Sonny Hooper (Burt Reynolds), known in the film as "The Greatest Stuntman Alive", is the stunt coordinator on an action film, The Spy Who Laughed at Danger, directed by Roger Deal (Robert Klein). Hooper's antics and wisecracks are a trial for the egotistical director and his officious but cowardly assistant, Tony (Alfie Wise). Years of physical abuse on and off the job are fast catching up with Hooper; the numerous stunts (referred to in the movie business as "gags") and his use of alcohol and painkillers are beginning to take their toll. Sonny lives with his girlfriend Gwen Doyle (Sally Field) whose father Jocko (Brian Keith) is a retired stuntman.
Hooper is dragooned by a friend into performing at a charity show, where he meets Delmore "Ski" Shidski (Jan-Michael Vincent), a newcomer who makes his entrance with a spectacular stunt. Sonny and Ski become friends after a barroom brawl with a pack of rowdy policemen. He invites Ski to work with him on the film. They begin a friendly rivalry in which the spectacle and danger of their stunts escalates. After a freefall from a record 224 feet, Sonny becomes more aware of his own mortality. He secretly consults with his doctor, who warns Sonny that one more bad fall could render him quadriplegic, telling him, "If you were a horse, I'd shoot you."
Unhappy with the writer's ending to the film, Roger decides to add a climactic earthquake as the finale, complete with explosions, fires and numerous car crashes. Sonny and Ski would race through the carnage to a nearby gorge, where the bridge explodes before they can cross it. Roger's concept has the duo rappelling down one side of the gorge and up the other to safety, but Ski proposes they jump a car over the gorge. When someone points out that no car could jump the 335 foot gap, Hooper suggests that a rocket-powered car could make it.
Roger loves the idea, and he ignores warnings that Sonny and Ski might not survive the landing even if the car lands on its wheels. Max Berns, the movie's producer and a longtime friend of Hooper's, warns Roger that the film is already over budget and can't afford the $100,000 Hooper wants to perform the rocket car jump. Roger tells Max he wants his ending, including the rocket car jump; he doesn't care what else has to be cut as long as he gets that gag.
Tony, sent to negotiate a lower price for the stunt, is taken on a wild ride in a tuned-up stunt car by Hooper, who refuses to lower the price for the gag. Tony agrees to pay him and Ski the $100,000 due to the danger involved in jumping a car 325 feet and an uncertain landing.
Jocko suffers a stroke, but he denies the gravity of his condition. Seeing the elder stuntman in the hospital motivates Sonny to promise Gwen that he will quit the business after the film wraps.
Sonny learns from his friend and assistant, Cully (James Best), that Roger is downsizing the crew to pay for the final gag. Cully, unaware that Hooper has kept the rocket car stunt and his health status secret from Gwen, speaks openly about both in front of her. She is horrified. Hooper later tells Roger that he is backing out of the gag, but Max convinces him to reconsider—no qualified stuntman is available, or willing, to replace him. Gwen threatens to leave Sonny if he agrees to do the gag. Sonny reluctantly decides that he has cost too many people their jobs, and he must go through with it.
Sonny and Ski perform the first part of the gag perfectly. Arriving at the bridge, they find that they have lost fuel pressure in the rocket engine; it's below the minimum needed to make the jump. The two stuntmen argue as Roger rails at them over the radio, and decide to attempt the jump anyway. The rocket car clears the gorge but overshoots the prepared landing area and lands hard on the far side. Ski emerges from the car on his own, but the impact was more of a shock to Sonny's system. Gwen tearfully pushes her way through the gathering crowd as the chief engineer extracts Sonny from the rocket car. Sonny slowly comes out of his daze and takes Gwen in his arms.
As Sonny, Ski, Gwen, Cully and Jocko view the bridge lying in the river and the gorge the rocket car had jumped, Roger comes up to them and asks to speak to Hooper. He wants to apologize to the stuntman for the grief he gave him during filming, but comes across as an egomaniac justifying himiself. Sonny's response is to knock Roger out with a single punch. He, Gwen, Ski, Cully and Jocko then triumphantly walk off the set.Burt Reynolds as Sonny Hooper
Sally Field as Gwen Doyle
Jan-Michael Vincent as Delmore "Ski" Shidski
Brian Keith as Jocko Doyle
Robert Klein as Roger Deal
John Marley as Max Berns
James Best as Cully
Alfie Wise as Tony
Adam West as Himself
Terry Bradshaw as Brawler
It was rumored that the Roger Deal character in the film was a send-up of Peter Bogdanovich, who had made two films with Reynolds.
The "destruction of Los Angeles" sequence that concludes both The Spy Who Laughed at Danger and Hooper was filmed in the Tuscaloosa, Alabama area, with all but the final rocket car jump staged at the by-that-time-disused Northington General Hospital, a World War II military hospital near the University of Alabama. The huge stunt sequence was referred to by the crew as "Damnation Alley."
The rocket car jump took place on US Highway 78E between Jasper, AL. and Birmingham, AL. The bridge was in the process of being demolished due to damage from a traffic accident.
Hooper enjoyed moderate success at the box office; it was one of the top ten films of 1978, but ultimately the film was deemed a letdown in comparison to Reynolds' Smokey and the Bandit, second only to Star Wars in box office gross the year before. Hooper grossed $78 million domestically, nearly 40% less than the gross of Smokey in 1977 ($126 million).
The film was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Sound (Robert Knudson, Robert Glass, Don MacDougall and Jack Solomon).
Hooper was also one of the first movies to make use of the blooper reel credit crawl. The technique, originated by Needham, showed a smaller screen of outtakes from the film to one side while the film's credits scroll slowly up the other side. Needham refined this technique for later films such as Smokey and the Bandit II, Stroker Ace and the Cannonball Run movies. (In Hooper the credit reel was mostly a montage of many of the stunts performed in the movie itself, owing to the film's tribute to the stunt industry.) It was later adapted into other films, including the CGI animated Toy Story 2 and A Bug's Life, for which the bloopers were intentionally created, and in TV series including The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Home Improvement. Most of Jackie Chan's films also feature blooper reel credit crawls, due to his experience in The Cannonball Run.