'Wonder Woman' stunt-athlete Kitty O'Neil lived limitlessly

When the script called for Wonder Woman to soar from a 12-story building, stuntwoman Kitty O'Neil was brought in to handle the jump. Bettmann via Getty Images

Armored in a red bustier and blue hot pants dotted with white stars, Kitty O'Neil rocketed her 32-year-old, 5-foot-2 and under 100-pound body off of a 127-foot-high balcony at the Valley Hilton in Sherman Oaks, California, in 1979 -- landing on an airbag on the terrace below. The stunt-athlete followed up the record-setting fall with a 180-foot leap from a helicopter.

O'Neil died at age 72 in early November, reportedly from pneumonia in Eureka, South Dakota -- leaving behind a legacy of living limitlessly.

As Lynda Carter's stunt double in "Wonder Woman," which aired for three seasons in the late 1970s (O'Neil worked on the show from 1977 to '79), her job was dependent on executing wildly dangerous stunts -- like throwing herself off of buildings or falling out of the clouds. Additionally, O'Neil performed as a stunt double on "The Bionic Woman," "The Blues Brothers" and other television and film productions. She was also a master diver, who competed in the 1964 U.S. Olympic trials.

"Kitty was an absolute daredevil who paved the way for many future stunt-athletes," said Carter. "I will miss her."

The Corpus Christi, Texas, native had been deaf since infancy. "I got measles and smallpox [at 4 months old]. My fever was so high, it killed the nerve," O'Neil told The Washington Post in 1979. "My mother packed me in ice to save my life." O'Neil also noted that her parents (her father died in an airplane accident when she was a child) didn't know she couldn't hear until she was about 2 years old. However, she believed being deaf was just another obstacle to overcome. "I like my deafness," she said. "It's a challenge. I'm not afraid of it."

O'Neil learned how to communicate through other means, including sign language, never seeing her hearing loss as a roadblock. "My mother pushed me to read lips," she told People Magazine in 1977, "but she didn't push me in sports -- I did that myself. Because I was deaf, I had a very positive mental attitude. You have to show people you can do anything." While on television and film sets, O'Neil often communicated through an assistant who relayed the messages with sign and spoken language.

"Kitty proved that disabilities cannot hold you back if you embrace them as challenges," said Jessie Graff, professional stuntwoman and athletics-based television personality.

After retiring from competitive diving due to a broken wrist and having contracted spinal meningitis in the mid-1960s, O'Neil began developing her daredevil sensibilities -- taking up hang gliding, skydiving and water skiing -- just for fun. However, she craved speed, especially the kind that involved rubber meeting road.

In her 20s, around the mid-'70s, O'Neil joined Hal Needham's Stunts Unlimited team of about 40 elite stunt performers. She became the first woman to sign on to the crew. Needham, who died in 2013, was widely regarded as the "greatest Hollywood stuntman who ever lived." He took O'Neil under his wing and groomed her as his protege.

Strapped into a rocket-powered three-wheeled vehicle dubbed the Motivator, O'Neil cemented her position as the leading stunt woman in Tinseltown in 1976. She reached a land-speed of about 600 miles per hour and clocked an average speed of 512.7 mph. The ride shattered the land-speed record for women by about 200 mph. O'Neil still holds the top land-speed record for women posthumously.

"Kitty was not only amazing in all of her accomplishments but an inspiration to all women in the industry who had the chance to work with her," said Lindsay Wagner, who was the lead actress in "The Bionic Woman." O'Neil doubled for Wagner for several episodes from 1976 to 1978.

O'Neil's record-setting didn't end on land. In 1977 she set a women's water-skiing record of 104.85 mph and once drove a boat 275 mph. And the work didn't go unnoticed. In 1978, her stunt career inspired a Kitty O'Neil action figure, made by Mattel. She retired in 1982 with several speed records on the books.

"Not only was she a brave stuntwoman on the original 'WW' series, she broke records on and off set as well," noted Gal Gadot, who plays Wonder Woman in the DC Entertainment film franchise, via Instagram.

By the early 1990s, O'Neil had settled into Eureka. She had grown tired of the Hollywood hustle and wanted a simpler life. However, her influence continues to inspire generations of stunt-athletes.

"Kitty O'Neil was a complete badass! She always followed her passion with a work ethic and focus that went beyond reason, and that pretty much gave her literal superpowers," said Graff, who was born after O'Neil retired from stunt performance.

"She pushed all of her abilities to the limit, not just for herself but to inspire others to break through barriers."

Ericka N. Goodman-Hughey is a senior editor at espnW. Follow her on Twitter @ericka_editor