Who Is Kitty O’Neil? Her Records, Husband, Movies, and Net Worth

By: Alyssa Miller | Published: Jan 04, 2024

The career of a daredevil is one that requires a stillness and fearlessness that few possess. However, Kitty O’Neil was a stunt woman, award-winning diver, and racer who thrived on speed.

O’Neil lived a fantastic life and pushed the boundaries for women and disabled persons in Hollywood. Let’s break down some of the Kitty O’Neil facts that capture this larger-than-life figure and her legacy on stunts.

Who Is Kitty O’Neil?

Born March 24, 1946, in Corpus Christi, Texas, Kitty Linn O’Neil was an American stunt woman and racer, who was often called “the fastest woman in the world” for her various speed records.

Kitty O'Neil in a driver's uniform

Source: Wikimedia Commons

From an early age, O’Neil loved speed. According to The New York Times obituary for the late stunt woman, Kitty, at 4 years old, “demanded that her father prop her atop his lawn mower and ride it as fast as it could go.”


Kitty O'Neil Family

O’Neil’s father, John O’Neil, was an oil wildcatter, which is someone who drills into areas that are not known to be oil fields, hoping to find an oil well. He died when O’Neil was young in an airplane accident.

The waterfalls in Wichita Falls, Texas

Source: Nicolas Henderson/Flickr

O’Neil’s mother, Patsy Compton O’Neil, taught her child how to lip-read and talk after realizing that O’Neil’s deafness was permanent. Eventually, O’Neil’s mother became a speech therapist and cofounded a school for the hearing impaired in Wichita Falls, Texas.

How Did Kitty O'Neil Become Deaf?

At a few months old, O’Neil became deaf after a high fever caused by measles, mumps, and smallpox destroyed some of her nerves. However, her deafness seemed to help her concentrate while performing her death-defying stunts or racing a dragster.

Kitty O'Neil talking to someone while in a racing car

Source: History Channel/YouTube

“Deaf people can do anything,” O’Neil told a class at the Holy Trinity School for the Deaf in Chicago in 1979, according to PBS.

Where Did Kitty O'Neil Go to School?

O’Neil’s mother believed that Kitty would be better suited if she was educated at home. Her mother took education classes at the University of Texas and taught Kitty at home. O’Neil’s mother believed that Kitty shouldn’t be fully reliant on sign language, and taught her to read lips and speak.

Race driver and stuntwoman Kitty O'Neil in her rocket dragster 'Rocket Kat' prior to setting a new world land speed record, Palmdale, California, July 7th 1977.

Source: UPI/Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

O’Neil was able to attend public school at around 8 years old. O’Neil’s mother would later become a speech therapist and established the School of Listening Eyes in Wichita Falls, Texas.

Kitty O’Neil Was Almost an Olympic Diver

O’Neil became a competitive platform diver as a teenager, winning multiple medals. She moved to Anaheim, California, to train with diving coach Sammy Lee, hoping to reserve a spot on the 1964 United States Olympic diving team.

The medalist for the XVIII Olympiad

Source: Wikimedia Commons

A broken wrist ended her chances, and a series of illnesses led her to become disinterested in the sport she flourished in. “It wasn’t scary enough for me,” she told The Chicago Tribune in 1979 (via Mental Floss).


Kitty O’Neil Turned to Extreme Sports 

O’Neil turned to more exciting and extreme sports: hang gliding, scuba diving, water skiing, and sky diving. However, O’Neil found joy in the faster and more dangerous activities, particularly racing motorcycles and rocket-fueled cars.

American stuntwoman Kitty O'Neil emerges from a burning van during a stunt she performs on NBC television special 'Superstunt'

Source: UPI/Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

While competing in a motorcycle race in Valencia, California, in the 1970s, O’Neil met stuntman Ronald “Duffy” Hambleton. After Duffy pulled O’Neil out of a race and took her to an emergency room for a cycle crash that severely injured her — an act that saved the use of her fingers — the two entered a long-term relationship.


The First Woman in Hollywood’s Stunts Unlimited 

O’Neil gave up racing for a time, turning toward stunt work in film and television. Her ability and willingness to try new challenges led her to become a notable stunt performer. O’Neil was the first woman to be accepted into Stunts Unlimited, an organization of Hollywood’s best stunt people.

Stunt woman Kitty O'Neil's face mirrors the strain of stunt she is performing for the TV show Wonderwoman. The script calls for Wonderwoman to jump from a 12 story building and Kitty was called in to do the jump.

Source: Getty Images/Wikimedia Commons

O’Neil’s most notable appearances include “The Bionic Woman,” in which she flipped a dune buggy, and as Lynda Carter’s stunt double on “Wonder Woman,” where she leaped 127 feet from a hotel balcony onto an inflated air bag below.


Kitty O’Neil Land Speed Record

On Dec. 6, 1976, in southeastern Oregon’s Alvord Desert, O’Neil set the land-speed record for female drivers. O’Neil sat in an SMI Motivator, a three-wheeled rocket-powered vehicle. In a matter of seconds, O’Neil reached a peak speed of 618 miles per hour.

The dragster driven by Kitty O'Neil

Source: History Channel/YouTube

“During a sliver of a second, the howling machine stood motionless, as if stuck in time,” Coles Phinizy wrote in Sports Illustrated. “In the next instant, it was gone, a shrinking blur lost in its own trailing noise.” O’Neil held onto this record until 2019.


The Legacy of Kitty O’Neil

O’Neil’s story is one that has captured the imaginations of Americans for decades. Kitty O’Neil movies have been made, with “Silent Victory: The Kitty O’Neil Story,” starring Stockard Channing and O’Neil doing her own stunts being the most famous.

Grayscale image of Kitty O'Neil in dragster

Source: History Channel/YouTube

Mattel made a Kitty O’Neil action figure that inspired young girls to be fearless. The yellow jumpsuited action figure from 1978 resells for $1,500 in excellent condition.


Why Did Kitty O’Neil Retire from Stunt Work? 

After seeing two of her friends die performing stunts, O’Nield decided that it was time to retire in the early 1980s from stunt work and speed racing. At the time of her retirement, O’Neil had set 22 speed records on land and water.

O’Neil after breaking the world land speed record

Source: FILM-ABILITY/Wordpress

She moved to Minneapolis with Ky Michaelson, a close friend who built rocket-powered vehicles, including some for O’Neil. Some artifacts from her career are in the Eureka Pioneer Museum in South Dakota, where O’Neil eventually moved.


How Did Kitty O'Neil Die?

The legendary stunt woman died on Nov. 2, 2018, in Eureka, South Dakota. At the time of her death, Kitty O’Neil’s net worth was estimated to be $1.2 million. Kitty O’Neil’s cause of death was pneumonia.

Kitty O'Neil at 72 in her home in Eureka, South Dakota

Source: History Channel/YouTube

“She seemed never to have fear,” Michaelson said in a telephone interview in The New York Times. “I’d never say to her, ‘Kitty, are you scared?’ Not Kitty. But I’ve been in a car with her many times, and she scared the heck out of me. She was a pretty reckless driver.”