Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood introduces one of the greatest U.S. veterans who never lived. The character Cliff Booth is presented as a veteran of both WWII and the Korean War. He is an experienced martial artist who could “kill you with a spoon,” according to Tarantino. He is a stuntman who once beat Bruce Lee in a fight.

Most of all, he is (spoiler alert for fans) a work of fiction.

Well, mostly. Booth is actually based on two actual Hollywood stuntmen. Both men served in the military, though neither served in WWII. Both have led interesting and well-traveled lives, and one of them actually met Charles Manson.

Whether the truth is better than fiction is ultimately up to personal opinion, but let’s compare.

 

Cliff Booth, the Action Hero

Brad Pitt plays Cliff Booth in the movie. He is a stunt double for Rick Dalton, another fictional character portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio. There are lots of great tough-guy Hollywood moments for Booth, including run-ins with the Manson Family. I won’t spoil the whole plot, but for anyone who has seen Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, you get where this goes.

Margot Robbie, Brad Pitt, Quentin Tarantino and Leonardo DiCaprio
Margot Robbie, Brad Pitt, Quentin Tarantino, and Leonardo DiCaprio at the “Once Upon A Time in Hollywood” photocall in Berlin 2019. Brad Pitt played decorated veteran and stuntman Cliff Booth in the movie. (Wikimedia Commons)

A tortured-yet-calm man of actions-over-words, Booth is the vet that Hollywood and “almost-vets” love most. He is a man’s-man in 1969 Hollywood who lives as he wants, wins his fights, and could mostly care less. He’s charming, deadly, and a double recipient of the Medal of Valor.

As Tarantino has said, “He’s a rather Zen dude who is troubled by very little.” Well, except the death of his wife, but again, I’ll avoid the spoilers.

In the novelization of the movie (massive spoiler alert), Booth gets more of a lead role. Even his loyal pitbull, Brandy, gets more attention in the book.

But, once again, there never was a Cliff Booth. So, who are the men Tarantino based his character on, and how do they compare to the fiction?

 

Harold ‘Hal’ Needham: The Paratrooper Behind Cliff Booth

187th Airborne Regimental Combat Team Korean War American paratroopers
The 187th Airborne Regimental Combat Team of the 11th Airborne Division make a jump in the Battle of Yongyu. Harold “Hal” Needham served as a paratrooper during the Korean War, though even his obituary states little more about his service. (National Archives Records Administration)

 

Harold “Hal” Needham was an accomplished man in Hollywood. He not only worked as a stuntman, but directed The Cannonball Run and wrote-and-directed Smokey and the Bandit. He is also one of the two veterans on which Tarantino’s Booth is alleged to have been based.

Yet, even Needham’s 2013 obituary only makes passing mention of his service as an Army paratrooper. There is no mention of decorations or valorous awards, only a short footnote leading into his time in Hollywood.

Still, there is no doubt about his toughness. He is alleged to have claimed, “I broke my back twice and 56 bones and knocked out a few teeth.”

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Born in Memphis and moved around Tennessee by his sharecropper step-father, Needham went on to become Hollywood’s highest-paid stuntman. He once taunted detractors with advertisements placing critics’ quotes next to a picture of a wheelbarrow overflowing with money.

There is certainly an element of Booth in Needham’s willingness to live how he chose. He once put a 25,000 horsepower rocket in a car (without a driver) and sent it across a 430-foot chasm.

His first gig as a stuntman was in 1957, shortly after leaving the Army. The ex-paratrooper was a stuntman on The Spirit of St. Louis, which might offer some symmetry. Over his career, he would work with Burt Reynolds, John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Kirk Douglas, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. 

Needham is attributed as a “pioneer” in the stunt industry, and his methods and innovations are still in use.

 

Gary Kent: Veteran, Journalist, and Inspiration for Cliff Booth

Gary Kent Battle Flame
Gary Kent (right) in a publicity photo for the 1959 film Battle Flame. (Wikimedia Commons)

 

 

Like Needham, the second man on whom Tarantino based Booth also served during the Korean War. A journalism student at the University of Washington, Gary Kent was called up and served in the Naval Air Corps.

Yet, if you were hoping for stories of heroism or (real-life) bloody battles, Kent’s story is going to disappoint. He spent his time in the Navy writing promotion and publicity for the Blue Angels.

What won’t disappoint is Kent’s meeting with Charles Manson. It wasn’t as dramatic as Booth’s encounter with the Family, but he did get to tell Manson off. From Kent’s perspective, Manson was just a lazy, filthy mechanic who didn’t want to do his job, as seen below.

In addition to working as a journalist, Kent was a construction worker, bouncer, private detective, and rodeo cowboy. He then became a movie studio electrician, and from there worked his way into Hollywood stunts.

On set, he helped with technical work and building. He also thumbed his nose at convention a bit, sometimes doing non-union work under a pseudonym.

Kent worked with Jack Nicholson in the 60s, before he was famous, and eventually went on to write and direct his own films. He has also worked with Bruce Campbell, William Shatner, and Dick Clark.

In 2018, at the age of 86, Kent was still acting, though he was letting others do the stunts.

 

Truth Versus Fiction

As a director, Tarantino is never held back by realism. His movies and characters intentionally paint bloody pictures that nothing in real life can match. Still, whether Booth is a more interesting character than the men he was based on remains a matter of preference.

Unlike Booth, who had reached the end of his career, Needham, and Kent both experienced success into their 80s. They are men who lived hard, certainly, but worked even harder, judging by their accolades and accomplishments. 

It’s easy to get caught up in characters. And men such as Booth aren’t even characters, but really caricatures. Booth is an amalgam of ideas and idealized notions, no more realistic than any fight scene in Tarantino’s Kill Bill. Caricatures are fun to watch, but would never work that way in real life.

In contrast, the real-life Needham and Kent are men who applied themselves to excel at what they did. Both started out taking fake punches for a living, but neither was content to stay there. They wrote, directed and, lest we forget, made mountains of money.

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