt can be seen in the form of a freeze frame of Lindsay Wagner jumping during the end credits.
After Rita fractured her ankle, Donna Evans was brought in to perform the remaining stunt work for Lindsay Wagner.
RELATED STUNT WORK & CREDITS
THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN “Nightmare In The Sky” – Rita doubled Farrah Fawcett in this episode. Farrah asked Rita to double her in CHARLIE'S ANGELS, but she declined because she already had steady work on THE BIONIC WOMAN. Rita recalls being on the Universal back lot watching the new Jaws attraction. She was in her Farrah hair, make-up and wardrobe when the studio tour guide pointed her out to the group as Lindsay Wagner’s stunt double.
LINDSAY WAGNER 'ANOTHER SIDE OF ME' – Rita doubled Lindsay in this 1977 ABC variety special, where she performed several jumps in "The Perils of Paul" segment.
THE TWO WORLDS OF JENNIE LOGAN – Rita doubled Lindsay in this 1979 TV-movie, where she was chased by a horse-drawn wagon and did a fall to the ground.
THE FALL GUY “Devil’s Island” – Lindsay Wagner was reunited with Lee Majors on this 1983 season premiere episode. Rita doubled Lindsay in a cliff jump into water, along with other scenes.
STUNT WOMEN'S ASSOCIATION - Rita is a charter member of the United Stuntwomen’s Association. She helped to write the Bylaws as well as held Office as Treasurer for many years in USA.
EMMY NOMINATION - Rita was a Sound Editor on AMC's 1999 The Phantom Eye for which she received an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Sound Editing.
TO TELL THE TRUTH #2953 – Taped 12/21/1976. Rita was flown to New York City to appear on this game show where she and two imposters try to convince a celebrity panel that they are all the real Rita Egleston. A clip of Rita performing a window back jump from the episode “The Jailing Of Jaime” was shown in this episode. Rita appears wearing wardrobe from the final scene of “Winning Is Everything.”
SPECIAL EDITION “Episode #3” – This news magazine television series features a TV Guide segment on “The Bionic Stuntwoman.” The segment includes a rare behind the scenes look at stunts being performed for the episode “Doomsday Is Tomorrow” Part I. Rita recalls that the TV crew had to get special permission from ABC-TV in order to film on the set.
The Bionic Woman Bubble Gum Cards – Released in 1976, this set of 44 collectible cards features Rita in action on 6 of them: Cards 3, 10, 16, 18, 25, & 36.
STAR MAGAZINE “Here Comes the Bionic Stuntwoman” October 5, 1976 – This short article features a photo of Rita jumping in mid-air, and side by side face pictures of Rita and Lindsay Wagner.
THE BIONIC WOMAN ANNUAL 1978 “Rita: The Bionic Stunt Lady” by John Hiscock – This hard-cover children’s book published in the UK features the two page story on Rita. This is the same story and one of the same photos used in the Star Magazine article.
PLAYGIRL “Are You Ready For The High Fall?” by Peggy Magner Holter. March 1977 Playgirl’s Women In Sports feature focuses on stuntwomen in the movies and television. Rita was one of the stuntwomen interviewed for this informative two-page article.
AMAZINE by Michael Augustine. This 22-page fanzine features the work of stuntwomen Beth Nufer, Rita Egleston, and Donna Garrett.
THE BIONIC WOMAN STORYLINES 1978 – Distributed to television stations when the series was sold in syndication. The booklet contains a breakdown summary of each episode, along with the cast. Rita is featured on the cover and an inside photo.
FANSOURCE: A FAN APPRECIATION WEEKEND - October 17-19, 2003 - Rita was the celebrity guest host for this fun-filled fan event held at the Universal Sheraton hotel in Los Angeles, California. She was the guide on the Universal Studios Tram Tour where she pointed out various locations used in THE BIONIC WOMAN. She also attended a gathering of Lindsay Wagner's Official Fan Club which included Lindsay, Richard Anderson, Jennifer Darling, and fans from around the world.
FANSOURCE: A FAN APPRECIATION WEEKEND - October 8-10, 2004 - Rita joined fans on the Universal Studios Tram Tour, and attended Lindsay Wagner's Official Fan Club reception at the Universal Sheraton hotel in Los Angeles, California. Other reception guests included Lindsay, Jennifer Darling, and numerous fans.
STUNTWOMEN'S WORKSHOP - October 15, 2010 - Rita and Lindsay Wagner attended Diamond In The Raw's stuntwomen's workshop in Los Angeles. The Diamond In The Raw organization mentors young women, introducing them to the stunt world in front of and behind the camera.
STUNTWOMEN AWARDS - ACTION ICON PRESENTER - October 17, 2010 - Rita and stuntwoman Melissa Stubbs presented Diamond In The Raw's Action Icon Award to Lindsay Wagner at their annual awards ceremony held in Los Angeles.
THE BIONIC WOMAN SEASON 2 DVD Cover - May 17, 2011 - This full Season 2 release by Universal Studios Home Entertainment features Rita on the cover performing a back jump from "Assault On The Princess."
THE BIONIC WOMAN SEASON 2 DVD "Bionic Blast" - May 17, 2011 - This featurette is part of the Season 2 set, and features Rita and others discussing the Bionic stunts, toy merchandising, and their favorite bad guys from the series.
DIE SIEBEN MILLIONEN DOLLAR FRAU - The Complete Series - Germany 2016 - Rita is featured on the cover of this Blu-ray disc set hanging from the skid of a helicopter from "Fembots In Las Vegas" Part I.
THE BIONIC WOMAN T-SHIRT - 2011 This officially licensed T-shirt graphic design features a photo of Rita jumping from the episode "The Bionic Dog" Part I.
STUNTWOMEN - THE UNTOLD HOLLYWOOD STORY by Mollie Gregory - 2015 - This non-fiction book chronicles the evolution of stuntwomen and how they have changed the stunt industry. Rita is featured in the book along with several photos.
Sincerest thanks to Rita Egleston for sharing her Bionic memories, and for giving us a glimpse behind the scenes of this classic television series.