For most Gen-Xers, a few images from 80s popular culture will forever be with us -- Pac Man's gaping yellow jaws, the rocket ship that blasted off in MTV's early promotional spots, and those hideous, neon-blue, genitalia-revealing bicycle shorts. Then, of course, there's the General Lee, that muscular specimen of American auto machinery that lumbered into the air during the opening segment of The Dukes of Hazzard, one of the most popular TV shows of the early 80s.
More than two decades later, the General Lee -- technically a 1969 Dodge Charger -- is still flying high, thanks in part to Tom Saramento of Mint Hill, one of the series' original stunt coordinators and mechanics. Saramento is part of the Hazzard County Stunt Team, a group of local mechanics, body shop workers and some California stunt men. The team recently returned from Covington, GA, where they recreated the famous General Lee jump at Covington's Oxford College -- the same spot where in 1979 the car was filmed for the show's opening. The stunt was for an upcoming MTV special to promote the new Dukes of Hazzard movie.
Saramento invited me to one of the Hazzard County Stunt Team member's garages in nearby Stanfield to check out the General Lee -- now badly dented from the recent jump in Georgia.
Eager to see this pop culture icon up close, I headed north into the country, past sprawling fields, cow pastures and rows of tiny brick ranch houses with big satellite dishes in the front yards. Eventually I turned down Big Lick Road, where Saramento and a few others were gathered at a small, backwoods body shop inspecting the battered General Lee, still sitting on a car carrier.
It wasn't the original General Lee. Saramento said there were 317 General Lees during the course of the TV show, of which only 19 remain. The first General Lee -- the one used for close-ups during the TV show -- belongs to Wayne Wooten, a car collector in Virginia.
"I heard Wooten just turned down $150,000 for it," Saramento said.
Before Saramento worked on The Dukes of Hazzard, he was a mechanic for Chrysler in Los Angeles. In 1978, after Chrysler shut down many of its shops, he landed a job at Universal Studios working on BJ and the Bear, a show about a truck driver and his monkey sidekick. The following year, Warner Bros. hired Saramento to work on a new show about the adventures of two good ol' boys in Georgia named Bo and Luke Duke.
"No one expected the show to last," said Saramento. "I ended up working there for seven-and-a-half years."
After The Dukes of Hazzard ended in 1985, Saramento worked on a few other TV programs including The Fall Guy and Hunter, but by then he had grown weary of Hollywood. In the early 90s, he visited a friend in Gastonia and fell in love with North Carolina. Saramento eventually settled in Mint Hill in 1993. While he and his old Hollywood stunt cronies occasionally got together, it wasn't until 2001, when Ben Jones ("Cooter" on the TV show) started Duke Fest that the Hazzard County Stunt Team got underway.
At this year's Duke Fest, held in June at the Bristol Motor Speedway, more than 25,000 people showed up to watch Saramento's team perform car stunts and get a glimpse of some of the series' stars, like John Schneider (Bo Duke). Saramento said Schneider was famous for throwing out the drive shaft when he drove the General Lee.
Saramento currently works out of a Pro-Tech garage in Stallings, where he helps turn old Dodge Chargers into General Lees for future stunt shows. But Saramento said he can't use just any old Charger. Hard-core fans of the old TV show demand authenticity.
So does he ever miss showbiz?
"I miss the work and my friends, but not Hollywood," Saramento said. "It was just too much of a rat race. I love North Carolina. There's not a crow bar big enough to make me leave."
The MTV special featuring the Hazzard County Stunt Team is scheduled to premiere the weekend of July 29th. Check MTV.com for details. For more information about the Hazzard County Stunt Team, including a behind-the-scenes DVD of some of its stunts, check out hazzardcountystuntteam.com.
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