The High-Octane Life And Drug Fueled Demise Of The Real Kenny Powers
This is the story of Kenny Powers. Not the Kenny Powers you know from Eastbound & Down, but the real Kenny Powers — The Stuntman. Like his fictional counterpart, Kenny lived a high-octane life, fueled by drugs, debauchery and death-defying stunts. But, just as quickly as he ascended towards the skies in his stunts, so too was his decline drastically swift due to a life of substance abuse and negligence. The following is a true story.
(Author’s Note: This is a piece I worked on for quite some time. Several outlets wanted to publish it, but due to bad timing and other factors, it’s never been released online. I’m publishing it concurrently on my blog and here, on Medium. This is the first of many original long-form pieces I’ll be publishing online through Medium and my IdeaHouse Studios blog. The photos in this piece, from Beverly Powers’ personal collection, have never been published or seen before. With that said, ENJOY!)
With 30 G’s of force sinking his body into the rocket-powered Lincoln Continental’s driver’s seat, and the ramp quickly approaching, stuntman Kenny Powers controlled time — it’s something he strove for. His career hinged on hoisting heavy cars into the atmosphere; cutting them through the air, he excelled at jerking into a pirouette mid-flight.
On this cloudy day in 1976, Kenny Powers was ahead of the clock. At over 250 mph, he gunned his winged Lincoln towards the longest recorded jump in history, a feat that Evel Knievel couldn’t even claim. The plan was to soar his vehicle into the sky for one mile. One mile. That’s what he needed to cement his name in the record books.
As he jettisoned up the eight-and-a-half story ramp, the car shook ferociously. Onlookers below gasped in amazement, excitement. A helicopter flew by, filming the extravaganza. On the ground, divers and rescue teams awaited should Kenny plunge into the Saint Lawrence River. None of that mattered to Kenny, though. All that mattered was that time was standing still for the South Carolina stuntman.
Seconds after leaving the ramp, the Lincoln’s paneling started to unglue. The sedated moments of atmospheric exploration hurried past, leaving only a violent aftermath which saw the Lincoln explode into a cloud of splintered metal and sparkling debris.
A parachute gently glided Kenny and his car’s shell back to earth. He barely made it off the ramp.
With his back broken in eight places, Kenny was conscious enough to free himself from the Lincoln’s harness. The stunt was a disaster, and as a gurney carted him away from the river, he asked his caretakers one thing: “Was the crowd happy?”
That was Kenny Powers, a man more concerned with the moment than the consequence. It was a philosophy that he lived by in both his career and personal life. The Saint Lawrence River jump went awry in every way imaginable, but if you were to ask Kenny what he thought it of, well, he’d say it was fucking beautiful.
The Daredevil in the Details
“Kenny never hid the fact that he struggled with addiction.”
Kenny Powers was born on July 7, 1947 at his family’s home in Landrum, South Carolina, delivered by Dr. Walden. Surprisingly enough, Kenny had developed a fear of heights in his formative days — his Grandfather would dangle him, upside down, over the dam at Lake Lanier during visits to his boathouse.
Kenny soon grew into a charming, athletic and handsome young man. In high school, he was a star football player at the halfback position.
He wasn’t without his vices, though. In junior high, Kenny began a love affair with drugs by sniffing glue. In high school, drinking was his passion. His drug abuse and alcoholism escalated with time.
“Kenny never hid the fact that he struggled with addiction,” Beverly Powers — Kenny’s last wife — told me during a lengthy phone conversation. “He was always very up front and candid with his struggles, and so if he was alive and talking to you he would be up front about the topic.”
After he graduated high school, Kenny entered the Navy, and it was there that he acquired his notoriously meticulous habits. He became a barber by trade — his impeccable skill with a razor led Beverly to call him “the best barber/hairstylist that ever cut my hair.”
“I could wash it and let it dry,” she said. “It would look like it had been professionally styled. Kenny was very particular about his hair.”
Kenny also established a methodical quality when it came to cleanliness. Obsessed with shiny porcelain, he’d scrub and polish his sinks every night. He ironed and pressed all his clothes, shined all of his shoes (everyday), and organized his clothes with a bizarre exactness. Years later, after he married Beverly and they settled in Mullins, South Carolina, he regularly cleaned and arranged her items for her.
When he left the Navy, still a young man, Kenny went to work at the Goodyear Plant in upstate South Carolina. It was there that he met Tommy Cannon — it was a relationship that would change the course of his life.
Not only would Cannon become Kenny’s good friend, but the two would later form a stunt team. Tommy and Kenny left the Goodyear Plant and began working a construction job in Charleston. Kenny’s daredevil tendencies began to manifest, as his superiors routinely scolded him for failing to tie himself down with straps when working with rebar on the upper floors of the building.
In the late ’60s, Kenny maintained a relationship with Mary Lou Carter. When Mary Lou became pregnant, the pair were forced to marry to keep up appearances — Mary Lou’s father was a well respected judge. After a year of marriage, the two divorced, and their only child, Lou Ann, would not see Kenny for the first 24 years of her life. According to Beverly, Lou Ann was told by her mother that Kenny was a “deadbeat” and a “loser.”
In South Carolina, Kenny attended a party thrown by Tommy. At the event, Kenny met a man who was a stuntman with the Hell Drivers. He asked Kenny to join the team. Kenny obliged.
He began learning the nuances of stunt driving with the Hell Drivers, but the foray also gave him the opportunity to get close to the man who would become his mentor: Ken Carter. When Carter left the stunt driving team to start a solo career, Powers struck out on the road with him.
“Yes, he really was a mentor — Ken Carter was like a master,” Beverly said. “He taught him and he taught him well, but I think after a while Kenny was better than Ken Carter. People may not agree, but I feel like Kenny Powers surpassed Ken Carter.”
Powers got his bearings and predilection for flight under the tutelage of Carter. It was during this period that Kenny married once again, this time to the young and attractive Donna Ray.
Beverly explained how Kenny would substitute in for Carter when he was hurt or injured.
“Butch Carter, (Ken Carter’s Brother) and Kenny, and Ken Carter rotated jumps — there’s no way that Ken Carter could do a jump every week,” Beverly said. “And the really difficult jumps, Kenny did. The two years before the (Saint Lawrence River) Super Jump, Ken Carter had been injured severely, twice. Kenny did all the stunts, except for those two times Ken was injured.”
As Kenny’s skills increased, so too did his drug and alcohol abuse. The injuries he sustained in the 1976 Super Jump would further his use.
At 3AM on the day of the jump, the promoters and financial backers decided that Ken Carter was not in physical shape to do the stunt, and they switched drivers to Kenny. Carter didn’t want Kenny to perform because he feared he’d get injured, or even possibly killed. Still, the promoters and the backers had put a lot of money into the event, and they wanted the jump done without question. Kenny felt an obligation. He knew there was a possibility of being killed, but he thought he was in shape enough that if he were injured he could come out of it with his life still intact.
The jump was disastrous, and Kenny barely made it off the ramp before his car exploded — it made Kenny look like a fool for even attempting it. Still, the 1976 stunt was fodder for documentaries and even Faces of Death, a popular home video series that portrayed real and fake deaths caught-on-camera.
Unbeknownst to the crowd, Kenny and his mentor, Carter, were actually embroiled in a personal rift at the time of the stunt, but after the near-death experience, the two made amends with each other in the hospital.
After the Saint Lawrence disaster, Kenny began a solo career with stuntman Sonny (Charles) Adams helping him along. Tragedy would strike close to home for Powers, though. In 1983, Ken Carter attempted to jump a pond in Ontario. His Pontiac Firebird overshot the landing, and landed onto its roof. He was killed instantly. Adding to Kenny’s troubles, he and Donna Ray were divorced that same year. According to Beverly, Donna Ray had a “hard time keeping up with Kenny’s lifestyle.”
“Kenny, in his portfolio, carried an 8×10 picture of Ken (Carter) every place he went after that,” Beverly said. “And his death really affected Kenny — I don’t think he ever got over Ken Carter’s death.”
With the memory of his mentor hovering above him, Kenny would embark on a dangerous road, falling deeper into addiction, insane stunts and careless living.
Flights of Fancy
“I think at times, Kenny couldn’t separate reality from fiction.”
In the world of stunts, Kenny was excelling. He designed his own harness, and eschewed the roll cage that was typical in his line of work. He declared the set-up ideal for car manufacturers, preventing crash-related injuries. In that regard, he was a sort of savant.
“Kenny was phenomenal,” Beverly said. “What he did was instinctual. It was as natural to him as eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. It was just an art. Even promoting a show — he learned to promote his stunts from Evel Knievel. He would ride into town and go to a dealership or something and say, ‘I want that car to drive through fire and flip end over end.’ Dealerships or whoever he went to would say, ‘Who are you?’ and he would say, ‘Stuntman Kenny Powers.’ And, they would give it to him. I would just shake my head. He just had a way.”
Kenny also had a way of fabricating stories. He claimed he and his team worked on Smokey and the Bandit. The truth is that Powers and his team were approached to work on the film, but the job didn’t work out. In 1986, The Gasden Times did a story on him, crediting him with the stunt driving in Bullitt and Smokey and the Bandit, among other films. According to Beverly Powers, none of that was true.
“I think at times, Kenny couldn’t separate reality from fiction,” Beverly said.
Kenny’s stunts became increasingly dangerous, and he began using dynamite. One story that Beverly likes to relay is the time when Kenny and Tommy accidentally left several sticks of dynamite in their car, causing it to explode. A motel manager was in the process of calling the police when the two separated the fuses from the remaining dynamite and took off in different directions. Without a car, Tommy was forced to sleep under a bridge until he could get a ride.
Beverly also recalled how Kenny got a “little manic on occasion.” One morning, while preparing for a jump, Kenny cleared out the entirety of a restaurant just so he could get some quiet time. In response, the owners banned Kenny from the establishment. When it came time for the jump, Kenny popped out of the back of a hearse to start the show. It was his way of prioritizing spectacle over the threat of death.
In 1994, Kenny married again, this time to Linda Sue Bradshaw — the marriage was short-lived. Like the other women in Kenny’s life, no one could really handle his penchant for self-destruction.
“I really think he suffered from a drug-induced schizo-affective disorder,” Beverly said. “He had all the classic symptoms [of it]. I never could get him diagnosed because of interference of a relative and from the V.A. If I could have, maybe he could have gotten some treatment.”
Amazingly, Powers was able to curtail his addictions for a long stretch despite help, going eight years without touching booze and painkillers. In 2004, though, he fell off the wagon, and was headlong into a months-long bender. It was then that he met Beverly. Despite his failings at sobriety, his rustic Southern charm won her over.
“When I had known Kenny a few days, I said, ‘You are very intelligent. You have a very elaborate vocabulary, yet you use the F-word a whole lot. You can use it as every part of speech in one sentence without trying. Why?’” Beverly said. “He looked at me seriously and flashed his smile, then said, ‘I like the word a whole lot.’”
The pair were seemingly destined for each other.
“When I was in the sixth grade in 1965… I had a crush on him,” Beverly said. “He didn’t know I was alive then. But I didn’t realize he was the same Kenny Powers when I met him. It was like we’ve known each other all our lives. We hit if off to start with. He was real. He was just genuine. He wasn’t pretentious.”
With Beverly by his side, Kenny continued to jump, but the stunts became increasingly difficult as he routinely abused the painkiller Dilaudid. The addiction to the substance would prove to be the one stunt Kenny couldn’t escape from unscathed.
“…I just knew he was dead.”
In August of 2004, Kenny and Beverly were driving back from a jump in Huntsville, Alabama. Kenny insisted on driving, but what Beverly didn’t know was that Kenny was high and he had drug paraphernalia in his possession. Their vehicle was pulled over, and Kenny was arrested. It was the first of many arrests for Powers, whose addiction began spiraling out of control. The arrest was a momentary wake-up call, but his cycle of addiction led to multiple rehabs. Nothing could seemingly keep Powers sober for an extended period of time.
“He never told me that he loved me and he said, ‘I love you. And I’ll quit my doping, but I won’t quit my drinking. I’ll cut back,’” Beverly said. “He wasn’t using the Dilaudid at the time because he told me it had taken him to a dark place that he never wanted to return to. He went a year without using any drugs. Three months later he went to rehab, and he didn’t drink anymore for over a year and he relapsed and it was very sad. That’s when he started using Dilaudid [again].”
Arrests kept coming for Powers, usually for DUI’s, public intoxication, or disorderly conduct.
“His philosophy was ‘no ink is bad ink,’” Beverly said. “[Arrests] didn’t bother him. When he came back to South Carolina when he was ill — he had hepatitis C from a tattoo — he went to live with his mother and he was always getting arrested. He was just Kenny.”
Kenny Powers’ health began to crumble. In 2004, he was committed to try the Super Jump once again, but a failed press conference — and ultimately questions about his ability to do the jump — derailed any plans of finally performing his ultimate stunt. In 2006, Powers attempted one of the final jumps of his career. He was suicidal — the Dilaudid abuse had sucked away his ability to safely navigate the treacherous waters of stunt driving. For the jump, dubbed “Trial by Fire,” Beverly believed that he was trying to kill himself.
Kenny was supplied with a large Cadillac to do the stunt, but the vehicle was much larger than the one requested. Under the influence of Dilaudid, he didn’t bother to rectify the gaffe, choosing instead to do the jump with the larger vehicle. Powers also didn’t take the gas tank out of the car, something he never failed to do. When he performed the jump, the car exploded into a fiery ball.
“I was in the control room watching and it blew up, I just knew he was dead,” Beverly said. “His car was just inches away from the explosion. There’s no human explanation how he walked away from it.”
Miraculously, Powers was able to walk away from the stunt. Luck would also play a factor in his last jump, “Death by Fire.”
Because of an optical illusion from Kenny’s end of the track, it looked like the middle car in the towering stack of cars was on fire. When Kenny jumped the ramp into the burning tower, he aimed for the middle car, but it happened to be the only car that was not on fire.
“So, he hit the middle car solid and flipped it and that’s the only reason he came out alive,” Beverly said.
Following his last stunt, Kenny’s descent into madness hit a fever pitch. His dependence on opioids grew into full blown physical and mental dependency, and the “darkness” that shrouded him earlier in his life — due to Dilaudid — had returned and had completely encased him.
One day, soon after Beverly got a teaching job to help pay the bills, Kenny left the house to fetch the water hose from their previous home. Kenny never came back that night. The next day, a woman drove Kenny back home. He was out with a friend getting wasted when that friend was arrested.
“I told her she could just take him back and have her husband take care of him. He wasn’t staying overnight because Kenny would get violent when he was like that,” Beverly said.
The next day, Kenny said that he was going to drive himself to the V.A. rehab. Instead, he stopped at a friend’s house where he was arrested once again. After he was released, he ended up at his sister’s home in Norfolk. Beverly claims that Kenny and his sister, Peggy, engaged in a malicious cycle, one where she would take him out of rehab routinely so he could get high again.
“I would get Kenny in rehab and detox to straighten him out, [Peggy] would drive 10 hours to take him out of rehab and take him up to her house and get him another prescription for Dilaudid,” Beverly said. “It made no sense.”
According to Beverly, Peggy took Kenny to the V.A. hospital in Richmond, Virginia. From the hospital, Kenny called Beverly and told her that he signed 60 to 70 papers, of which he had no idea what they were.
He was as “high as a kite,” Beverly remembered.
Suddenly, Beverly could hear Peggy cussing on the other end of the line, and then the phone went dead.
“I would try to call him at her house and Peggy would say that she would get me arrested if I called back at her house,” Beverly said. “She had become his power of attorney when he signed those papers. I was not allowed to go to the hospital and see him.”
Despite her best efforts, Beverly, sadly, would never see Kenny alive again.
For the last 13 months of Kenny’s life, Beverly claims that Peggy legally blocked her from seeing her husband. Kenny had hip-revision surgery in the V.A. hospital, and the surgery went horribly awry. The surgeons left instruments in his hip, and he contracted MRSA.
As his health deteriorated, Kenny tried making amends with his estranged daughter, Lou Ann. Every time he attempted to contact her, she yelled “Fuck you” into the phone and hung up.
Time caught up with Kenny Powers. After a lifetime of injuries, a steady diet of Dilaudid and a bad hip surgery, Kenny was a drug-addicted pile of flesh withering away on a hospital bed. There was one positive note during these last days of Kenny: Lou Ann finally took his olive branch, and father and daughter reunited. It was a brief reprieve from the hell that had become Kenny Powers’ last act.
Beverly, though, would not get the same chance to pay her respects before Kenny’s passing. The man she loved and adored — despite his monumental flaws — was wasting away. On February 28, 2009, Stuntman Kenny Powers passed on to the great ramp in the sky. He’s survived by his wife, one daughter and three grandsons.
“Kenny had a lot of real wonderful qualities — I’ve never had anyone treat me better in my life — but he had the addiction, and that was his downfall,” Beverly said.
Beverly attempted to have medical experts outside of the V.A. examine his case and body for cause of death (the official cause of death was carcinoma), but she’s been denied so far. Currently, Beverly has several cases pending against the V.A. as well as Peggy.
“I’ve got his medical records,” she said. “It was horrendous. They gave him four or five medications which he was allergic to. And they kept increasing his doses of Dilaudid to which he was allergic and addicted to.”
Beverly did win one claim against the V.A. — she’s been recognized as Kenny’s lawful wife during his lifetime. She also was granted the right to be his power of attorney through the probate office in Norfolk, Virginia.
Every now and then, you’ll hear someone spurt out, “Time waits for no man.” Those who scream the cliché obviously didn’t know Kenny when he was at his height of his powers. By the time his hourglass tipped over and shattered, he had already stopped running.
Kenny Powers didn’t spend time ruminating about the consequences of things — it was both a gift and curse. He stood resolute as a deeply flawed individual, and created a career out of a propensity to punish himself while moving forward. And moving forward was what he really had a passion for: life for Kenny was all about the next town; the next stunt; the next dose of Dilaudid. Flames literally engulfed the earth that Kenny walked upon, and the calluses he had grown over the years made him impervious to the heat.
A 1982 piece in The Times Daily recognized Powers as a crazy stuntman who would risk his life to entertain the folks watching:
“Some people say Kenny Powers is crazy,” it reads. “Others just say he’s nuts. But he disagrees with them all.”
“I’m just Kenny Powers and that’s all I’ll ever be.”
Dariel Figueroa is a journalist, marketer, digital content producer, music producer and father. His work has appeared on Uproxx, Paste Magazine, Fansided and Heavy. He recently started his own digital content marketing company, IdeaHouse Studios. Dariel also serves as the Director of Marketing for Mighty Works Media. You can reach him on Twitter @darielfigueroa and @IdeaHouseStudio.
Originally published at ideahousestudios.blog on July 18, 2017.