|Prettier than most of the stars she doubled for, her stunt career is legendary. A record 14 barrel rolls in a car, being flung off a block of high rise flats or running a weekly Boot Sale for the local hospital was nothing unusual for the woman who was recognised by her contemporaries as ‘Dottie’.|
A tiny figure in a pink night-dress inches slowly along a narrow ledge. Behind her flames and smoke gout from an open window. Further along, at another open window, a man leans out, enticing the terrified girl to come to him so that he can drag her to safety. Wind tugs at her night-dress, threatens to sweep her from the perilous ledge. She freezes, again the man talks to her, calmly reassuring her, she shuffles a few steps closer, stretches out her hand. The wind swirls, she panics, takes an incautious step, her foot slips. The man’s hand grabs her but is unable to hold on. With a scream the pink clad figure falls towards the ground.
Another scene. Two paramedics sit by the side of their ambulance, a small camping table between them. One pours coffee into two cups, they take sandwiches out of a plastic container and settle down to eat. Suddenly they stop and stare open mouthed in panic, jump to their feet, coffee and sandwiches forgotten. Rolling towards them at terrifying speed is a car. Mesmerise they do not move, The car stops only yards short of their position. A truck screams to a halt and firemen and rescuers leap out. While the firemen douse the car with foam to prevent a fire, the rescuers reach in and drag out a slim, helmeted figure. One of the men undoes the chin strap and takes off the helmet to reveal a mass of auburn hair, a pretty face and a wide grin. Dorothy Ford. These sort of actions were all in a day’s work for top stunt woman, Dorothy. The rolling car was a record attempt at a Pipe Roll. She managed to get the car turning over fourteen times. Four more than had been calculated – which was the cause of surprise for the paramedics. It was typical of Dorothy. The speed at which she was supposed to hit the ramp to start the car rolling had been carefully worked out. But as she approached she found she had a few revs in hand so floored the throttle for good measure. Result: she flipped harder than was intended and create a new world record.
I first met Dorothy when I worked on COUNTESS DRACULA. She doubled for me on horseback. The director didn’t think my falling off horses in Almaria when I was desperate to earn a few pesetas, qualified me to ride them . Dorothy loved it and can be seen jauntily riding around, side saddle, throughout the film. She appeared, or should that be – didn’t appear – (if a stunt person ‘appears’ in a film something is obviously wrong with the editing), on a number of other film and television projects with me and she was first on every directors call sheet which called for a ballsy woman. Or some one who could make a pratfall look funny. On DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS she had a story for both sides of the camera. The film was shot on location in the south of France. Dorothy arrived a day or two early to look things over. Sitting in one of the cafes on the Croisette, sipping her usual tipple, Champagne, immaculately dressed and decorous, she spotted the director, Frank Oz and the producer, walking along the pavement. They stopped in front of her. “Ah, Dorothy, “ quoth Frank, “ Have you met our producer.” Dorothy elegantly replaced her Champagne tulip on the table, stood, made sure that everything was in position and stepped regally forward. Unfortunately she didn’t see the low link-chain fence which defined the boundaries of the cafe area. Her foot caught it and precipitated a forward dive. Dorothy reached for the nearest object handy to break her fall. Which happened to be the producer’s trousers. As she recovered her feet and tried to recover some dignity, Frank drawled. “It’s all right, Dorothy, you’ve got the job. We don’t need you to audition.”
On the set with Michael Caine and Steve Martin there was never a dull moment. A scene that was shown in the trailer but was exorcised from the film was shot in the harbour at Cannes. In the scene Caine and Martin are walking along the dock. An old lady (Dorothy), stands on the side feeding the seagulls. As they pass Martin elbows Dorothy in the back and she falls into the sea. It wasn’t supposed to happen and Steve Martin made sure he kept out of Dorothy’s way for the rest of the shoot.
James Bond films were Dorothy’s speciality. There must have been some in which she didn’t perform death defying stunts but I don’t know which ones they were. She didn’t appear in OCTOPUSSY ( 1983), , (I didn’t ‘appear’ in that one either), FOR YOUR EYES ONLY (1981), VIEW TO A KILL ( 1985), MOON RAKER (1979 ) etc. We were back together on WHO DARES WINS (1982 ) and she went on to THE OMEN (1976 ), SUPERMAN (1978 ) BATMAN (1989 ) and GORILLAS IN THE MIST` (1988). You name ‘em she’s done ‘em. The stunts were done at a price. Scars on her body told hair raising tales of close encounters of the painful kind. In SAHARA (1983) she was doubling for Brooke Shields. She had to walk across the roof of an adobe building in the desert. At a certain point she was supposed to fall through. Boxes were arranged underneath. to break her fall. A miscalculation was made and she fell at the wrong place and broke her vertebrae in three places, her breast bone and a rib.. Luckily the spinal column wasn’t injured and she made a full recovery.
Away from the crazy world of risking life and limb, Dorothy was the sole of domesticity. And even the warning sign on a cigarette packet couldn’t tempt her within breathing range of a cigarette. Most Saturday mornings in the summer she had a Boot Sale in the paddock at the side of her house in aid of the Mount Vernon Hospital. She even demanded that punters refrained from smoking in the field. Despite this she was an energetic and wonderful hostess. Two days of the year were Dorothy Days. New Year’s Eve and the last weekend in July that was closest to her birthday. She had a beautiful garden in which she worked every available hour. The garden and her pure white German Shepherds were what she was really all about. The stunt work is what paid for the horses, the holidays in the Caribbean, the swimming pool, her beautiful house and the champagne. In spite of her high speed life style she was a good and thoughtful friend. When I was lying in the Royal Brompton contemplating the possibility of shuffling off this mortal coil, Dorothy arrived like a thunderclap, didn’t go through the usual heartening spiel of telling me how well I looked but chatted on about what was going on outside the close confines of my antiseptic room. And the presents she brought weren’t for an invalid. They were expensive and something for someone who was still connected to this world and would want to use them very soon. She was excruciatingly alive.
Which made the news of her illness come as a shock. I was spending the weekend with a friend in Bath. The idea was that on the way back to London on Sunday night I would drop off at Dorothy’s house for dinner. In the valley near Bath I couldn’t get a signal on the mobile so didn’t bother to check in until I was about 20 miles from her place. Brian, her husband, told me the devastating news. Dorothy was ill and we would have to put off our date. It soon became obvious that this was no trivial malady. Soon she was deep into the enervating effects brought on by chemo therapy. Then she appeared to be getting better. We had the long postponed dinner and made plans to meet up again when she came back from a holiday in the Maldives. It was not to be. She left for Mexico soon after she returned. She had heard about a clinic that had a fantastic reputation for stemming the ravages of cancer. It was too late. She returned to her home but knew that she didn’t have long to live. As she faded away she bore her burden stoically. She believed that she had lived her life fully and well.
Dorothy died on the 15th July 2003. At her funeral stuntmen and stars turned out to bid her a final farewell. Fittingly she went out in the style which had made her such a wonderful person in Life. The hearse was white, drawn by white horses with plumes of black feathers on their head. It really was a celebration of her life and the friends she had made. Where was I? I just couldn’t force myself to go. It all seemed so unfair. In my darkest hour she had been so alive and her attitude so positive. I felt I had failed her.
MM Oct 03