Back in the early ’70’s, young athlete Michael Papajohn dreamed of playing ball for legendary coach Paul “Bear” Bryant. No one could have predicted that his life would unfold the way that it did. No one except for, perhaps, retired Vestavia Hills football coach Peter Braasch.
In Peter’s early years of high school coaching, he also oversaw Birmingham Country Club’s pool area, where he hired young Michael Papajohn as a lifeguard. “I quickly knew he would be great in the stunt business,” Peter jokes. “I really should have fired him because he would pull these crazy stunts off the high and low dives after-hours at the pool!” As the humor of the memory faded, Peter’s tone changes, “Seriously though, Michael might have been the best athlete to come through Vestavia Hills High School.”
It came to no one’s surprise that after his high school graduation in 1983, Michael went on to play baseball at the college level. He started in Panama City, Florida, playing for Gulf Coast Community College. And although he was drafted by the Texas Rangers in 1985, he chose instead to accept a baseball scholarship to Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. It was a decision that would ultimately change the course of his life forever.
The year was 1987 when a film crew invaded LSU’s campus looking to hire athletes for the film Everybody’s All-American. Jumping at the opportunity to make a little extra cash, Michael was one of the first to raise his hand. He was selected to play the stunt double for the film’s lead actor, Dennis Quaid. His performance captured the attention of the film’s director, Taylor Hackford, who encouraged him to pursue a career in stunt work. After connecting with several Hollywood stuntmen who helped further him in the business, Michael found himself working on sets like Titanic, The Waterboy and Enemy of the State.
Today 53-year-old Michael Papajohn is a stuntman-turned character actor who still makes his living on the big screen. He acts alongside some of the biggest names in entertainment (vs. serving as their stunt doubles), people like Bruce Willis, Tobey Maguire, Chris Pratt, Cameron Diaz, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Adam Sandler, Kevin Costner, Megan Fox—the list goes on and on.
Of course, the nature Michael’s job takes him all over the map at unexpected times (He even had to reschedule the interview for this article due to an unforeseen shoot of HBO’s True Detective in Arkansas), but he carries the spirit of home wherever he goes. And for him, that spirit is, for the most part, manifested in the relationships he cherishes with the former coaches of his youth, in particular his little league coach and the coaches at Vestavia Hills High School, including living legend football Coach Buddy Anderson.
“Michael has always just been Michael,” Anderson states plainly. “He’s a genuine person. And when he was on the field, he gave it everything he had.”
Michael credits his team of coaches for helping shape the trajectory of his life. “I had great coaches who taught me all kinds of important skills to execute on the field,” he says. “And funny enough, it’s those skills that helped guide me in this very competitive business.”
Throughout his college years, the strength of his bond with these coaches had him swinging by the school for a quick visit before ever going home to his family. And al though it’s been several years since then, he, describing himself as an “authentic guy who doesn’t sugar coat anything,” is the first to admit: “Yes, I still visit [the coaches] immediately when I come home. It’s actually easier to catch up with them now that most of them are retired” he jokes. “When they were still coaching, it was harder for them to break away. Now, it’s easier to get Peter [Braasch] to go fishing with me.”
After living in California for a number of years, Michael moved back to Baton Rouge, where he now resides with Paula, his wife of 12 years, and their 10-year-old son, Sean. Depending on his always-changing-schedule, he comes back home every three or fourth months (even though Coach Anderson feels like he hasn’t left at all) and is very selective with how he spends his time.
“In my earlier years, when I came back to Birmingham, I had I-Have-To-Get-It-All-In Syndrome,” he recalls. “I’ve learned to not do that. It took me many years to learn that you can’t get everything in. You need to be present with where you are.”
When he does return to Vestavia nowadays, Michael scratches his itch for all things barbecue and savors the sight of his son running across the baseball field where he once played. While on the field, the two pay a unique tribute to Vestavia baseball legend and Michael’s former coach, Sammy Dunn, who passed away in October 2004.
“When I heard how sick Coach Dunn was, I flew back from Los Angeles to see him,” he remembers. “When I walked in the room, he said, ‘Papajohn, man. You need to go down to the field, and touch the grass. We have new turf! Go touch it, go feel it, go see it!’”
Immediately leaving the hospital, Michael did as his coach instructed and grazed the new turf of the baseball field. Dunn passed away shortly thereafter. “Michael was very special to Sammy from the first time they met,” says Linda Dunn, Coach Dunn’s widow,. “They had a very close relationship and always corresponded through the years. Sammy truly loved Michael and was so very proud of him.”
Now with each visit to the field, Papajohn and his son make sure to give the turf some love in memory of Coach Dunn. And if that wasn’t enough, a framed picture of the field’s turf sits in Michael’s office. “I always leave things in my office that remind me where I’m from,” he explains. “When you’re an actor, you try out, and you get rejected. It’s nice to have a mental team around to give you positive reinforcement.”
After over 30 years in this business, it’s now Michael bestowing the reinforcement to those who dream of following in his footsteps—people like Vestavia native Blake Burgess, for example.
A 2009 graduate of Vestavia Hills High School, Burgess is also an athlete-turned professional actor who credits Michael Papajohn for giving him the confidence to jump into the acting business. “I studied him around several movie sets, big and small, to learn the ins and outs of film. He even encouraged me to ‘hustle’ (get cast on site) for my first job on a Nicolas Cage film,” Blake shares. “He showed me countless resources and what work ethic is needed to make it in this business. He has been a great mentor, colleague and friend as I’ve ventured through my career.”
Just recently, Michael finished shooting the pilot for For Love, a drama set against a grounded, secret world of magic in present-day New Orleans. Should the show get picked up by ABC, it will air sometime next fall and feature Michael in a reoccurring role as private investigator Tommy Harrison.
Papajohn on the Big Screen
Michael Papajohn is credited in over 100 movies & television shows including (but not limited to):
- The Babe(1992) as Heckler
- Baseball(1992) as Rick
- The Indian in the Cupboard(1995) as Cardassian
- Naked Souls(1996) as Driver
- Eraser(1996) as WitSec Agent Schiffer
- My Giant(1998) as Tough Guy #1
- The Waterboy(1998) (with Adam Sandler)
- Inferno(1999) as Creep
- For Love of the Game(1999) as Sam Tuttle
- Charlie’s Angels(2000) as Bathroom Thug
- The Patriot of America(2000) – Payne (voice)
- The Animal(2001) as Patrolman Brady
- Spider-Man(2002) as Carjacker
- The Hot Chick(2002) as Security Guard
- Hulk(2003) as Technician
- Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines(2003) as Paramedic #1
- House of Sand and Fog(2003) as Carpenter
- The Last Shot(2004) as Ed Rossi, Jr.
- The Longest Yard(2005) as Guard Papajohn
- Domino(2005) as Cigliutti Goon (uncredited)
- Larry the Cable Guy: Health Inspector(2006) as Diner Manager
- Spider-Man 3(2007) as Dennis Carradine / Carjacker
- Live Free or Die Hard(2007) as Gabriel’s Henchman (uncredited)
- I Know Who Killed Me(2007) as Jacob K. / Joseph K.
- Superhero Movie(2008) as Robber – “Gimme your wallet”
- Yes Man(2008) as Security Guard (uncredited)
- Terminator Salvation(2009) as Carnahan
- Land of the Lost(2009) as Astronaut (uncredited)
- Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen(2009) as Colin Banes
- The Hit List(2011) as Special Agent Drake Ford
- This Means War(2012) as German Goon
- For the Love of Money(2012) as Little Guy
- The Amazing Spider-Man(2012) as Alfie (uncredited)
- The Dark Knight Rises(2012) as Prison Guard (uncredited)
- The Bourne Legacy(2012) as Larry
- Gangster Squad(2012) as Mike ‘The Flea’
- Pawn Shop Chronicles(2013) as Spectator #1
- Escape Plan(2013) as Prisoner Beaten By Breslin
- Homefront(2013) as Hitman #4
- Banshee(2013-2015) as Bald Thug / Munson
- Devil’s Due(2014) as Officer Miska
- Rage(2014) as Vory
- Dawn of the Planet of the Apes(2014) as Cannon-Gunner
- Get on Up(2014) as 1949 Cop
- Nightcrawler(2014) as Security Guard
- Selma(2014) as Major John Cloud
- Wild Card(2015) as Pit Boss
- American Ultra(2015) as Otis
- Cold Moon(2016) as Ed Gieger
- Vengeance: A Love Story(2017) as JJ Breen