By Bill Vossler
When Kitty O’Neil died in November, 2018, few people knew that she was a wonder woman... in many ways.
The most obvious was in her profession: Wonder Woman steps to the edge of the 12-story precipice. The wind ruffles her black hair. Dressed in Wonder Woman’s red, white, and blue, with her trademark armor breastplate, she took a breath, then leapt out into space, spreading her arms like an eagle.
But she didn’t fly. She plunged. From the ground 127 feet below she is a tiny speck in the sky, hurtling down at more than 100 miles per hour. Halfway down, she curled into a ball and finally smacked onto the airbag.
Just another day’s work for Kitty O’Neil, the five foot three, 95-pound professional stunt woman and speed woman extraordinaire who lived in Elk River, Minnesota until 1993.
“I’ve lived in a lot of different places, including California and Colorado. But I chose to live in Minnesota,” the Cherokee-Irish woman said, “for lots of reasons. I like the birds, and lakes and trees. I like the change of the seasons. I like to be cool, even freezing. I like cold weather. It makes me feel good!”
But she was also a wonder woman in many other ways. Her success in a dangerous profession is amazing enough. Few make it as stunt people; fewer still are women. Most amazing of all -- she never heard the rush of the wind, the thunk when she hit, or the applause. Kitty O’Neil, stuntwoman, was deaf.
“Actually, deafness is an advantage for me. I don’t get distracted.”
When she was only four months old, Kitty contracted measles, mumps, and smallpox. Their legacy was damage to her auditory nerve, which left her deaf.
“But I’ve never let deafness stop me,” O’Neil said. “Being deaf isn’t a handicap--it’s a challenge to conquer, similar to the difficult stunts I did.”
Even in 2020, Kitty still holds the land speed record for women in “The Motivator”, a 48,000 horsepower rocket car. She hit 618.34 mph, but was only credited with 512.710 as she ran out of gas, and the record is figured for the entire two-way distance.
“600 miles per hour is a beautiful experience. Ever since I felt the vibrations on our power mower at home in Wichita Falls, Texas, when I was a kid, I’ve loved that feeling of power.” She cried so long and hard that the father finally let her drive it. “I love it, the speed, the noise, the vibrations of any motor. I even love to vacuum.”
Additionally, she held the world speed records for women’s water-skiing, (104.85 mph), driving a water-jet boat (275 mph) and piloting an airplane (819 mph). She still holds the stunt records for a fall while engulfed in flames (112 feet), longest free fall as mentioned above (127 feet), and was the first stunt person to roll a car at full speed.
Her achievements earned her membership into the all-male Stunts Unlimited, the highest honor in her profession. She was also elected to the Hollywood Stuntmen’s Hall of Fame.
She shrugged off the accolades. “It was harder learning how to talk,” she said.
When she was two, her mother, actress Peggy Compton, began to teach her to speak by pointing at and naming objects while holding Kitty’s hand to her throat. “She made me feel the vibrations and the puffs of breath when a person speaks.” As a result, Kitty can speak, in a clear-but-nasally voice. Her mother also taught Kitty to read lips.
“Reading lips is hard. But I never would have gotten jobs otherwise.”
Her credits include TV shows Police Woman, Baretta, B.J. and the Bear, and movies Airport 77, Foul Play, and The Blues Brothers, and many others “whose names I’ve forgotten.” The pay wasn’t as much as $5,000 for the most difficult stunts.
Such achievements have not passed unnoticed. A Kitty O’Neil doll and Kitty O’Neil toy motorcycles were manufactured, and she has a place in the Eureka (S.D.) Pioneer Museum. Stockard Channing starred in a made-for-TV movie, Silent Danger: The Kitty O’Neil Story. “But I did all the stunts,” Kitty notes proudly. Kitty was also featured in an ESPN documentary, The Stuntmen.
Kitty began her stunt career soon after receiving her driver’s license at age 16, when she rolled her mother’s car--on purpose. “I wanted to see what would happen.”
Her mother’s reaction? “To my mother, I could do nothing wrong.”
The same year she won the AAU National Diving championships. She was touted by her coach, former Olympic-champion Sammy Lee, to win the gold medal in Women’s Diving in the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo.
“But I broke my hand during a dive,” she said, and finished eighth during Olympic qualifying trials. The top three went to the Olympics.
Two years later, at 18, job agencies “told me I couldn’t do anything because I was deaf. I said to myself that I could do anything I wanted, and I would prove it.”
She took up stunt work after she completing an obstacle course alongside professional stunt men. They were amazed at her prowess and urged her into the profession.
“I like danger. I like goals. I like to dream. I’m not afraid of anything--except mice. I don’t take stupid chances. I practice, I plan everything out, then I say my prayers.”
To stay in shape, Kitty lifted weights, swam, and ran. “Stunt work is hard work,” she said. “You have to wrestle with steering wheels, or handlebars, and get thrown around. You have to be in shape so you don’t hurt yourself.”
Her most difficult stunt was diving out of a moving helicopter. While standing on a bar alongside the open door of the helicopter, 180 feet above the ground, buffeted by the winds, she had to sight in the 30 x 60 foot air bag, judge its distance, gauge the speed of the helicopter and wind, and then leap out. Everything had to be right. Or she would die. “My mouth was dry. That was hard,” she said, “and scary. But I did it.”
Despite hundreds of stunts, she’s never suffered more than bruises--until she scraped herself jumping off a 20-foot building to celebrate a birthday. (No airbag that time. Just concrete.) “I stumbled on my shoelace as I jumped,” she shrugged.
When she moved to Minnesota she gave up stunt work for good, not only because she loved Minnesota, far from the stuntwork domain of California, but because of the dangers. She turned pensive and spoke slowly. “Some of my friends in the stunt business have gotten injured and crippled. Some have been killed,” she said softly, her eyes filling with tears. “I don’t want that to happen to me.”
She felt especially vulnerable, having lost her fiance the year before our interview to a heart attack (13 days before their wedding). “We were watching the Twins’ game on TV, and then he was gone,” she said in a small voice.
She kept busy, talking to handicapped kids in schools. “I just love kids.”
And keeping in shape. “I go for a four-mile run every morning and night to talk to God. He has taught me a handicap is not a defeat. It’s a challenge to conquer. I’ve been conquering all my life, and I want to go on conquering.”
“God put me on earth for a purpose. I just want to show other handicapped people that they can do anything. All they have to do is try.”
“Of course it means I have to work a lot harder than other people, but look at the fun I have proving them wrong! A lot of people said I couldn’t do anything because I’m deaf. Baloney!”