Taking the Fall
In her 35-year career, she has fallen down stairs, been set on fire, plummeted off buildings and survived more car crashes than most people can even imagine. She’s been beaten and thrown from cars. She has burst through glass windows. She has been attacked by a supernaturally possessed f ire hose. And she has loved every second of it.
Mary Peters-Scannell has spent her life as a model, actress and most notably a professional stuntwoman, working on films and television shows ranging from M*A*S*H* to Lethal Weapon. A stunningly tall and striking redhead, Scannell started out as a model in the early 1970s before getting her first big break as a side character on the wildly popular dark comedy M*A*S*H*.
In the days before computer-generated graphics, Scannell was among the handful of women who specialized in dangerous stunt and stunt double work. She was top of her league, and in the world of Hollywood, became known as one of the best stuntwomen in the field. Now in her 50s, Scannell still travels to Hollywood to work on occasion. She counts famous actors and actresses as friends, and her life remains one of adventure. “Angels have always been there for me, looking after me,” she said. “I’ve always been very lucky.”
ROUGH & TUMBLE
Mary Peters-Scannell, known by her stage name Mary Peters, was the youngest daughter of a California policeman. From an early age, she was athletic and strong, beating boys at races and qualifying for the Junior Olympics in the high jump. Her father let her train with him at the police training field, and a high school boyfriend taught her to slide and race Ferraris and other sports cars. When she met a couple on the racetrack who worked stunts in films, she found the career she was looking for.
“I was a model at 20th Century Fox,” Scannell said,“ when I met a director who asked me what I wanted to do. I replied, ‘I want to be a stuntwoman.’” That director brought Scannell to the set of M*A*S*H, where she immediately started working a side role. After working on the show for five years, she earned her SAG card. “I was very blessed. I didn’t realize how hard it was to get your SAG card, and I fell into it,” she said. “The ‘70s and ‘80s were the Golden Age of stunt work. We could pick and choose our jobs. I used M*A*S*H as a stepping stone, and then started doing action work.”
Becoming a stuntwoman meant training—lots of it. Scannell became an expert at falls, fights, car crashes and more. She learned precision driving. “Car crashes were my favorite. I knew I was good at crashes,” said Scannell. “I’ve done tons of stair-falls, fires and explosions. I always trusted my instincts though. If a stunt didn’t feel right, I wouldn’t do it. I learned to stick up for my life.”
The stunt business was still dangerous, however. In one movie, Scannell had to run off the top of a building, but the airbag she fell into wasn’t working properly. She fractured her back in three places and was out of work for two and a half years. Scannell was doubling for Sigourney Weaver on the movie Copycat when she was injured again. “We were doing a scene where she was supposed to get a roundhouse to the face,’’ she said, “Something wasn’t right. I didn’t trust the other stuntman. So, I convinced Sigourney to let me do the stunt, and sure enough, he actually hit me and broke my nose. Afterwards, Sigourney referred to me as her sacrificial lamb.’’
Mostly, it was perilous business as usual. She doubled for Vanessa Redgrave and tumbled down a flight of stairs in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, was violently pulled from her car by actor Gary Busey in the first Lethal Weapon and was blown off a set of bleachers by a water hose in the film Carrie.
“The more rounded and gifted you are, the more work you get,” said Scannell. “There were few women doing stunts at the time, but they were the cream of the crop. Not only do you have to do stunts, you have to look like your doubles and act like them. If you clicked with a particular actress, they would hire you for all their films.”
THE WILD LIFE
Living and working in the movie business brought Scannell face to face with many of Hollywood’s biggest stars. She became friends with such stars as Lynn Redgrave, Leslie Nielson, Bob Hope, Jackie Chan and Mel Gibson. She rubbed elbows with names like Brad Pitt, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Robert Redford, Robert Mitchum and more. She even briefly dated Erik Estrada. Scannell was Sigourney Weaver’s double in all the Ghostbuster films and one of the Alien films. She worked stunts for the Lethal Weapon series, Independence Day, Terminator II, Carrie, The Feds, Rush Hour, and more. She also had regular TV work on shows like Baywatch Nights, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Star Trek and more.
In 2000, Scannell and her husband Stewart moved to Oklahoma where he took a position with Northrop Grumman. Her son, Matthew Senour, is an aerospace engineer at Northrup Grumman as well. At first, she didn’t know how she would transition from the wild life of movies to quiet Oklahoma, but she has. “I do a lot of community work and I do interior design,” she said. “I miss it, but I still go back and work sometimes.”