Four minutes and 24 seconds can’t do justice to decades of life “over the edge.” But his video demo reel can introduce you to Rich Hopkins—swinging from helicopters and skyscrapers, bombing shirtless down snow and pavement, and pioneering on bungee cords and motorized skates while engulfed in flames. His Las Vegas stunt company Thrillseekers Unlimited is 20 years old, and the “King of Extreme” has a story for every scar. When he’s not engineering thrills, Hopkins is advocating for the local film industry, honing his pitch for a major action sports park and wondering if he’ll ever live down doubling for Fabio.
At 21, before you became a stuntman, you broke your neck in a car accident. As bad as that was it was also a godsend because, while I was in the ICU, they found out I had a hole in my heart.
Up to that point you were focused on becoming a pro surfer, but recovery from the accident and subsequent heart surgery took two years. Did it kill your dream? Rob Machado and Brad Gerlach and Tom Curren—these guys went on to be world-famous, huge, world-champion surfers, and those were my peers at the time. So it was kind of a bummer, and I knew that I missed my chance at professional surfing. I needed a change of pace, to get out of San Diego. So I decided maybe I could be like Tom Cruise and be the big actor guy.
I’m pretty sure Tom Cruise was never in a Skid Row video. [For “Piece of Me”] they had me in front of the stage doing the headbanger thing. There’s a part where a riot breaks out, so then they put a cop uniform on me ... with a rubber club and just waling on people. … It’s not like my first stunt I was flipping a car and doing fire burns.
You’ve done some interesting things while on fire, from the world’s first pyrotechnic bungee jump to a death scene in a horror flick. What does it feel like? Really cold, because you have your Nomex undergarments like racecar drivers and firefighters wear. … You soak the Nomex in stunt gel and keep it refrigerated.
Among my favorite bullet points on your resume is playing a surfer in Point Break. The greatest part was during lunch, sitting around the table with Anthony Kiedis from the Chili Peppers … Gary Busey, classic, just sitting there chomping on a big cigar … telling stories I can’t even repeat to you. Swayze, very cool, very zen. He did more listening. He barely interjected. He just liked to hear other people’s stories.
Like the one about you being Fabio’s stunt double in a commercial? I can’t live that one down. … We shot it in the jungles of mainland Mexico in a little town called Catemaco. We arrived separately, and the whole town knew there was some big star coming down. He arrived a few hours after me, so when I showed up there they thought I was the guy.
Until they saw him watching while you swung on vines, wearing only a loincloth. (Laughs) That wasn’t so thrilling to me. I’m a surfer. I wear surf trunks, and I had to put on this little marble bag.
That was in the ’90s, when your body could take a beating from palm trees a little better. At 48, you still do stunts, but you’ve become a master coordinator. My job is to be the world’s biggest pessimist. I need to think of every death/blood/guts/gore that could happen for this particular stunt and think of contingency plans.
You’ve only been injured once on camera, but practice is another story. What have you broken? I broke my back twice. … I’ve broken every finger, every toe twice—both my ankles. ... They all suck. (Laughs)
One of the most famous stunts you performed involved wearing a Spider-Man costume while descending the face of a 1,000-foot skyscraper. Before I started I said, “If I’m going to die this will be a great way to do it, but I would hate to be the little kids down there, watching Spider-Man splatter on the ground.” … When you’re actually doing the stunt you can’t think about anything else, you’re so locked into the moment.
When you’re done with a big stunt project, how do you unwind? I want to go somewhere where there’s no phones, no lights, no motorcars. I want to go to Gilligan’s Island.
Vegas is not known as a movie town. Why not? There are only three or four states that do not offer any tax incentives, and we’re one of them. ... If the politicians and government officials decide to actually level the playing field for the film industry here in Las Vegas, it will explode.