‘Hollywood Stuntwoman’ recounts decades of riveting adventures both on and off the screen

Diane Peterson is shown behind the wheel of the famous Ferrari featured in "Magnum P.I." In the episode, she played a girl who stole the Ferrari. Contributed photo.

If there was a job description for Diane Peterson’s work as a Hollywood stuntwoman, it would read something like this: “Must be able to ride and jump horses at a gallop; drive all kinds of cars, including Ferraris, while performing evasive maneuvers during car chases; crash cars into windows, lakes and trees; be able to drive an 18-wheeler; rappel down a sheer cliff; jump through a window and into a high fall while shooting a gun; outrun explosions; swim underwater; handle snakes; get punched in the face; and run down New York City subway tracks wearing a tight sequin dress and spike heels while trying to avoid the third rail.”

With decades worth of great stories to tell, a friend finally convinced the Malibu resident to write a book about being one of the world’s first big-time Hollywood stuntwomen. 

“It’s my life punctuated by great stunts, and comes with messages about how to overcome fear and how to be a stuntwoman,” she said in a personal interview.

Peterson started off in New York, where she was the first woman to become a member of the East Coast Men’s Stunt Association. While working on the “Kojak” TV show as an actress just out of college, she watched them filming a car chase and knew immediately that’s what she really wanted to do.

“I was told ‘forget it, honey,’” by the stuntmen. “We put the wigs on and we do the stunts.” 

She persisted and kept “bugging them to give me a job” doing a stunt. Finally, the president of the stuntmen’s group relented and gave her a job that involved getting hit by a car. 

“They taught me how to wear padding and how to practice getting hit at slow speeds at first,” Peterson said. “Something went wrong and I got hurt.”

But the men convinced her to try again, and she did the stunt perfectly. A star was born. 

“Then they started teaching me everything about stunts – 180s, slides, reverse spinouts, how to jump through a window,” she said.

Peterson finally realized that in order to do stunt work full-time, she needed to move to Los Angeles. She started sending photos and resumes to stunt coordinators in LA, and it didn’t take long before she was working steadily for a couple of well-known companies “doing car picture after car picture.” 

Her favorite car chase of all time was working with actor Tom Selleck on the “Magnum P.I.” TV show in Hawaii, as a girl that steals the infamous Magnum Ferrari. 

“[Some producers] liked the car chase scene so much, they bought the footage and also used it on ‘Murder She Wrote,’” Peterson recalled. 

When asked if she was ever injured on the job, she said there was one incident that left her on the sidelines for an entire year.

“I shattered my heel bone in five places filming a ‘Movie of the Week,’” she recalled. “In the scene, I was being chased through a castle by a group of Doberman pinschers nipping at my ankles.” And when she crashed through the window to escape them, one of her feet missed the mattress she was supposed to land on.

Peterson now has over 200 movies and shows under her belt, with the most famous film being “Titanic,” where she played a first-class passenger rescued from a lifeboat. She won a film stunt award for “best fight sequence” in “Bachelor Party.”

In some cases, she served as a stunt double for well-known actresses, including Jessica Lange and Shirley MacLaine. The latest film she worked on was “The Laundromat” (2019) directed by Steven Soderbergh and starring Meryl Streep.

Peterson always had stuntwoman genes in her blood. When she was 3 years old and all the other kids were being led on their pony rides, she made her pony “Smoky” rear up and run. 

“I started riding and jumping horses in my teens, raced my Corvette in quarter-mile drag races, and rode my brother’s motorcycle. I loved pushing it to the limit with all of those,” Peterson related. “Growing up, my Dad always encouraged me with sports and stunts, and my mother was always worried.”

When asked if there’s a “trick” to jumping through a window, Peterson says the window has to be made out of certain materials, and timing is crucial. Small windows in movies are “candy glass” made of sugar, and they’re fragile and break into big pieces. 

“You have to be careful not to get gored,” she said. “I wear a special vest.” 

Big windows have to be made of tempered glass that “breaks into little pieces and falls apart like rain when you hit it,” Peterson explained. And a special effects technician “pings” the glass first so that when you hit it, it falls apart – and the technician can’t “ping” too early or too late.

“I’ve worked all over the world and it’s always been a joy,” she concluded. “There’s never been a day that I didn’t want to go to work.”

The official launch date for the book is not until March 14, 2023, but it can be pre-ordered through Barnes & Noble or Amazon.

To see Peterson’s stunt work, a 90-second video collage is on YouTube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q8rvKy63KPI&ab_channel=DianePeterson