Stuntwoman Lands On Her Feet

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Writer Peggy Gandy visits with stuntwoman Mary Peters Scannell at her Oklahoma City home.
Actress and stuntwoman Mary Peters Scannell's credits include Lethal Weapon
Actress and Stuntwoman Mary Peters Scannell's credits include the Mash tv series
Mary Peters Scannell is an avid award-wining golfer in Oklahoma City.
Mary Peters Scannell loves to garden as a hobby.

Local stuntwoman Mary Peters Scannell knows how to take a fall.

By Peggy Gandy

Sometimes I am lucky enough to meet someone I feel is  exceptionally talented and fascinating.

Let me introduce you to Mary Peters Scannell who has been a stuntwoman for 30 years and though semi-retired, has that special star quality that keeps her working when she chooses. Although she doesn’t limit herself, she admits that today she is a little more discerning about the jobs she accepts.

However, Mary just recently returned from a high speed car chase job in California, where she worked on an upcoming Spider Man 4 movie starring the new lead Andrew Garfield. As a stunt precision driver, she drove in a scene where Spider Man is riding in the back of a fast moving pickup, and jumps onto the side of a large semi-truck while climbing on top, using his spider web powers. She said her action scenes started about 6 p.m. and extended to an all night shoot.

A former model, Mary has always been athletic, running track and field in high school. She is still a member of the Stuntwomen’s Association of Motion Pictures, Inc. with a resume that lists stunt coordinator, stuntwoman and actress. Her talents include high falls, stair falls, swimming, scuba diving, breakaway windows, rappelling and fights, with cars being her specialty, including precision driving and high speed chases.

Tall and graceful, with long legs that seem to extend above her waist, Mary is a red-haired head turner who is self assured and the epitome of a professional.

She moved to the city from California ten years ago when her husband Stewart Scannell began work at Tinker Air Force Base as site manager for Northrop Grumman. “Stewart was offered a tremendous job, and he is doing extremely well,’’ she said. “I had turned 50 and older women don’t get as much work, so I felt it was his time to shine, and for me to be the wife.’’

Mary met Stewart by chance when was waiting for friends in a restaurant. Stewart told her he was an Apache attack helicopter pilot, and when she responded that she was a stuntwoman, he didn’t believe her. So she invited him out for a car spin and it didn’t take long to make him a believer.

Her son Matthew recently graduated from OU with a degree in aerospace engineering.  “I told him his mom had landed on her head for a living but I wanted him to use his brain and do something to help the world, he has so much potential,’’ she said.

Mary said she has always known she had a higher power or a guardian angel looking after her. Even so, she has had her share of injuries. “I am so grateful I don’t have permanent injuries, she said.

Her worst injuries occurred when she was working on a Mike Hammer show with Stacey Keach, and bailed out of a three story (50 feet) building into an airbag that malfunctioned. She broke her back in three places and sustained internal injuries, which kept her out of the business for three years. Mary’s next injury happened when she was doubling for the actress Sigourney Weaver on the movie “Copycat.’’

“We were doing a scene where she was supposed to get a roundhouse to the face,’’ she said, “but I had never worked with the stunt man who was going to do the hit. He was only supposed to make it look like he hit her, but I didn’t trust him. So, I convinced Sigourney to let me do the stunt and she could do her close-ups later. Sure enough, he hauled off and hit me, breaking my nose. “Afterwards Sigourney referred to me as her sacrifical lamb, and was most grateful.’’

Mary said she was always aware of the importance of the “big’’ actors when they were shooting a film. And, working as a double, she knew she was expected to take the falls. “If the stars get injured, the whole thing shuts down,’’ she explained.

Mary began her career as an extra on M*A*S*H for five years, where she earned her Screen Actors Guild card and became a regular on the program. “I was always the tall, red-haired nurse in the background, and often teamed up with Radar because he is shorter than me, and it was lots of fun.’’(She is 5 feet 10 inches.)

While M*A*S*H  was on its six months filming hiatus, she spent the time attending various professional schools to perfect her art as a stuntwoman, which resulted in her getting calls to work as a stunt double. The jobs began to accelerate as her reputation grew and she earned respect. “I told myself ‘the sky is the limit’ and so when I went on an interview, I would always show that I was a professional but not a crazy woman, and I could get their job done.”

“The money is very, very good’’ she said. “And, if the scene has to be reshot, we are paid for each shooting.’’

A few scenes from her career include: doubling for Vanessa where she tumbled down a flight of stairs in the television production of “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane,’’   hi-jacking from her car by actor Gary Busey in the first “Lethal Weapon,’’ and working as a highway patrolwoman during a chase in the film “Thelma and Louise.’’

Mary bares a noticeable resemblance to Lynn Redgrave, a close friend who recently passed away from breast cancer. Mary doubled for Lynn numerous times over the years, and said she still misses her.

Mary got in and stayed in the business because she was able to use her athletic abilities, and admits she likes the adrenalin stimulus.

Because she has done so well in her profession, Mary said she wants to give back to society by doing volunteerism. “I look back and realize I was really given a wonderful opportunity,’’ she said. “It was a rough stuggle and a cliquey system. We all are always aware we can be injured but we try to work with people we can trust.’’

Mary has begun giving talks to organized groups on what it is like to protect yourself. She has even gone to senior citizen centers to teach people in wheel chairs how to fall from their chairs without getting hurt.

Nowadays, Mary spends most of her time on the golf course across from her spacious home in a gated community northeast of the city. Her trophy wins and plaques fill a wall in one room. Admittedly competitive, Mary said she attends the yearly Stuntmen’s Golf  Tournaments and has won four or five times.

Her five rescue dogs demand a good bit of attention also, but then this is a woman with plenty of energy to spare.

A native Californian, she has acclimated from California well. “Oklahoma has treated me wonderfully, although the weather is a little on the cold side for me. So, I am looking for a vacation home, probably in Tucson, because I’m ready for a new project.’

Peggy Gandy was society editor for The Oklahoman for 24 years. Now retired, she continues to write the “Social Scene” Sunday column for the paper, as well as a blog, “Keeping It Lite.” She was a contributing editor of humor features for local country club magazines for 20 years, and wrote the “Humor Me” column for the Oklahoma City Times for three years.

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