Rufus Hannah, a formerly homeless alcoholic who was paid to fight other homeless men and perform dangerous stunts in the notorious ‘Bumfights’ videos, has died. He was 63. Hannah, who was living in the town of Adrian, Georgia, was a passenger in a car driven by his sister that was T-boned by a semi-truck on Wednesday just outside the town of Swainsboro, Georgia State Patrol Sgt. Jeffery Cain said Saturday.
Hannah’s sister received a head injury, but she was expected to survive. One of the two vehicles apparently ran a red light on State Route 4, but the investigation continued and no citations were immediately issued, Cain said. On Friday, Hannah’s friend and benefactor, Barry Soper, sobbed as he placed a bouquet of flowers on the Dumpster in San Diego where he first met Hannah more than 15 years ago as the man was scrounging for aluminum cans to recycle for booze money.
Soper gave Hannah a job and helped in his eventual recovery. `What a beautiful soul he was. He went through so much, then turned his life completely around,” Soper told KNSD-TV “I helped him stop drinking, and he was sober for the past 13 years.”
Hannah, a Georgia native who began drinking when he was 14, was living on the streets when he began his ‘Bumfights’ career. A high school student and aspiring filmmaker, Ryan McPherson, offered him $5 to run head-first into milk crates stacked outside a grocery store in El Cajon, California.
“He told me he was doing a video for his economics class on what it was like when you don’t have a job,” Hannah said in a 2006 article in the New York Times. “I just wanted some money to get drunk, so I did what he told me to. I never had any idea the stuff he was filming would become what it did.”
The first ‘Bumfights’ was released in 2002. It was followed by several sequels in which Hannah, known as “Rufus the Stunt Bum,” and other transients performed dangerous and degrading stunts, such as brawling each other, jumping off buildings, smashing head-first into doors and walls and lighting their hair on fire. The “actors” were paid about $10 per stunt and were usually drunk.
Hannah, who smashed his head into a steel door, said he suffered permanent injuries.The videos sold hundreds of thousands of DVD copies. But they were condemned by homeless advocates, blamed for inspiring violence against the homeless and banned in several countries. The four original filmmakers eventually pleaded guilty in California to misdemeanor charges of conspiracy to stage an illegal fight. They avoided jail, but McPherson and another man later were sentenced to 180 days each in jail for failing to complete community service.
In 2006, the four filmmakers reportedly paid at least $300,000 to settle lawsuits filed by Hannah and two other men who appeared in the original video. Hannah in those days was a wild-haired, gap-toothed man with the word ‘BUMFIGHT’ tattooed across his knuckles. But eventually, he turned his life around. He became assistant manager at Soper’s 62-unit townhome complex where Hannah had scrounged for cans. He held the job for more than half a decade. “He took care of the complex like it was his place,” Soper said. It wasn’t easy to keep straight.
“I loved to get drunk,” Hannah told the San Diego Union-Tribune in 2010. “I see a TV show like `Law & Order,’ where they win a case and go back to the office and have a drink, and I say to myself, `Boy, that looks pretty good.’ I can almost taste it. But I don’t ever want to go back there.” Hannah also became an advocate for the homeless.
“He worked with the National Coalition for the Homeless as an advocate because he had lived that life himself,” Soper said.
“He taught me that we all needed to look at the homeless more kindly, that it could’ve been your mother or your brother. It could happen to anyone.” Hannah’s story, co-written by Soper, was chronicled in the 2010 book, ‘A Bum Deal: An Unlikely Journey from Hopeless to Humanitarian’. He is survived by his wife and four children. Soper said he plans to cover funeral expenses for his friend.