For years, I dreamed of being in films, so after the Army, I came into contact with a local FX and stunt coordinator. It wasn't long before my phone rang with my first job offer. There I was, standing on my first set complete with pyrotechnics, WWII tanks and people barking orders in what might as well have been Latin. My job was easy: I'd play the hero cop in my very old Dodge K car. The plan was to stage down a tree-lined gravel road, and on the "big bang, floor it down the road, make that sharp left, go 50 yards, and you'll be head on with #1 tank—director and camera included. Throw it in reverse until #2 tank blocks your path, slap it in drive, spin the wheels, then grab your machine gun, bail out, and spray the camera tank until we run your car over." Yep, it was that easy.
Staged and ready, the director called action, and we started rolling. First off, the "big bang" was a little underestimated. Although the trees hid the cars that were to explode, the 40-foot hood rocket followed by the mushroom cloud was a dead giveaway. Before I knew it, I was up to speed, but it hit me that something was wrong—a third tank! A smart man would have stopped and brought this up to the director; then again, a smart man wouldn't be crashing a car into a tank in the first place. Staying focused, I slid around the tank and headed for my mark, but there was one problem—the camera tank was on it and heading straight for me. My plan B was to slap it in reverse and shoot for my second mark. (Med school suddenly didn't seem stupid anymore.) When I snapped my head back forward, it became very clear to me that "hitting your mark" was optional for these guys, and even though I was surrounded by 50-year-old diesel motors, I could still hear the director screaming orders and see the look of pending doom on the tank driver's face. I bailed out of the car, fired off a full clip and delivered my lines. Well, sort of. I called "improv," and due to my choice of words, I wouldn't get credit for a speaking part.
Later, the director rushed over and grabbed my hand. "That was incredible!" he said with a huge smile. "You really had me believing you weren't going to make it."
I learned a few things that day. Guys who own tanks are crazy, guys who drive tanks are crazier, and guys who volunteer to crash their cars into tanks are probably the new guys.
Rick Bittle is a full-time police officer, actor and filmmaker currently living in Indianapolis, Indiana.