Years ago, after a screening in Vancouver, B.C., a young man told me he wanted to star in my next ski movie and be famous for the rest of his life. I gave him the stock response I'd used on so many other ski-movie wannabes: "What can you do that's different from turning your skis left and right or just going straight and leaping off a cliff?"
He caught me by surprise when he said, "I bought a $10 Army surplus asbestos fireproof suit, complete with an asbestos facemask and helmet. I'll wear the suit, my partner will pour gasoline all over me, then he'll light me on fire, and I'll ski down the hill in flames and jump off a big cliff. "That sounded like a pretty good idea to me, so I said, "You do that, and I'll make sure I have a camera crew there to make you world-famous."
Exactly 61 days later the drama unfolded at Squaw Valley, Calif., under the watchful eye of the local ski patrol. My ace cameraman, Don Brolin, had hired eight or 10 extra people to help him with fire extinguishers, first-aid and to run additional cameras. Don wisely figured that if the young man had bought the fireproof suit for only $10, it might have a leak or two.
Our soon-to-be-famous hot dog skier had laboriously hauled 15 gallons of gasoline up to where he would start skiing down in flames. By his calculations, it would take five gallons of gasoline for each attempt. He decided that the suit could probably withstand three flaming trips.The fateful day finally arrived.
"Fire extinguishers ready?"
"Asbestos Man, are you ready?"
A mumble emerged from inside the suit, then a wave and a thumbs up. The gasoline started flowing over his helmet, down over his shoulders, back and chest, with a little extra shot of fuel on his skis.
"Prepare for ignition."
An explosion roared across Squaw Valley, and everyone instantly had second thoughts about the wisdom of this hot dog roast. But with three cameras rolling and flames leaping six or eight feet high, he shoved off. Before he had skied 15 feet, the viewing port of his fireproof helmet fogged up, obscuring his view of the takeoff. He jumped anyway, because he had to get down to where the fire crew was waiting. The world's first barbecued hot dogger flew about 100 feet and crashed in flames. Our crew of minimum-wage firemen spewed fire-retardant over the suit, and Asbestos Man emerged unscathed.
Over lunch, everybody worked to solve the fogging problem. In the end, they rigged up a breathing tube that went under the hot dogger's armpit. That way he'd be breathing toasty-warm armpit air rather than cold mountain air and the faceplate wouldn't fog up. Or so they hoped.After lunch, Asbestos Man suited up again. While three off-duty bartenders hauled more gas to the top of the in-run, the cameramen practiced their pans and the firemen took practice squirts of fire-retardant foam. Everybody felt ready.
This time the flames were so high Asbestos Man looked like an airplane going down in flames. Peering through a clear faceplate and breathing warm armpit air, he flew 100 feet-and still crashed in flames. The five firemen converged, spraying foam while he slid and rolled to a stop.I'll never forget Asbestos Man's first question after he removed his still-smoking helmet: "Will I be world-famous?"
"Sure," said Don, "but in that suit no one will recognize you."