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Chief of stunts

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  • | 4:00 a.m. July 22, 2009
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Craig Clarke is moving so fast his fellow stuntmen can’t keep him in their sights. Even in a bright-orange uniform, Clarke is a blur.

He’s stringing electrical cords, setting up construction cones and coordinating explosions with a weathered pyrotechnician famous for decades of Siesta Key fireworks displays.

He’s inspecting high-speed camera cars and ATVs and talking hand-to-hand combat with a guy about half his age.

“Safety is paramount,” he says. “There’s a lot of preplanning that goes on with stunts that people don’t realize. From the second we’re contracted, we’re planning the stunt. It’s a good thing I’m a multi-tasker.”

Clarke, a Sarasota native, is setting up for “High Octane,” a networking mixer and stunt exhibition sponsored by the Sarasota County Film & Entertainment Office. The event, which was held June 17, at the Sarasota Municipal Auditorium, attracted a cross-section of the community — from local filmmakers and theatergoers to curious sixth-graders and wannabe stuntmen.

Though it’s no Los Angeles, Sarasota’s film-and-television sector is surprisingly dynamic.

Clarke, 48, is married to his job, a reality that he says keeps him single and busy. A Gulf Gate resident, Clarke is out of town at least once a week working production gigs across the United States and Canada.

He has many titles, among them: fire-rescue safety chief for Extreme Stunt & Driving Team, in Winterhaven; president of Cameron Security Services; president of Clarke Camera Cars; and chief of Track Rescue Motorsports, a fire-rescue- and safety operation that tours motor-sporting events all over the country, which Clarke started in 1982.

For every title, he has a business card and corresponding e-mail address. When you work in the entertainment industry, you have to be accessible at all times. Film producers are fickle and production companies are busy, so when someone calls, Clarke answers on the first ring.

“Basically, I sleep with my phone,” Clarke says.

Clarke, a state-certified firefighter and emergency technician, has worked in film-and-theater production since he was a student tech director at Riverview High School.

He specializes in driving camera cars — custom high-speed vehicles mounted with video cameras and outfitted with generators, trailers, roll cages and computer monitors — which capture everything from leisurely driving scenes to high-speed car chases. Clarke started the company several years ago, after noticing the Florida motorsports industry lacked skilled camera-car drivers.

In 2001, he started driving for Hollywood stuntman Grady Bishop, whose film-and-television credits include, “2 Fast 2 Furious,” Miami Vice,” “America’s Most Wanted,” “Mad Men,” “Lincoln Heights” and “Talladega Nights.”

“Grady’s the one with the resume,” Clarke says.

Many of the sets Clarke has worked on are low-budget, independent films or commercials. And when he does land a high-profile assignment, he doesn’t spend a lot of time hobnobbing with the actors. In fact, Clarke’s most memorable celebrity meet-and-greets have happened at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, where he has worked as a stage hand for years.

The consummate professional, Clarke would rather talk about stunts, not stars.

He recently shot a chase scene outside Winston-Salem, N.C., that required him to pull a 14-foot-wide trailer towing a taxicab through the Blue Ridge Mountains — in the dark.

“You have to be partially crazy to do this job,” he says laughing.

With only six inches of clearance on either side of the trailer, Clarke had all he could do to maneuver the truck. With each harrowing turn, his rig came nail-bitingly close to clipping street signs.

“And lucky,” adds the weathered pyrotechnician, waiting patiently in the background to discuss explosions with Clarke.


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