LOS ANGELES—Billy Atchley's prodigious fall from a balcony onto a table in a 1997 episode of Walker, Texas Ranger launched a successful career—one which has included falls in Westerns, romantic comedies, and historical epics. However, the 32-year-old stuntman said Monday that he feels suffocated artistically.
"Producers, casting directors, even my own manager: All they see, or want to see, is a guy who falls from balconies onto tables," said Atchley, who was classically trained at the Tallahassee School For The Performing Feats. "But I'm also capable of giving quieter, more nuanced performances, like falling drunkenly down the stairs, or getting hit on the back of the head with a chair."
Atchley's versatility has occasionally been recognized by directors like Target Trigger's Josh Durkee, who hired the stuntman to fall from a veranda onto a desk, and later gave him a role falling from a terrace onto a bench. But such opportunities are rare, and often end up on the cutting-room floor. Atchley, despite having appeared in nearly 200 feature films and TV shows, said his true range has not been explored.
"I'd like to show the stunt-industry powers that be that I have a much wider range as a performer by throwing myself through a plate-glass window," Atchley said.
While Atchley can't pinpoint the moment when he went from feeling like a skilled, valued stuntman to feeling like "a caricature of a stuntman," he recalled a time when falling from balconies onto tables was creatively rewarding.
"The first few times I performed the stunt, I was so completely in the moment," Atchley said. "These days, though, I mostly spend the time between the balcony and the table thinking about what bills need to be paid, or what I have to pick up from the supermarket on the way home."
"I may still be putting my shoulder into every fall, but it's been years since I've put my heart into one," he added.
Doug Kaminski, Atchley's longtime manager, said he has gone out of his way to get his client more diverse and challenging work. Yet Atchley said he's come to feel that his manager is "more concerned with the bottom line" than in securing creatively rewarding work.
"Doug got me a science-fiction thriller set in the year 2079," Atchley said. "At first, it seemed like an exciting departure for me, but then I showed up and it was like, 'We want you to fall from this floating anti-gravity platform onto an alien shape-shifter who has momentarily assumed the characteristics of a table.'"
Wife Susan Atchley has noticed a change in her husband over the past year.
"He used to get back from a shoot full of enthusiasm, but now he comes home beaten and battered by falling from balconies and onto tables all day," said Susan, who added that she sympathizes with her husband's frustration. "He really does have so much more to offer—I've seen Billy get hit by a car, and it was wonderful."
Said Atchley: "I'd give anything to put on a flame-retardant suit and be set ablaze in order to play a character with an actual emotional arc for a change."
Increasingly discouraged, Atchley has rebelled against his typecasting by ad-libbing stunts during his scenes, earning a reputation as a prima donna who resists direction.
"We were minutes away from shooting Billy's scene, when he walks up to me and asks if instead of falling from the balcony, he could try staggering back a few steps and spilling head-over-heels down the stairs to the saloon floor," said Brian Hendra, director of the upcoming motion picture The Domino Effect. "Who does he think he is? [Stunt actor] Wayne Taylor?"
Even Kaminski said he is bored by his client's constant lectures about artistic purity and "how Jackie Chan or Buster Keaton would do it."
"He's known in the industry as the guy who falls off balconies onto tables—what's wrong with that?" Kaminski said. "Audiences love people who fall off balconies onto tables. Why not give them what they want?"
Kaminski added: "What Atchley needs to understand is that falling off balconies onto tables is not just an art form—it's a business."