After a Hollywood film career spanning over 60 years dating back to the early 1960s, Lee Sollenberger is now happily enjoying the slower pace of life in the Cariboo.
A motion picture costumer, stuntman and animal handler and trainer, Sollenberger, who lives at McLeese Lake, has worked on hundreds of movie sets and TV shows throughout his time in the film industry.
Born in Burbank, CA. Sollenberger, now 76 years old, broke into the business at Corriganville Movie Ranch in the early 1960s as a live action stuntman.
Following his time at the Corriganville Movie Ranch, Sollenberger moved on to motion picture costuming, beginning at Western Costume Co. and then to a set costumer.
His animal training began with birds of prey and developed into wild animal training with numerous companies in Los Angeles and Canada in the 60s and 70s.
“I met a couple animal trainers [in the motion picture industry] through that and, you’ve got to remember, back in the early 60s they didn’t have a lot of big, professional animal trainers.”
Known in the motion picture industry as ‘Tall Boy’ due to his height, Sollenberger was coined the nickname by Dan Haggerty, aka Grizzly Adams, in the early 1960s.
While his body of work is vast, Sollenberger has worked on such films and TV shows as The Brady Bunch (animal trainer, 1969), M*A*S*H (animal handler, 1972), Little House on the Prairie (animal handler, 1974), The Magical World of Disney (animal trainer, 1974), Call of the Wild (animal trainer, 1992), Rumble in the Bronx (animal handler: tigers, 1995), Lake Placid (1999), Strange Empire (TV series, 2014/15), The Chronicles of Riddick (costume and wardrobe, 2004), Dr. Dolittle 3 (2006), the Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005), Fantastic Four (2005), Blade: Trinity (set costumer, 2005), Freddy vs. Jason (set costumer, 2003), Young Guns (utility stunts, 1988) and The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams (1977), just to name a few.
“The last [project I worked on] was Strange Empire,” Sollenberger said. “Fifty-plus years of this was enough so I’ve kind of slowed down.”
His late wife, Carol, who passed away in 2008 of a stroke, had relatives in the Cariboo, who offered them a place to live, bringing them to McLeese Lake.
“She got a job, I got a job,” Sollenberger joked. “My wife’s dad worked up here as a cowboy, and Carol worked for the Cariboo Regional District.”
While reflecting fondly on his time working in the motion picture industry, Sollenberger said a career as a stuntman always brought hazards and dangers.
“I’ve broken my wrists falling off horses, things like that —but the craziest thing I saw during my career was during the filming of Rumble in the Bronx,” he said.
“[The main character, played by] Jackie Chan had broken his foot during a shoot. They made him wear a fake foot and he just carried on. He wanted to keep on filming. I’ve
worked with John Wayne and all those guys, but Jackie Chan was the biggest [world-wide] star I worked with, and he is a great guy and a nice man. There was this one stunt he did and we couldn’t believe it.
“It was a parkade — upper level parkade looking across at a building with a little four foot railing around it and a deck — and they opened up the slider and he landed on that thing and took a tumble – 22 feet across. We were looking at him like, holy. When you see that on camera it’s the real deal.
“But I’ve had broken arms, broken ribs, broken ankles. You’re going to get hurt if you’re doing stunts. That’s just the way it is.”
As a part of the crew working on The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams, Sollenberger was enlisted as the animal trainer and handler for Bozo the Bear — the animal which played one of the lead roles in the show alongside Dan Haggerty.
Sollenberger said the key to training wild animals is to start working with them from a young age. During his career he’s trained cougars, tigers, wolves, moose, several types of birds of prey, black bears, grizzly bears, and more out of an animal compound called Three Hills in Olds, Alta.
One of the animals he worked with was a beautiful Arctic Wolf named Babe.
“She didn’t like many people, but she loved me,” he said.
It wasn’t until the 90s when Sollenberger got back into doing costuming.
“It was back in 1994,” he said. “I was working on Call of the Wild. I showed up to do stunts and they said they needed a costumer so I said: ‘Yup, I’m a costumer,’ and it went from there.”
“They showed me 10 hats and said: ‘Can you make these period appropriate?’ and I said: ‘Sure I can.’ She came back 30 minutes later and said ‘you’ve got a job.’”
In August of 2019, Sollenberger shared his talents with members from the Williams Lake Studio Theatre for a costume distressing workshop where members created zombie clothing freshly distressed from new clothes under Sollenberger’s direction using a variety of techniques and materials.
“I just do what I can to help them out,” he said. “It’s fun for the members to be able to experiment with all kinds of different materials, and it’s not too often they get a chance to get professionals in so it’s just a lot of fun.”
Leather scrapers, paint, baby oil, Vaseline, paint dust, toothbrushes and spray bottles all helped transform clothing into duds fit for a zombie by studio theatre members.
“It’s so fun,” WLST member Janet Lindsay said during the workshop. “Once you get over the idea you’re going to wreck clothes.”
Sollenberger, meanwhile, said he enjoys the pace of the Cariboo where he has also volunteered his time as a member of the Big Lake Volunteer Fire Department in the past. He is also still licensed as a falconer through the B.C. government and raises birds of prey.
“It was all fun,” he said of his career. “I’ve had a good run, made a good living and met all types of people, including these people here at this workshop — the up and comers.”