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Bud Ekins, 77; stuntman taught film stars to ride motorcycles

LOS ANGELES - Bud Ekins, a pioneering champion off-road motorcyclist and a veteran stuntman who doubled for Steve McQueen on the famous motorcycle jump in "The Great Escape," has died. He was 77.

Mr. Ekins died Saturday of natural causes at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, publicist Paul Bloch said.

A 1999 inductee of the Motorcycle Hall of Fame, Mr. Ekins was one of the first Americans to compete in the World Championship Motocross Grand Prix circuit in Europe during the 1950s. And by the mid-'50s, he was the top scrambles and desert rider in Southern California and had been district champion seven times.

His friendship with fellow motorcyclist McQueen, whom he helped teach off-road racing, launched Mr. Ekins's career as a movie stuntman.

He amassed numerous stunt credits, including the television series "CHiPs" and films such as "Diamonds Are Forever," "Earthquake," "The Towering Inferno," "Animal House," and "The Blues Brothers."

But Mr. Ekins's most famous stunt work was on his first job: doubling for McQueen in the climactic motorcycle jump over a high barbed-wire fence in the 1963 World War II prisoner-of-war movie "The Great Escape."

"Steve could have done it himself," said Bob Hoy, a stuntman friend of Mr. Ekins. "He did the lead up to it and rode the bike wherever he was running in that escape, but Bud did the jump.

"It was a tough jump. You only can do that kind of thing once; you either make it or you don't make it."

Susan Ekins, Mr. Ekins's daughter and an executive film producer, said her father was very proud of the spectacular jump, which was shot on location in Germany.

She said her father and McQueen dug a ramp of dirt, and they both practiced jumping the motorcycle over a rope to see whether the rider would clear the fence.

"Steve was a very capable rider, but my dad did the jump because they wouldn't let a star do a jump of that nature because they couldn't afford to have him hurt," she said.

In the 1968 crime drama "Bullitt," Mr. Ekins also did some of the stunt work for McQueen, when his detective character is in hot pursuit of the bad guys over the hills of San Francisco.

Mr. Ekins was born into a working-class family in Hollywood on May 11, 1930. As a teenager, according to a biography on the website for the Motorcycle Hall of Fame Museum, he spent nearly two years in reform school after he and some friends were caught joy riding in a stolen car.

Hooked on motorcycles after riding his cousin's 1934 Harley-Davidson, Mr. Ekins bought a used 1940 Triumph and began spending his spare time riding in the Hollywood hills.

After entering the Big Bear Endurance Run in 1949, he bought a 1950 Matchless and, according to the biography, immediately began winning races.

In 1955, he won the Catalina Grand Prix, one of the country's most prestigious off-road motorcycle races. And during the same decade, he won the Big Bear Endurance Run three times.

His most prestigious accomplishments on the international level were in the 1960s, when he won four gold medals and one silver medal during seven years of competing in the International Six Day Trial (now the International Six Day Enduro). (In 1964, Mr. Ekins's team included his brother David and McQueen.)

Mr. Ekins also was a founder of the Baja 1000, and in the early '60s, he made record runs down the Baja peninsula.

Beginning in the 1950s, he owned a popular motorcycle shop, and he later became one of the country's leading collectors of vintage and rare motorcycles; at one time, his collection included more than 150 motorcycles.

Recalling her father's motorcycle shop, Susan Ekins said: "It was a hangout. My dad taught Warren Beatty how to ride. He taught everybody how to ride motorcycles."

Producer Jerry Weintraub, who knew Mr. Ekins for 30 years and described him as "a man's man," agreed.

"He taught most of the movie stars in this town how to ride motorcycles," Weintraub said. "If somebody wanted to buy a great motorcycle . . . they'd go to Bud Ekins. He was an icon."

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