The 1970s was the age of the daredevil – renegade stuntmen – from big names like Evel Knievel and Eddie Kidd to dozens of fly-by-night chancers – who would perform entirely unrelgulated death-defying (if they were lucky) and increasingly ludicrous stunts. The big names attracted large crowds of people who turned up to see if the performer would die during the latest jump; deaths were uncommon, but crashes were frequent, spectacular and sometimes horrific.
The Human Fly arrived on the scene in 1976 in spectacular style – strapped to the top of a DC-8 jetliner, he was flown through a rainstorm at 250 miles an hour, and ended up hospitalised for weeks. But he’d made his name.
There was an opening for a new stuntman at the time – Knievel was imprisoned for assault in 1977 and was out of the picture. And the Human Fly was different – an anonymous figure in a red superhero costume who was guaranteed to appeal to the kids. His debut stunt ensured plenty of television coverage, and a Fly mythology was created – that his body was 60% steel plating after a car crash, and that he now performed stunts to raise money for disabled children. None of this was true, but it made for great headlines.In reality, the Fly was amateur stuntman and alleged con man Rick Rojatt – and possibly several other people in the costume for public appearances. He was managed by sausage maker Joe Ramacieri, and rumours continued to swirl around about Mafia connections.
The Fly became a star without even having to perform many stunts. In 1977, Marvel launched The Human Fly comic book, based on a highly fictionalised version of the character – while hyped as a superhero, the Fly’s adventures were more grounded than most Marvel characters – he didn’t usually fight costumed villains and was mostly kept away from the wider Marvel Universe (though he was teamed with Ghost Rider, Spider-Man and others from time to time). It was actually a pretty decent comic that transcended the gimmick and tried to do something a little different with the format.
The Human Fly was nothing if not ambitious. One planned stunt would see him strapped to a rocket and fired across the English Channel. It’s impossible to see how this would have not killed him instantly, but then the rumours surrounding the Fly suggest that perhaps that was the plan. His final stunt was an attempt to beat Knievel’s bus jump record, with the original idea being a ludicrous 36 buses lined up for the Fly to jump over on a rocket-powered motorcycle at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium. Eventually, the Fly and his team were persuaded to reduce it to 26. Even so, the ramps were badly designed and the rocket powered bike was never tested.
The Fly had a million dollar insurance policy against him. Was the Mob really planning to cash in on his death? Some believe so, and when the Fly crashed spectacularly in from of a meagre crowd at the stadium, dollar signs must’ve been flashing. But he survived. His crew fled the building as the Fly was taken to hospital (with rumours of more injuries being inflicted on him en route) and on release, Rojatt disappeared into hiding (though rumours still abound that it wasn’t actually Rojatt in the costume when the stunt was performed). He hasn’t been heard from since.
Lacking a real Fly to maintain interest, Marvel cancelled the comic book in 1979, after 19 issues. A feature film and documentary about the Human Fly have both been in development for years.
For the full, extraordinary story about the Human Fly, read this excellent Esquire article.
Watch the Montreal jump here: