From racing motorcycles to performing stunts in the entertainment industry, the passion remains consistent. Life as a stuntman is as exhilarating as it is dangerous, just ask somebody like stuntman and actor Leo Dottavio. However, this line of work can be unbelievably fulfilling for people that love their thrills.
Whether he is dressed as a pirate, wearing a brown tri-cornered hat, brown coat and sporting a beard, or plunging off a bridge into a river, he is always prepared.
A stuntman for more than 30 years, Mark Donaldson knew he would never work a nine-to-five job. He credits his perseverance with helping fulfill his dream of moving from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to Los Angeles to make it happen.
Raised in Louisiana, Donaldson developed an interest in motorcycles at an early age. He began riding by 12, racing competitively in motocross by 14 and he became a professional by 17.
Friends for more than 40 years, Freddie Rapuana and Donaldson lived near each other and attended the same school. Initially closer with Donaldson’s brother, the two eventually became friends.
“We were probably a little bit more on the same page as far as the things that we were interested in as teenagers. That’s kind of how we began our friendship,” Rapuana said. “A lot of it revolved around our love of motorcycles, which is something that’s a huge part of his life.”
As he continued to race professionally, Donaldson realized within his first year that he wouldn’t be able to make it to the top of the ranks, and he investigated other career opportunities. Donaldson began to look into the stunt industry.
“I loved being outside, I loved playing,” Donaldson said. “When I found out that there was a job that you can actually play all of your career, wow that’s the perfect job.”
Realizing the stunt industry was for him, Donaldson planned the move to California for two years before leaving home.
He worked numerous jobs where he began to save money, allowing him time while living in Los Angeles to learn the ropes of his new profession.
A Los Angeles resident at 22, Donaldson began visiting the Stuntmen’s Association of Motion Pictures, a fraternal organization, asking questions about the necessary requirements to become a stuntman, while also taking gymnastics classes.
He was directed to Los Angeles Valley College, where Donaldson had the opportunity to meet young people who wanted to pursue the same goals, helping him make connections and get pointers.
“The first thing they will teach you is how to do a studio fight, because for years that was your bread and butter. You did more studio fights than anything,” Donaldson said. “From there, you were given chances to maybe do a motorcycle stunt or be in a car chase scene but maybe you were one of the cars in the very back of the line.”
Donaldson would use his skill set to acquire future work, such as “National Treasure“ and the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise. As most stuntmen do not have agents, work comes from word of mouth, friends hiring friends and recommendations from former colleagues.
Learning from experience, Donaldson always plans the outcome three ways.There’s what he thinks will happen, what might happen and then what if it goes terribly wrong.
“The thing you learn as you gain experience is, you’re so focused on the big ones they almost become easy,” Donaldson said. “A lot of times when stunt guys get hurt it’s on the smaller stunts because maybe your focus isn’t as it should be.”
Due to his work ethic and preparedness, Donaldson has never been seriously injured, only breaking small bones in his hands and feet.
At 58, Donaldson has decided against taking certain jobs and stunts he used to do at a younger age.
He no longer has the desire to travel to certain destinations or participate in a car hit, unless he is the one that’s doing the hitting.
These days, Donaldson is not only a member of the Stuntmen‘s Association of Motion Pictures but serves as it’s president, currently on his third term and final year. Formed in 1961, the association is one of four stuntmen’s associations in Los Angeles and the oldest of its kind.
“I probably enjoy it more, looking forward to going to work, because with experience comes confidence,” Donaldson said.
Fellow Stuntmen’s Association member Grant Jewett has known Donaldson for five years, not only as a colleague but he described Donaldson as a fantastic yet “introverted” individual.
“He’s always thinking. He’s somebody that I can call, especially with matters regarding the Stuntmen’s Association,” Jewett said. “We have similar mindsets on not just the business but the way our brains process information.
A stuntman for more than 30 years, Donaldson is grateful for the opportunities that have presented themselves during his career, and is proud of what he has been able to accomplish so far.
“My career has revolved around living in a fantasy world, the things we get to do, the places we get to go, the things we get to see,” Donaldson said, “I’ve been blessed with an incredibly good career. I’ve been fortunate enough to work a lot, on a lot of big movies.”