Remember those classic TV shows from the 1970s like the Six Million Dollar Man, Barretta and Wonder Woman?
If so, you might recognize Kitty O’Neil, the stuntwoman most famously known from the Wonder Woman series. She passed away recently at the age of 72. Her life is a testament to her spirited determination and ability to overcome a disability and the tragedies in life that might have stood in the way of new challenges and dreams.
Kitty was a speed racer. It didn’t matter if it was on land or in the water. She held twenty-two records and blazed a trail for women in Hollywood. She loved to champion them and anyone looking to break her records. As her fame and success grew, Mattel Toys issued an action figure doll and her life story inspired a TV biopic movie called Silent Victory: The Kitty O’Neil Story (with Stockard Channing portraying her).
Photo Credit: Ky Michaelson
“Because I was deaf, I had a very positive mental attitude. You have to show people you can do anything” she said.
And that’s exactly what Kitty did. So what was it that made this tiny woman the ultimate speed demon and thrill-seeker?
Kitty learned to deal with adversity even before she knew what it was. Born in 1946 in Corpus Christie, TX, she contracted the measles, smallpox, and mumps simultaneously when she was four months old. Panicked, her mother put her in a bathtub filled with ice. This saved her life but Kitty lost her hearing as a result of the illnesses.
Thankfully, Kitty’s mother was determined her daughter would live a normal life. She taught Kitty how to lip read and speak by feeling the vibrations of vocal cords. She also encouraged Kitty to learn to play the cello and piano, physically challenging her when any opportunity arose.
One day, she discovered 4-year-old Kitty jumping down the laundry chute. While rather strange, Kitty’s mother encouraged her to continue it in an effort to increase her confidence. I know what my mother would have done!
During her teenage years, Kitty became the top platform diver in the country and trained for the 1964 Olympic trials. Once again, life stepped in to challenge Kitty who was stricken with spinal meningitis after suffering a broken wrist. This forced her to retire from the sport.
Kitty’s heartache worsened following this disappointment. Having lost her father in a tragic plane crash when she was a child, Kitty’s mother died from a stroke when Kitty entered her early 20s. When her brother was tragically diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease and committed suicide not long after, Kitty suddenly found herself utterly alone.
She turned to two books to help guide her through this isolating time: the Bible and The Power of Positive Thinking by Norman Vincent Peale. Every day, Kitty repeated affirmations from both books in an effort to get through her struggles and the lonely days of learning to be on her own.
But what Kitty did next would change her life. She bought two motorcycles and a dune buggy and began losing herself in the quest for thrills. Maybe she was trying to defy the odds with no family to anchor her, but before long she entered motorcycle races like the Baja 500 and 1000.
The dangers of racing hit home when Kitty lost two fingers that were severed in a crash. A fellow racer, Duffy Hambleton, rescued her and helped save both fingers which were successfully reattached. But what followed was a marriage fraught with physical abuse and the disappearance of much of Kitty’s money thanks to Hambleton’s shady managerial skills.
Looking for a new challenge, Kitty tried water-skiing and set a new world speed record in no time. She hit 104.85 miles per hour and exclaimed in an interview,“ I was thrilled, I loved the speed”.
Photo Credit: TheSun.co.uk
Kitty broke the women’s land speed record driving a three-wheeled rocket-powered vehicle called the Motivator and reached speeds of 600 miles per hour.
The average speed of racers was 512.710 miles per hour, showing just how fearless Kitty was when racing. Kitty smashed previous records and crushed one of them by 200 MPH! Her record still holds today.
Hoping to break the men’s record, Kitty hit a snag when a licensing agreement stipulated that only stuntman Hal Needham could challenge it. It was rare to see Kitty cry, but she collapsed in tears that day asking herself what did sex had to do with going fast. Experts still contend that Kitty had what it took to break the men’s speed record were it not for her gender.
Photo credit: The Washington Post
On the brighter side, Hal Needham saw Kitty’s talent and signed her as the first female ever to be part of his stunt crew.
Kitty joined Stunts Unlimited, an elite stunt group in the 1970s. Soon she was flipping cars, being set on fire, jumping off buildings and loving it all. Many in the stunt world contend that Kitty had more courage than her male counterparts!
Kitty also performed stunts in movies such as Airport 77, Smokey and the Bandit II, and The Blues Brothers. The Bionic Woman, Barretta and Wonder Woman were also regular TV shows she appeared on in the ’70-’80s. When asked about her dangerous and unusual job, she was euphoric about it saying, “I am not afraid of anything and have my faith in God.”
In 1982, O’Neil at the age of 36, retired from the business. By then, she had lost friends to risky stunts and wanted to escape the abusive threats of an ex-husband. She moved to the small town of Eureka, South Dakota for a quieter, simple life. She had a few more dramatic, ill-fated relationships after that with men, but she lived out her final years happily with her beloved parrot Ivy, until her death in November 2018.