CALIFORNIA — It is with great sadness that the family of Merritt Russell Yohnka, resident of California, announces his passing, as he was surrounded by his loving family on the morning of Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2020, after a long courageous battle with cancer. He was a loving and devoted husband, father, son, relative and friend who was a gifted athlete and talented stunt coordinator who loved helping everyone.
Merritt was born April 1, 1958, in Chebanse. He was raised by his mother, Marilyn Yohnka, and father, Norm Yohnka.
He graduated from Central High School where he lettered in three sports: baseball, basketball and track, and he was MVP in all three sports. He went to Western Illinois University in Macomb, where he joined Delta Sigma Phi.
Merritt’s dream was to go to Hollywood to be a stuntman, and with drive, heart and determination, Merritt made his dream come true. He went to Los Angeles in the early 1980s. In 1982, he was hired to work at Knott’s Berry Farm as the star in Knott’s Berry Farm’s “Wild West Stunt Show.” A hard worker, he also took a job as a security guard at nights. “Days of Our Lives” came to Knott’s Berry Farm and filmed an episode with Merritt playing the star of “The Wagon Camp Stunt Show” where he did a scene with Josh Taylor. He was later given a recurring role as Joey on “Days of Our Lives” from 1984 to 1992. Merritt quickly made many friends and supporters and trained hard while pursuing the stunt business. He did stunts on numerous TV shows and films in the 1980s and early 1990s like “Renegade,” “Trespass,” “Rapid Fire,” “Judgement Night” and “Sommersby.” His first stunt coordinating jobs included “Streets” in 1990, “Poison Ivy” in 1992 and “Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story” in 1993. He proudly became a member of the International Stunt Association in 1991. He met his wife, Cindy, in 1992, when they were cast as husband and wife on a car commercial. It was love at first sight, and they enjoyed a week long shoot in Lone Pine falling in love. Merritt’s career continued to grow doing stunts in films like “Blown Away,” “Wild Bill,” “Star Trek: Generations” and was the stunt coordinator on shows like “Vanishing Son” and “Trading Mom” with Sissy Spacek, where he played the part of school professor Mr. Leeby. His next big career move came as the stunt coordinator on the television show “Nash Bridges” with Don Johnson, that ran six seasons from 1996 to 2001. Though he filmed during the week in San Francisco, he came home every weekend to be with his wife, Cindy. They were married on June 1, 1996. Their beautiful daughter, Emily, was born in 1999, midway through his run on Nash Bridges, and their handsome twins, Garrett and Steven, were born in 2006.
He loved the business and the stunt community, and actors found in Merritt a hard working, dedicated person, who was very caring and down to earth. In the early 2000s he did stunts on films like “Inspector Gadget,” “The Bachelor,” “Gone in 60 Seconds,” “Pearl Harbor,” “Minority Report” and “Transformers” and was stunt coordinator on films like “The Courtyard,” “Legion,” “Trigger Effect,” “This Christmas,” “Spiderman,” and “Fantastic Four.”Merritt wanted to stay close to home to raise his family and was blessed to stunt coordinate on numerous TV shows over 20 years which allowed him to stay in the Los Angeles area. The shows included “Alias” three seasons, “MDs” two seasons, “Sleeper Cell” two seasons, “The Shield” seven seasons, “Private Practice” five seasons, “Rizzoli and Isles” five seasons, “About a Boy” two seasons, “Pretty Little Liars” seven seasons, “Chuck” five seasons, and most recently two seasons of “Lucifer.”
He was nominated for several awards and was honored when he received the Emmy Awards in 2008 and 2009 for his stunt coordination on the television series “Chuck.” He was so surprised to win again the second year, he took his daughter Emily’s hand and brought her up on stage with him to enjoy the moment. Something she will remember forever. It was the first time anyone had received the award two years in row. He is a member of the DGA and enjoyed Second Unit Directing on several of his shows. Merritt loved working with all the talented stunt performers and amazing actors creating actions scenes that were exciting and safe. They loved working with him and always had incredible things to say about him.
Merritt remained a hometown boy at heart which endeared so many people to him. During his career he never forgot about his family and friends back home in Chebanse, who he loved and enjoyed visiting often. He also enjoyed supporting and helping the farm community back home. Starting out as a stuntman, he enjoyed the opportunity to do stunts throughout his career. He can be seen playing stunt roles in many films and television shows, and a few fun ones are “Real Bullets,” “Friends with Benefits,” “The Italian Job” and a comical part that appeared in the out takes of “Men In Black II.” He felt so blessed to have a career that spanned four decades doing something he really enjoyed with people he so respected and loved.
As successful as Merritt was, he was an incredibly loving and devoted husband and father who loved being with his family. They enjoyed boating, jet skiing, fishing, relaxing on the river and just being together. His family meant everything to him and he is everything to them. “He is dearly missed,” his family said.
Surviving are his loving wife of 24 years, Cindy, of Sherwood Forest; devoted children, Emily, Steven and Garrett, of Sherwood Forest; his mother, Marilyn Yohnka, of Chebanse, and father, Norman Yohnka, of Danforth; siblings, Rodney Siebring deceased (Diane), of Ashkum, Randy Siebring (Karen), of Macomb, Bruce Siebring (Claudia), of Ashkum, Brad Yohnka (Peggy), of Monticello, and Brent Siebring (Christine), of Bloomington; mother-in law, Gloria Cunningham (Bill deceased); sister-in-law, Cathy Aita (Bob); brother-in-law, Bruce Cunningham (Stacey); and numerous relatives and friends.
“His loving and generous ways will be forever missed. We love you Merritt!”
There will be a small private family service at Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Hollywood Hills, where he will be laid to rest. A celebration of life will be announced at a later date.
“You left me beautiful memories
Your love is still my guide
And though I can not see you
I know you’re walking by side”