From rodeo to the big screen: Local man recounts life as a Hollywood stuntman

R.L. Tolbert grips the reins of a bronc as it jumps out of the chute at a rodeo in this photo from his days as a cowboy. Tolbert moved from the rodeo circuit to stunt work in Hollywood. (Photo courtesy of R.L. Tolbert).

VALE – R.L. Tolbert has gone up in flames, crashed cars and taken punches from Hollywood actors.

That’s because the seasonal Vale resident was a stuntman in the film and TV industry, mostly doing horseback stunts deemed too dangerous for the stars.

In movie after movie, Tolbert has leaped from speeding trains, jumped from towering cliffs and roared through city streets in gravity-defying car chases.

That was him driving horses in “Back to the Future III.” That was him tumbling down a staircase in “Silverado.”

And, yes, that was him getting dragged by a car down a Los Angeles street in “1941.”

Last month, western film star Sam Elliott presented Tolbert with the “Best Stuntman” award at the Reel Cowboys’ 21st annual Silver Spur Awards.

The Reel Cowboys is a non-profit organization that honors members of the entertainment industry who have worked in western movies and television, said Tolbert.

A program from the awards banquet refers to Tolbert as “a stagecoach driver that can handle six horses at a time, can beat the heck out of any bad guy and even take a big fall (without hurting himself), while giving credit to the actor he is doubling.” (Link to stunt reel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6TvusH_uqDg)

For the cowboy, life on horseback in the movies was just a continuation of the life he’s always lived.

Tolbert was born and raised in Colorado and learned to ride and drive horses at the age of 8.

“I was driving and riding horses all my life,” he said.

His maternal grandfather farmed with horses, and his paternal grandfather built roads and big farms with horses.

“My grand dad worked with teams of horses,” he said. “He was breaking teams for dude ranches in Colorado. The last job he had was driving stagecoaches in a western town in Canyon City, Colorado.” 

Between his two grandfathers, that’s where he learned how to ride and drive horses.

Tolbert began his rodeo career at the age of 22, saddle bronc and bull riding on the Rodeo Cowboys Association circuit, the predecessor to the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association.

He became a top saddle bronc rider and traveled around the country.

“When I started bronc riding, you had to ride a bronc for 10 seconds,” he said. They changed it around the 1970s. He said he was rodeoing in California mostly.

It was through rodeos that he got to ride some horses bucking on the set of “Dirty Dingus Magee,” starring Frank Sinatra.

“They needed someone to chariot horses and stagecoach in a wild west act at Great Adventure in New Jersey,” he said. Back east, he met Glenn Randall Jr., a stuntman who ran the wild west act at the New Jersey theme park.

Through him, he met Glenn Randall Sr., a horse trainer who taught him more about training horses.

“I got to learn more about training horses from him,” he said.

He got his Screen Actors Guild card in 1975 after getting hit by a car for a movie, Tolbert said.

He just stopped doing rodeos and focused on Hollywood.

“I didn’t enter rodeos when I was doing shows,” he said. “You could get hurt. But I was doing rodeos in between shows”

What Tolbert really enjoys, he said, is driving horses. He said he could drive 6-up and 8-up horse wagons, which are teams of horses hitched to a wagon, stagecoach or chariot.

Because of that, he was cast as a stagecoach driver in a series of fast action westerns, most notably in “Back to the Future III,” “Return to Lonesome Dove” and the HBO miniseries “Deadwood.”

Tolbert’s career has spanned four decades with a resume that includes acting credits in more than 60 movies and stunt work in hundreds of titles.

He said he had been in the business long enough to have seen major changes in the staging and presentation of stunts.

“It’s much safer now,” Tolbert said. “Safety conditions are stricter today than they were back when I started. Some studios now don’t even let actors go faster on a horse trot.”

He said the stunt industry has changed, too.

The increased reliance on computer-generated imagery has led to fewer opportunities for stunt performers, Tolbert said.

“It’s now harder to break into the movie industry,” Tolbert said. “There are not enough jobs available in the market for all the stunt performers, and there’s a lot more nepotism nowadays.”

After three decades in California, life settled down. Tolbert said that in 2004, he and his family searched for land to raise horses and other livestock.

He said he chose Vale because he wanted to his two kids to attend a good school system that also had strong FFA and 4-H clubs.

“Elliott was 13 and Tessa was nine years when we moved here,” he said.

Elliot began high school in Vale, while his daughter began elementary school in Willowcreek.

In eastern Oregon, Tolbert raised and trained trick horses and became involved in his children’s extracurricular activities. For example, he would show his trick horses, named Ronnie and Guapo, to their schools.

Guapo was a liberty horse that worked in sets like “Pensacola,” “The Return to Lonesome Dove,” “Mask of Zorro,” and “Wooly Boys.”

Meanwhile, Ronnie was a cast horse in several movies with Sam Elliott.

Tolbert also got involved in leadership positions within the community.

He was on the advisory board for the FFA and the Foundation board for the FFA Auction.

“I became the vice president of the Leaders Association for two years,” he said. “While I was on that, I was also on the junior livestock committee as a board member. And for a couple of years, I became president of the junior livestock committee.”

Tolbert said his last Hollywood stunt performance was last year for a movie called “Mustang” filmed in Carson City, Nevada.

Asked about whether he’d still do stunt work today, Tolbert said he would in a heartbeat.