From lighting himself on fire to acting in the latest Nic Cage movie, an Encinitas-raised stuntman’s journey in Hollywood

Rich Hopkins
(Photo by Gary Sauer, courtesy of Photos by Seven)

From scaling a 1,000-foot building dressed as Spiderman to lighting himself on fire for a bungee jump for the X Games, Rich Hopkins has performed every type of stunt over more than three decades in movies, television and other events.

As he approaches 60 years old, he’s been accumulating more acting credits.

“I’ve done every stunt there is,” said Hopkins, who grew up in Encinitas and attended Torrey Pines High School. “I’m not doing car hits, I’m not doing stair falls. That’s a young man’s game. I spend most of my time behind the camera now.”

Hopkins’ latest role is a trucker in the Nicolas Cage suspense film “Sympathy for the Devil,” which didn’t have a typical premier because the writers and actors are still on strike.

He was also the stunt coordinator for “Back on the Strip,” starring J.B. Smoove, Kevin Hart and Tiffany Haddish, to be released on Aug. 18.

Lighting himself on fire has been a staple of Hopkins' career as a stuntman.
Lighting himself on fire — with the proper wardrobe, gel and other precautions — has been a staple of Hopkins’ career as a stuntman.
(Photo by J Spencer, courtesy of Can I Shoot You)

Some of his other movie credits over the years include “Smiley Face Killers,” “Bleach,” “Big Life” and “Wildflower.”

Hopkins’ career as a stuntman started a little more than 30 years ago after he relocated to Las Vegas. He had been in Los Angeles to pursue acting, after feeling like he needed a change of scenery.

“It was a good experience because I was getting on sets as an extra,” he said. “And most extras, they hold you in a little room. I would sneak out of the holding area and I’d go over and watch what everyone was doing. I wanted to learn the business inside and out.”

That’s still advice he gives to up and coming stunt pros.

“Learn what everybody does,” Hopkins said. “Your job may be stunts, but you need to know what the best boy is doing, the script supervisor, the keygrip. Learn the business from the ground up.”

When he arrived in Las Vegas in the early 1990s, he said he was able to carve out a niche as a stuntman and coordinator.

“There was nobody doing stunt work out there,” Hopkins said. “If a production was filming in Vegas, everybody came from L.A.”

Scaling the building on a descender cable as Spiderman, which was to promote the DVD release of the film that came out about 20 years ago, was his “gnarliest” stunt. (It included a pre-stunt prayer to “please don’t let me splat in front of all these kids” who had been brought in to see it.)

Hopkins as Spiderman during a promotional event.
(Photo by Tim Sharp, courtesy of Thrillseekers Unlimited)

Hopkins made it through that one unscathed, but he said his injuries over the year include a broken neck, a broken back, broken toes and fingers, cracked ribs, concussions, and spinal stenosis that left him temporarily paralyzed. He also said he has no spleen, appendix or gallbladder.

What has motivated him to persevere through all those injuries over multiple decades?

“I don’t want to become a greeter at Walmart,” Hopkins quipped. “I don’t know what else to do.”

He added that he has no desire to stop. Acting and coordinating stunts don’t take as much of a toll on the body — but as long as he can walk, he can at least light himself on fire.

“People ask when do stunt people retire,” Hopkins said. “When they put you in a box.”