Hollywood has lost one of its most legendary stuntwomen. Kitty O’Neil, the famed stuntwoman who performed some of Wonder Woman’s most dangerous feats, has died at age 72. O’Neil, who doubled for Lynda Carter on the 1970s TV series and also set a land-speed record as the fastest woman driver ever, passed away at a hospital in Eureka, South Dakota, after a bout of pneumonia shortly after suffering a heart attack, per the Hollywood Reporter.
O’Neil was also deaf, losing her hearing as a baby due to a high fever after contracting the mumps, measles, and smallpox. In the 1970s and ’80s, the petite powerhouse logged appearances as Lindsay Wagner’s stunt double in The Bionic Woman as well as stuntwoman roles in movies Airport 1975, Airport ’77, The Blues Brothers, and Smokey and the Bandit II. But her most famous stunt came in a 1979 episode of Wonder Woman when she dove 127 feet from the top of the Valley Hilton and landed perfectly on an inflatable airbag set up on the hotel’s deck 13 stories below. At the time, O’Neil admitted to the Washington Post, “If I hadn’t hit the center of the bag, I probably would have been killed.”
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O’Neil, who joined Hal Needham’s racing team in the 1970s, was also the first woman to pull off a “cannon-fired” car roll, and in 1976, she broke the land-speed record for female drivers, racing at a top speed of 618 mph on the SMI Motivator, a three-wheeled “rocket” car, over a straightaway in the Alvord Desert.
A proficient musician and world-class diver, O’Neil also set the women’s water-skiing record of 104.85 mph and she was known to drive a boat at 275 mph, earning the title “world’s fastest woman.” She retired in 1982, three years after Mattel released a Barbie doll in her likeness and Stockard Channing portrayed her in the CBS TV movie Silent Victory: The Kitty O’Neil Story.
“She crashed one of my cars at over 300 mph and walked away… The only bone she ever broke was in a hand one time when she was racing motorcycles.”
O’Neil also credited her small size and her hearing impairment with helping her maintain focus on her stunt activities. She was so good at lip reading that some movie and TV directors reportedly didn’t even realize she was deaf.
“I know I’m deaf,” O’Neil told the Post. “But I’m still normal. The way I look at it, being handicapped is not a defect. People say I can’t do anything. I say to people I can do anything I want.”
You can see one of Kitty ONeil’s most famous speed stunts in the video below.