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Charleston native pulls off a stunt in changing his life

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Like many a person who aims to point his life in a new direction, Jonathan Tilley decided to go back to school at age 27, quitting his job at the NGK Spark Plugs plant in Sissonville.

But he'd be taking classes in subjects like barroom brawling, dagger fighting, body slamming, car crashing -- and some rather important coursework in how to survive after being set on fire.

Being a dutiful son, he informed his mother.

"I was living with my mom after me and my ex-wife separated," Tilley recalled. "I said, 'Mom, I'm going to Seattle to learn how to be a stunt guy.'"

There are many possible motherly reactions to hearing such a sentence uttered by a son. The Charleston native got the best kind to this news he was flying the coop for a Seattle stunt school, if not indeed leaping off a tall building onto an air cushion a dozen flights below.

"She's one of my biggest fans -- she's like, 'Oh, OK, all right."

Her faith in her son's judgment has borne fruit, as well as, it should be noted, swords, fake blood and not a few real injuries.

Tilley, now 36, is a featured stunt guy at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla., donning the battered fedora and cargo pants of a character you know well. In case any of his old Herbert Hoover High School classmates don't know the news, Jon Tilley is now Indiana Jones.

He's a member of the rotating crew of the "Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular" at the Hollywood Studios at Walt Disney World resort, a show inspired by "Raiders of the Lost Ark," the film starring Harrison Ford.

"It's a very tough show to do," said Tilley, speaking by phone from Orlando. "The show is about 30 minutes long, three scenes."

It begins just like the movie, with Indiana Jones trying to spirit a golden idol from a recreated Peruvian temple, while dodging booby traps, false floors and deadly spikes. The action -- and there's lots of it -- shifts to Cairo as Jones and his companion, Marion, flee rooftops from bad guys. It concludes with the couple trying to stop the Nazis from flying the Ark of the Covenant to Berlin, with gunplay and flames surrounding a scaled-down version of a German Luftwaffe aircraft.

"We actually run atop buildings and jump off them. We climb them as we fight on them. We have a rope swing where we swing from one building to another," said Tilley.

Then comes the jump. Indiana and Marion -- played by a stuntwoman colleague -- leap off a building and plunge about 35 feet onto an air cushion.

"It's actually one of the hardest things. If our timing is good, we hold hands all the way down. If our timing is off and we start to fall at a different rate, we do let go of each other so we don't pull each together when we hit on the pad."

The show takes place in an outdoor auditorium that seats about 2,300 people. He sometimes does three shows back-to-back, wearing knee and elbow pads, two shirts, gloves and a microphone pack worn around his shoulders. It can be a sweaty challenge on blistering days with 95 percent humidity, said Tilley.

"On days when it's 105 degrees, it's probably one of the hardest things I've ever done in my life, physically. There are times when I'll go in and lose five pounds a day."

Yet he's well on his way on his journeyman trek to become the stunt guy he told his mom about. His work at Disney World made him eligible recently for entry into the Screen Actors Guild -- and that SAG union card is essential for a stuntman's entry into film and TV work.

And he has finally embraced his inner actor.

"When I decided I wanted to be a stunt guy, I didn't want to be an actor. I just wanted to fall off a building or get shot," he said. "Nowadays, I love to perform. I wouldn't say I'm a great actor, but I do like the characters I've portrayed."

Stunt work continues to excite him, especially when they light him up -- with professionals on hand to keep him from turning into a human barbecue.

"Being on fire is probably one of the most scary, but thrilling things I've ever done. It may be weird to hear someone say it, but I've done two full body-on-fire burns and I love doing those."

He's a self-confessed adrenaline junkie, lover of roller coasters and general thrill-seeker, who could not be happier then when he and Marion drop like stones through the air.

"I love that feeling of falling," said Tilley. "It's so weird, kind of like a Catch-22. It's so scary, but so thrilling at the same time."

He dates his stuntman roots to his earliest days in Charleston, watching stunt work on TV at age 12. Then, he and a brother would bolt into the great outdoors to seek thrills of their own.

"We were always trying to get into something. I was constantly jumping out of trees and buildings. We would stage little fights, wrestling matches and stuff like that we would get on film."

 Stunt work is the art of manifesting the illusion of serious danger. But there is real danger and genuine injury, as Tilley knows all too well. "I've dislocated my shoulder. I've broken three toes," he said.

While the shoulder injury occurred three years ago, "it still bothers me to this day," he said.

Before Disney World, Tilley worked a Florida dinner theater show called "Pirates." It featured the usual stuff pirates get into -- rope-swinging, derring-do, swordplay.

"I was doing one of the sword fights and a guy hit me with a sword, severed my tendon and came damn near close to taking my finger off," Tilley said.

Yet he perseveres, buoyed by the camaraderie and fortitude of his profession. "We do try to keep each other as safe as possible," he said.

Then, there is the example of his 50-year-old trainer at Disney World. "My trainer is absolutely a machine. He's amazing! He's 50 and does it as good as the 20- or 30-year-olds we have."

Given his life's choices, people sometimes ask him: "Do you have a death wish?"

Tilley's response: "It's actually not a death wish, but a 'life wish.' It's more that I want to experience those types of things where there's a huge risk of not making it through it -- and making it through."

Tilley would love to do stunt work here in West Virginia or to film in his home state a piece of a movie script he is working on.

So, here's an offer you don't hear every day: Tilley would be willing to work for next to nothing on a Mountain State film or TV project, and set himself on fire for the old homestead. Or some other cool stunt.

"If someone up there wanted to do a fire burn, we could put something together with a little bit of nothing. I would definitely be very interested in helping anyone put together something if they wanted to talk to me."

Reach Douglas Imbrogno at douglas@cnpapers.com or 304-348-3017.


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