By Jenna Jay
Rufus Hannah has twice been a celebrity: first as “Rufus the Stunt Bum,” a name branded him by shock jock Howard Stern for his role in the film series “Bumfights,” and again as Rufus the redeemed, an author sharing his harrowing story of recovery.
What connects the two identities comprises the memoir “A Bum Deal: An Unlikely Journey from Hopeless to Humanitarian.” The book, released in September, is told from Hannah’s perspective but was helped along by co-writer Barry Soper, who also aided Hannah’s transformation from a transient alcoholic into a homeless rights advocate.
“A Bum Deal” chronicles Hannah’s hardships; he was an alcoholic by age 14 and a homeless vet by his 30s, and that was all before Hannah met Ryan McPherson, a La Mesa teen whose entrepreneurship nearly led to Hannah’s destruction.
Hannah, a Swainsboro, Ga. native, lived in a makeshift abode on the streets of La Mesa alongside fellow Vietnam veteran Donnie Brennan in the 1990s. Both of their lives changed when McPherson and his friends accosted the two one afternoon with a proposition to give them cash in exchange for a self-inflicting injury stunt.
“He asked me did I want to make $5 and I said yeah, ‘cuz $5 is pretty good,” Hannah said. “He pointed behind the building and there was a ramp over there, a loading dock and stacks of milk crates and he said, ‘If you run into those headfirst and knock them over I’ll give you 5 bucks.’ I said okay, that seemed harmless enough.”
What began as videotaped stunts by McPherson and his friends escalated into a nationally known film series called “Bumfights,” featuring Hannah and Brennan in lead roles. For little more than a few bucks and fresh supply of booze, Hannah pulled stunts like rolling down a stairwell in a shopping cart, smashing his head into metal signs, and even beating up his best friend.
The stunts grew more dangerous with the more money McPherson and friends made off exploiting San Diego’s homeless. Eventually, Hannah realized he needed to escape the group of teens who encouraged him to tattoo the phrase “B-U-M-F-I-G-H-T” on his knuckles. The savior who came to his rescue was La Jolla businessman Barry Soper.
Soper and Hannah met prior to Hannah’s involvement in “Bumfights.” Soper, the owner of a 62-unit townhome complex in San Carlos, discovered Hannah and Brennan digging through a dumpster behind his complex. After an initially unpleasant meeting, he offered them temporary work.
Soper later gave Brennan and Hannah someone to look to for help, and with Soper's encouragement Hannah cleaned up and found his voice.
Today, Rufus Hannah is no longer homeless or addicted to alcohol. He still has the phrase "B-U-M-F-I-G-H-T" tattooed across his knuckles after several sessions of painful and expensive laser removal, but like the faded letters on his hands, so too, are the emotional scars from "Bumfights" still evident but not overpowering.
Hannah, now assistant manager for Soper's rental units, shares his tale of addiction and triumph as a national speaker. The idea to turn his story into a book stemmed from an interview with the late Ed Bradley on "60 Minutes" in 2006. On Bradley's encouragement, Soper began writing Hannah's story in "A Bum Deal." Now four years later, Soper and Hannah hope to inspire others with the text.
They are in negotiations with an agency to turn "A Bum Deal" into a film, and they continue spreading their message as homeless rights advocates in talks around the country.
The pair is looking ahead to National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week, Nov. 14-20. "We really want to make national homeless awareness part of Rufus," Soper said. "He's lived it and he's such a face for homelessness, not only violence."