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6 Amazing Movies That Used Amputees for Special Effects

Spider-Man 3 (2007) - Sandman (Thomas Hayden Church, Spider-Man (Baxter Humby)
Did you know that some of the greatest special effects have been achieved by using amputees? Almost 2 million Americans have experienced amputations or are born with limb difference. Another 28 million people in America are at risk for amputation. Some say they are incapable of a normal life but, in fact, they inspire us all with their courage and skill. There are many jobs they can do but one of the most surprising is on a Hollywood film set.

Here six great examples of movies that have hired amputees for their special effects with amazing results. They are an inspiration for us all.

1. Spider-Man 3 (2007)

When martial arts expert Baxter Humby was born, his umbilical cord was wrapped around his hand. So, the doctors had to amputate his hand. Growing up he never saw his missing hand as a setback and pursued sports, running and other physical activities. He became a world champion Muy Thai kickboxer known as "The One Armed Bandit." As a child, Humby dreamed of being Spider-Man because he believed in his credo that "we are all given a gift and with great power comes great responsibility.” When Sam Raimi was looking to film a fight between Sandman (Thomas Haden Church) and Spider-Man (Tobey Maguire) they wanted to have his hand get stuck in Marko's chest without using CGI.

So, they hired Humby. He lived out his dream and Raimi got his effect. It's a win-win and inspiring to see how he lived out his dream.

2. Silent Running (1972)

 The movie Silent Running had Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern) as a resident botanist and ecologist who tries to save the last of Earth’s plants from destruction. His only companions on the ship are three robot drones that he nicknames Hewey, Dewey and Louie. They only had $1 million for special effects and needed the drones to be foolproof and act human. When Doug Trumbull was trying to come up with the effects he was inspired by a 1932 horror film named Freaks that starred a man with a deformity. He told Castle of Frankenstein magazine, “Well, there's one little fellow; he's very handsome, and neat — he's dressed in a tuxedo and a bow tie. Only, from the waist down, he isn't there. So, here's this remarkable, beautiful guy, with this amazing agility, leaping and running on his hands through the room, jumping up on chairs, etc. And not once did you feel horrified. You're amazed and respectful at his adjustment. That impression stayed with me when it came time to cast the drones. I knew what I wanted.” The studio fought against the idea and tried to force them to use little people or children, but they insisted on his original vision.

So they hired people missing legs to wear the suits. Dewey was played by 15-year-old Mark Persons. Huey was played by 20-year-old Steve Brown and 16-year-old Chery Sparks. Louie was played by 16-year-old Larry Whisenhunt. Whisenhunt was the only one that had an amputation from jumping off a train, while the others were born with congenital defects. While Esquire magazine wrote an article criticizing them for casting the disabled for special effects Trumbull called it “cold” saying, “So, we used amputees. So what? They're people. That's a horrible cliche, but it's true. They're human beings.” Using humans in the suit led to wonderfully improvised moments like robots tapping their foot while waiting or  banging on each other to get their attention. In the end the performance was flawless and the actors “loved it” and “made a lot of money”.

3. Predator 2 (1990)

R. David Smith was born missing his left arm just below the elbow and grew up with a learning disability, but created “Stunts Ability” which teaches limb deficient and other people with disabilities how to work in the movie industry. His first big movie role was as a stuntman on the Predator sequel. In one scene, to prevent the creature's arm bomb from going off, Danny Glover cuts off the hand of the alien who's hanging off the side of a building. When the Predator goes crashing through the window Smith actually broke his back. He healed up and kept right on working. Now that's inspiring.

4. A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)

 On the movie A.I. Artificial Intelligence director Steve Spielberg wanted to use as much practical, or on-set special effects, as he could. So, when he scenes of broken robots at the “Flesh Fair” he hired a number of amputees to play different roles. One actor that he hired was R. David Smith who played the Welder Robot, whose arm can become a welding tool. Smith said, "Stan Winston, who designed the robot characters in `A.I.,' knew they were looking for amputees to do stunts," Smith said. "We helped casting director Sandy Alessi put together 130 amputees from around the country, and they picked eight out of that group. It was a great opportunity for people from Stunts-Ability to appear in a [Steven] Spielberg movie, and have lots of people see what we can do. [Stunt coordinator] Doug Coleman had no problem using us in situations where they normally would put able-bodied guys."

Stan Winston was overjoyed with the results and said, "It was such a pleasure to work with these actors with special abilities. What some saw as disadvantages physically became advantages for the roles they played. These were some of the most inspiring actors on the set and it was a joy to work with them."

5. Starship Troopers (1997)

Amputees are often used for war movies to show casualties and Starship Troopers is no exception. Casey Pieretti was hired to do a scene where the bug bites off a soldier's legs. Casey was in college on a basketball scholarship when a drunk driver hit him. After the accident, he lost his right leg. After several months of recovery he decided not to let his accident destroy his life.

"My first big movie was Starship Troopers," recalled Pieretti. "The only reason they hired me was because I was an amputee. On that shoot, I doubled a two-legged actor until the scene where that two-legged actor had his leg torn off. It was a very physical shoot -- lots of running, always on your feet, shooting 12 hours each day--and I was able to keep up with everyone the whole time. In the four weeks leading up to that dismemberment scene, they noticed that I was able to be a stuntman as well. When I completed the scene and they didn't need the one-legged guy anymore, a couple of scenes came up where they had questions that I was able to answer for them, so I ended up staying for the rest of the shoot."

6. The Thing (1982)

 In the 1980's horror movie remake of the 50's classic, there's a scene where the chest cavity of Norris (Charles Hallahan) turns into a mouth and bites off the arms of Dr. Copper (Richard Dysart). To achieve the effect they made a dummy body out of fibreglass and covered in foam latex skin. Hallahan (Norris) lay underneath the table except for his head and shoulders. An unnamed double-amputee extra wore fake arms that were scored to break off. The effect is terrifying.

Which is the most surprising example of using amputees in special effects? Do you find it disturbing or inspiring?

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  1. I didn't know the robots in Silent Running were played by amputees.
    That's a great story about Smith. I'm sure he made a difference in the lives of many with Stunts Ability.

  2. That's cool the one guy got to be Spider-Man. Kinda creepy those Silent Running robots were amputees.

  3. amazing. i'm glad they have those opportunities! thanks for this enlightening post - cool!

  4. well that is interesting... and a little disturbing... i know they used a bunch in current zombie films... for that effect.

  5. Yeah they have a lot of actors for Walking Dead.

  6. Glad you enjoyed it Tara and they're an inspiration to be sure.

  7. It's my dream too Pat...maybe some day.

  8. He's done a lot for kids over the years Alex.


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