As a six-foot tall sixteen-year old he started bronc riding at the Whitman County Fair held in Colfax in 1912. Canutt started rodeo riding professionally and gained a good reputation as a bronc rider, bulldogger and as an all-around cowboy. It was at the 1914 Pendleton Round-Up , Pendleton, Oregon where he got his nickname "Yakima" when a newspaper caption misidentified him. "Yakima Canutt may be the most famous person NOT from Yakima Washington" says Elizabeth Gibson author of Yakima, Washington. Winning a second place at the 1915 Pendleton Round-Up brought attention from show promoters who invited him to compete around the country.
"I started in major rodeos in 1914, and went through to 1923. There was quite a crop of us traveling together, and we would have special railroad cars and cars for the horses. We'd play anywhere from three, six, eight ten-day shows. Bronc riding and bulldogging were my specialties, but I did some roping." said Canutt.
During the 1916 rodeo season he became interested in Kitty Wilks who had won the Lady's Bronc-Riding Championship a couple of times. They decided to get married at a show in Kalispell, Montana; he was twenty-one and she was twenty-eight. The marriage was short-lived and the couple divorced in 1919. While bulldogging in Idaho, Canutt's mouth and upper lip were torn up very badly by a bull's horn; but after a dozen or so stitches, Canutt returned to the competition. It wasn't until a year later that a plastic surgeon could correct the injury.
In 1918, he went to Spokane to enlist in the Navy and was stationed in Bremerton. In the fall he was given a 30-day furlough to defend his rodeo championship title. Having only enlisted for the duration of the war he was discharged in the spring of 1919. At the 1919 Calgary Stampede he competed in the bucking event and first met Pete Knight.
He traveled to Los Angeles for a big rodeo, and decided to winter over in Hollywood where he met a few screen personalities. It was here that Tom Mix, who had also started in rodeos, invited him to be in two of his pictures. Now known for his flamboyant cowboy costumes, Mix had originally added to his flashy wardrobe by borrowing two of Canutts two-tone shirts and having his tailor make forty assorted copies. Here Canutt got his first taste of stunting with a fight scene on a serial called Lightning Brice; however, he didn't stay and left Hollywood to play the 1920 rodeo circuit.
The Fort Worth rodeo was nicknamed "Yak's show", after he had won the saddle-bronc riding competition three years in succession – 1921, 1922 and 1923. He had won the Saddle-bronc competition in Pendleton in 1917, 1919, and 1923 and came in second in 1915, and 1929. Canutt took first in the steer bulldogging in 1920, and 1921 and won the All-Around Police Gazette belt four times, – 1917, 1919, 1920 and 1923. While in Hollywood in 1923 for an awards ceremony, Canutt was offered a series of eight western action pictures for producer Ben Wilson at Burwillow Studios, the first was to be Riding Mad.
It was in Branded a Bandit (1924) that Canutt's nose was seriously broken in a twelve-foot fall off a cliff. The picture was delayed several weeks, and when it resumed Canutt's close shots were all from the side. A plastic surgeon eventually rebroke and reset the nose which healed well, inspiring Canutt to remark that he thought it looked better afterward.
When his contract with Ben Wilson expired in 1927, Canutt was making many personal appearances at rodeos across the country. By 1928 the talkies were coming out fast and furious, though he had been in 48 silent pictures Canutt knew his acting career was in trouble. His voice had been damaged from a bout of the flu he had in the Navy. He started taking on bit parts and stunts, and while trying to find a place for himself he realized a lot more could be done with action in pictures than what everybody was doing at the time.
In 1930 in between pictures and rodeoing, Canutt met Minnie Audrea Rice at a party at her parent's home. She was twelve years his junior but she still caught and held his eye. They kept company during the next year while he picked up work on the serials for Mascot Pictures Corporation. The couple were married November 12 1931.
When the rodeo riders invaded Hollywood, they brought a battery of rodeo techniques that Canutt would later expand and improve, including an assortment of horse falls, wagon wrecks along with the harnesses and cable rigs to make the stunts foolproof and safe. Among the new safety devices, was the 'L' stirrup which allowed a man to fall off a horse without the chance of getting hung up in the stirrup. Canutt also developed cabling devices and equipment to automatically cause spectacular wagon crashes, while safely releasing the team, all on the same spot every time. Safety methods such as these saved filmmakers time and money and prevented accidents and injury to performers and horses.
It was while working on Mascot serials that Canutt would practice and perfect his most famous stunts, including the drop from a stagecoach that he would later employ in John Ford's 1939 Stagecoach. He first did it in Riders of the Dawn in 1937 while doubling for Jack Randall.
"The two worked together to create a technique that made on-screen fight scenes more realistic. Wayne and Canutt found if they stood at a certain angle in front of the camera, they could throw a punch at an actor’s face and make it look as if actual contact had been made."Together, Canutt and Wayne would pioneer stunt and screen fighting techniques that are still in use today. Much of Wayne's on-screen persona was taken from Canutt's real one. The familiar characterizations we associate with Wayne today; the drawling, hesitant speech and that famous hip-rolling walk of his were pure Canutt. Said Wayne: "I spent weeks studying the way Yakima Canutt walked and talked. He was a real cowhand.
In 1932, Canutt's first son Edward Clay was born and was immediately nicknamed 'Tap'; which is short for Tapadero: a Mexican stirrup covering. It was also in 1932 that Canutt broke his shoulder in four places while trying to do a transfer from horse to wagon team. Though work was scarce he got by combining stunting and rodeo work.
In 1934, Herbert J. Yates of Consolidated Film Industries combined Monogram, Mascot, Liberty, Majestic, Chesterfield, and Invincible pictures to form Republic Pictures and Canutt soon became Republic's top stuntman. He would handle all the action on many pictures, including Gene Autry films; and several series and serials, such as the Lone Ranger and Zorro. For Zorro Rides Again, Canutt did almost all the scenes in which Zorro wore a mask and he was on the screen easily as much as the star John Carroll. When the action was indicated in a Republic script, it merely said "see Yakima Canutt for action sequences."
Said by William Witney one of Republic's directors:
"There will probably never be another stuntman who can compare to Yakima Canutt. He had been a world champion cowboy several times and where horses were concerned he could do it all. He invented all the gadgets that made stunt work easier. One of his clever devices was a step that attached to the saddle so that he had leverage to transfer to another moving object, like a wagon or a train. Another was the “shotgun,” a spring-loaded device used to separate the tongue of a running wagon from the horses, thus cutting the horses loose. It also included a shock cord attached to the wagon bed, which caused wheels to cramp and turn the wagon over on the precise spot that was most advantageous for the camera."
In the 1936 film San Francisco Canutt replaced Clark Gable in a scene in which a wall was to fall on the star. Said Canutt: "We had a heavy table situated so that I could dive under it at the last moment. Just as the wall started down, a girl in the scene became hysterical and panicked. I grabbed her, leaped for the table, but didn't quite make it." The girl was unhurt but he broke six ribs.
Canutt was constantly trying to get into directing; he was growing older and knew his stunting days were numbered. Harry Joe, Canutt's second son was born in January 1937. Joe and his brother Tap would become important stuntmen in the field, working closely with their father on many milestone pictures.
In 1938, Republic Pictures started expanding into bigger pictures and budgets. Canutt's mentor and action director for the 1925 Ben-Hur, Breezy Eason was hired as Second Unit Director and Canutt to coordinate and "ramrod" the stunts. For Canutt this meant hiring all the stuntmen and doing some stunts himself, but laying out the action for the director and writing additional stunts where appropriate.
In the five years between 1925 and 1930, fifty-five people were killed making movies, and more than ten thousand injured. By the late 1930s, the maverick stuntman willing to do anything for a buck was disappearing. Now under scrutiny, experienced stunt men began to separate themselves from amateurs by building special equipment, rehearsing stunts, and developing new techniques. – from Falling: How Our Greatest Fear Became Our Greatest Thrill by Garrett Soden.
John Ford hired Canutt on John Wayne's recommendation to do Stagecoach, where Canutt supervised the river-crossing scene as well as the Indian chase scene, did the stagecoach drop, and doubled for Wayne in the coach stunts. For safety during the stagecoach drop stunt, Canutt devised modified yokes and tongues, to give him extra handholds and provide extra room between the teams. Ford was so pleased with Canutt's work that he told him that whenever Ford made an action picture and Canutt wasn't working elsewhere, he was on Ford's payroll. Also in 1939, Canutt doubled Clark Gable in the burning of Atlanta set piece in Gone with the Wind; he also appeared as a villain accosting Vivien Leigh in a buggy on a bridge.
It was in 1943 while doing a relatively low budget Roy Rogers actioner called Idaho that Canutt broke both his legs at the ankles doing a fall off a wagon. He recovered enough to write the stunts and supervise the action for another Wayne film In Old Oklahoma.
In the next decade Canutt would become one of the best second unit and action directors in the business. MGM brought Canutt to England in 1952 to direct the action and jousting sequences in Ivanhoe with Robert Taylor. This film would set a new precedent by filming the action sequences abroad instead of back on the studio lot, and Canutt introduced many British stuntmen to their first Hollywood-style stunt training. Ivanhoe would be immediately followed by Knights of the Round Table again with director Richard Thorpe and starring Robert Taylor. Canutt had practically cornered the market on jousting stunts, and was again brought in for more lavish action scenes in King Richard and the Crusaders.
Canutt was even called on to direct the close action scenes for Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus, where Canutt spent five days directing retakes that included the slave army rolling its flaming logs into the Romans and numerous other fight scenes featuring Kirk Douglas, Tony Curtis and John Ireland.
Routinely called in to direct animal action, Walt Disney brought Canutt in to do Second Unit for Westward Ho, The Wagons! in 1956; the first live action Disney picture followed by Old Yeller the next year, and culminating in 1960's Swiss Family Robinson which involved transporting many exotic animals to a remote island in the West Indies.
Anthony Mann specifically requested Canutt for Second Unit for his 1961 El Cid, where Canutt directed sons Joe and Tap doubling for Charlton Heston and Christopher Rhodes in a stunning tournament joust. "Canutt was surely the most active stager of tournaments since the Middle Ages" – from Swordsmen of the Screen. He was determined to make the combat scenes in El Cid the best that had ever been filmed. Mann again requested him for 1964's The Fall of the Roman Empire. Over the next ten years Canutt would continue to work bringing his talents to Cat Ballou, Khartoum, Where Eagles Dare and 1970's A Man Called Horse.
For his contribution to the motion picture industry, Yakima Canutt has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1500 Vine Street. In 1967, he was given an Honorary Academy Award for achievements as a stunt man and for developing safety devices to protect stunt men everywhere. He was inducted into the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum (Hall of Fame).
Yakima Canutt died of natural causes at the age of 90 in North Hollywood, California.