Today there is a fascination about death on film and a plethora of Internet sites devoted to that ghoulish interest. But death on film isn’t a new happening. Early directors and movie companies frequently left filmed carnage on their movies, although they usually hadn’t planned on capturing the scene. One of the first was the gruesome death of Ormer Leslie Locklear.
Locklear was the best-known stuntman pilot and barnstormer perhaps in the world in the years before 1920. He was born in Hopkins County, Texas on October 28, 1891. As a teenager he performed jumps on a 2-cylinder Indian motorcycle with the Panther City Motorcycle Club. In 1917, he enlisted in the Army Air Service at Fort Sam Houston and during an early flight was forced to scramble out of the cockpit and climb over the cowling to fix a loosened radiator cap. Just a few months later, on November 8, 1918, he became the first man to transfer from one plane to another in mid-air, dropping from the undercarriage of one plane onto another just below. For the next year he traveled the country barnstorming with his “Flying Circus” performing his dangerous transfers from Sheepshead Bay Speedway in New York to Lake Front Park in Chicago to San Francisco.
Locklear’s most famous stunt, his “Dance of Death,” has never been replicated. He piloted one plane almost touching wings as it flew next to a second, and on a signal he changed places with his best friend Milton “Skeets” Elliott. The two actually passed each other as they scampered across the wings! Locklear became wealthy earning $3,000 a day (perhaps $50,000 today) and famous and came to the attention of Hollywood in 1920 when he performed at an airfield owned by Sydney Chaplin, Charlie’s brother.
On July 26, 1919 he became the first man to successfully transfer from a car to an airplane shooting a sequence for his first film, Universal’s The Great Air Robbery. He performed a plane-to-plane transfer and in a later shot, climbed down from a plane to a speeding car to fight with the villain before grabbing the undercarriage of the plane above him and climbing away just as the car overturned and crashed.
When he first arrived in Hollywood he met actress Viola Dana, at the time a top Metro and Lasky star of over 100 films. They began a torrid relationship and became publicly engaged even though Locklear’s childhood bride Ruby was back in Texas. He often buzzed Dana at the Metro lot, doing what employees called the “Locklear Bounce;” ricocheting off the roof of a soundstage above his girlfriend. According to newspapers and movie magazines, the two were engaged.
The next summer Locklear was signed to star in the Twentieth Century Fox feature The Skywayman. One plane-to-plane transfer in the film was done by his best friend Skeets Elliott and a second by Locklear, which was followed by a gun fight while he sat on the landing gear and the villains raced away in their automobile. He insisted on realistically filming Skywayman stunts, so instead of using miniatures (which the director wanted) or filters to make day appear as night, on August 2, 1920 searchlights lit up the skies above an oilfield next to DeMille Airfield (near present day Wilshire Boulevard and Crescent in L.A.) for the movie’s climax. Illuminated by blinding searchlights, Locklear would put his plane into a 5000-foot spinning dive until the lights were turned off as he reached the top of the oil derricks, signaling him to level off. But the lights were never turned off and Locklear and Milton Elliott were killed instantly when his Curtis Jenny bi-plane slammed into a pool of oil next to a well and burst into flames. Dana witnessed the crash, coming to the set to watch filming that night (she wouldn’t get on a plane again for 30 years). Fox included the crash and the gruesome crash scene in the final release! The scene of Locklear and Elliott walking away from the plane had already been filmed.
Locklear’s Hollywood funeral was like any movie star’s, with thousands of fans outside the funeral home and his movie star girlfriend weeping over his coffin. Then, his body was taken to Texas for another funeral, where his wife did the same thing.
His was among the faces seen in photographs in the 1975 Robert Redford film The Great Waldo Pepper.