Willie D. Harris, born August 8, 1941 on the Clifton Plantation in the small Holmes County community of Mileston (6) East of Tchula, Mississippi, became one of Hollywood’s first Black stuntmen.
Few Black people in Mississippi or anywhere else on the planet ever heard of Black men working as stuntmen in Hollywood. But, Willie D. Harris and a handful of Black men did work in the Hollywood film industry back in the day.
Harris worked as a stuntman in several Hollywood films and made appearances on white TV shows of the 1960s and 1970s. Among his most famous work as a stuntman was when Harris worked on the hit 1971 film “Dirty Harry.” Harris was featured in the bank robbery scene that concluded with Clint Eastwood’s infamous statement, “You’ve got to ask yourself one question. Do I feel lucky? Well, do you, punk?”
In various interviews throughout the years, Harris spoke of the fact that he is among the first Black stuntmen to work in a segregated film industry. For him and others, there was no white stuntmen who feared that Black men would take their jobs. He recalled a practice of “Paint Down” where white men wanted the Black stuntmen to be painted to appear as white, thereby not giving Black stuntmen their credits in films. Harris said, “We had to teach ourselves the work, because whites did not want to help us, so we had to learn how to do the work on our own.”
It is reported that a white actor, Elliott Gould, was the person who offered assistance to him after a chance meeting in an elevator that propelled him into work as a stuntman. Accounts say Gould gave him a letter of recommendation from the famed producer Robert Altman which garnered him membership into the Screen Actors Guild, allowing him to work as an actor in the film industry. Standing 6 feet 8 inches tall, Harris was an imposing athletic figure – a physique that followed him from his days as a star basketball player at Mileston Vocational High School, Alcorn State University, and the Air Force and Hollywood.
Willie D. Harris was honored by the Mississippi House of Representatives in 2015, supported by a listing in the Congressional Record by the Honorable Bennie G. Thompson (April 16, 2015). Harris has been inducted into the Smithsonian Hall of Fame and honored by the University of Nevada Las Vegas Fine Arts Department for his work as a Black stuntman in Hollywood.
Other Harris film work included the 1970 movie “Watermelon Man” starring Geoffrey Cambridge, a famous Black actor from the heyday of Black exploitation films. “Watermelon Man” was directed by Melvin Van Peebles, the first Black man to direct a major film in Hollywood. Van Peebles also composed the music for “Watermelon Man.” Another notable Harris film was “Top of the Heap”, starring and directed by Chris St. John (George Lattimer) and Paula Kelly (Black Chick), which debuted in 1972. Younger Black moviegoers will most likely know Van Peebles for the iconic crime thriller film “New Jack City” released March 8, 1991, which he co-starred in and directed.
Additional historic Harris appearances include work as a stuntman on “McMillian & Wife”, “Name of The Game”, “Trader Horn”, and “They Call Me Mr. Tibbs” with Sidney Poitier. He also made an appearance on the “Carol Burnett Show” in the 1970s and received an NAACP Image Award. In 2017, Harris was the grand marshall for the Lexington, Mississippi Christmas Parade.
Harris was one of the founders of the Black Stuntman Association. He became the president of the Black Stuntman Association and was honored by President Barack Obama at the White House when he was inducted into the Smithsonian.
Willie D. Harris made his earthly transition November 28, 2021, with services entrusted to Acheson & Graham Garden of Prayer in Riverside, California with burial in the Riverside National Cemetery on December 30, 2021.
Mr. George Edward Ross (family friend) of Lexington, MS verified the information regarding Willie D. Harris’ early childhood.