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Don Gordon Bell

Si nous aimons rire d'un certain cinéma déviant, nous sommes très loin de mépriser les hommes et les femmes qui s'y sont impliqués ou compromis. Il nous a ainsi paru enrichissant de faire raconter le nanar et son univers par les gens qui l'ont vécu de l'intérieur. La diversité des intervenants et de leurs réponses nous a rendu encore plus proches du cinéma que nous aimons : vous découvrirez, au fil des entretiens que ces différentes vedettes ont bien voulu nous accorder, des informations précieuses pour le cinéphile et le cinéphage, des anecdotes cocasses et, en esquisse, le portrait attachant de personnages souvent hauts en couleur.
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Don Gordon Bell (page 2)

We have seen you fight in a few "kung-fu flicks". Did you have any martial arts training?

My first love of sports was martial arts, for me it was a way to identify on my Asian blood, express my Asian heritage. From the age of 10 years old I read books, studied from anyone I could to learn from. When I was 11 years old I met a Japanese kid who taught me the basics of Judo and Jujitsu for a year. One day while we were training in the park, an American soldier came up to me and asked if I was part Korean. I was surprised that he could see that in me, most people don't know the difference between various Asian people. It turns out that he had studied Tae Kwon Do six years in Korea, while he was with the US Army. He studied under Jhoon Rhee, who is the leader in introducing Tae Kwon Do to America. My Japanese friend and I began learning my country's martial art. I was one of the first in 1964 to meet Korean master Jhoon Rhee. I was able to study for the next four years. I studied every book available in those days, earning a Black Belt in Tae Kwon Do at 16 years old.

Don training with Marrie Lee on the set of "They Call Her... Cleopatra Wong".

During the early '70's, many weekends I entered open tournaments, such as Chuck Norris's "Four-Seasons". Open tournaments gave the chance to fight with different stylists from Chinese, Japanese, Okinawan schools. There was no Muay Thai-kickboxing in those '60s and '70s yet but I eagerly learned everything I could. My weight put me in Light or Middle divisions at 155 lbs. (70 kg). Over the years I acquired over 45 trophies in 'fighting' and in 'forms/kata'. I was from the old school instructors who focused on the basics and promoted slowly.

In Vietnam, I spared with Korean Marines of the 2nd Brigade 'The Blue Dragons', that I met when they trained with my unit in Long Range Recon Patrolling. The Korean Marines did not like it that a half-breed Korean 'Tuigi' like me was kicking their asses! My American instructor had also been a boxer who taught us more to develop our punching ability. One tough Korean Master Sergeant finally asked me who I had trained with, after hearing who it was, turned to the ROK Marines and explained that my teacher was the student of a TaeKwonDo legend, Jhoon Rhee. After that I was accepted by the ROK Marines as a fellow Marine and 'sort of Korean'. We drank their homemade soju and ate dog meat, kimchi, etc. whenever possible. 1st Recon Bn. trained many ROK Army soldiers from the Tiger and White Horse Divisions and Marines of 2nd Brigade known as the Blue Dragons. They were tough, effective fighters, with great leadership, and above all feared and respected by the enemy.

After my Vietnam tour, 1970-71, I was stationed in Camp Pendleton, near Los Angeles. I met a Hawaiian Marine who introduced me to Kajukenbo style. It was a Hawaiian mixture of Karate/Judo/Kempo Chinese boxing that became Kenpo Karate under Ed Parker in the early 1960's. Ed Parker was of the royal Hawaiian line and the first to bring Karate to the Mainland from Hawaii. He trained many Hollywood stars such as Robert Culp who used Kenpo on his series, "I Spy", Robert Wagner, Robert Conrad, Darrin McGavin, George Hamilton, Warren Beatty, Audie Murphy, and the most famous Elvis Presley.

Ed Parker's first black belt student was James Ibrao from Maui, Hawaii. James Ibrao later teamed up with Chinese master Jimmy Wing Woo from Hong Kong in Pasadena to develop the American Kenpo Karate Association that was dominant in the 1960's. Carlos and Doug Bunda, also from Maui, were James Ibrao's students, and I was one of Carlos Bunda's top students.

Uechi-ryu, Crane Fist style.

Carlos Bunda was the Light-Weight Champion who beat Chuck Norris (Middle Weight Champion) for Grand Champion title, in the 1964 Ed Parker's International Karate Championships. Bruce Lee also did his first demonstration of his "one-inch punch", and we saw Gung Fu for the first time on national TV. Under the Bunda brothers I trained for four years, and received my 1st degree Black Belt. All the Hawaiians called me "hapa-Howley" or "Half-White" as a term of friendship but in a derogatory sense.

It was my first major Open tournament in Brown Belt division and I won third place in the middle-weight division. I was able to win trophies from Brown and Black Belt Kumite, during the 1972-75 Tournaments in California, Nevada, Arizona, and New Mexico, even Hawaii twice. I was infamously featured in Black Belt magazine as the first to be 'knocked out' when Full-Contact events started in the mid-70's. Damn opponent kicked me with a spinning back kick, after the Referee stopped us and I was moving back to the center. He lost one point but I lost consciousness when my head hit the wooden floor. I avenged myself by continuing and won 5-3, reached the semi-finals, placing third.

When I first arrived in the Philippines I got some lessons from stuntmen on Filipino stick fighting, Escrima and Kali techniques. When I first met Chuck Norris who came to film his first "Missing in Action" he knew immediately who I was because just a few years before he saw me with the Hawaiians in Chinatown restaurants in L.A. He also remembered my instructor Carlos Bunda defeating him in the Grand Championship match.

Later, I met Mike Stone, another Hawaiian who married Priscilla Presley, widow of Elvis. Mike had an undefeated or matched record of 98 tournament wins/no draws, no losses. He came to the Philippines with director Ed Murphy, and when I introduced myself I mentioned my instructor's names. Mike asked me to work together as his assistant on two films. One of them was "Raw Force" a.k.a. "Warrior's Island" (1982), in which I also played a part as the "zombie of Musashi Swordmaster".

Don getting some make up for the part of "Zombie Musashi".

[Nanarland: Mike Stone was a renowned martial artist. He was associated with Bruce Lee and served as Elvis's personal karate teacher, deeply influencing the way the King moved on scene. He originally came to the Philippines because he was supposed to make "Enter the Ninja" with Menahem Golan, based on a story he developed. After a few days of shooting, Golan realized Mike Stone was indisputably a skilled martial artist, but not an actor at all. Eventually, Golan bumped into Italian actor Franco Nero during the Manilla Film Festival and talked him into making "Enter the Ninja". Mike Stone worked as fight choreographer, stunt coordinator and stunt double on "Enter the Ninja". Later, he also worked on "American Ninja", still for the Cannon Cie.]

Mike Stone, Don and director Ed Murphy.

Then Romano Kristoff and I met Sensei Robert Campbell, a tall Red-haired Bostonian who had an incredible history. Bob had studied Uechi-Ryu, an Okinawan Karate style in Boston, Mass. Under Sensei George Mattson for many years then travelled to Taipei, Taiwan, studied Chinese martial arts under the Taiwanese Army's WuShu as a guest of the top general. Then Sensei Campbell went to Okinawa to train at the headquarters under the top leaders of Uechi-Ryu. Sensei Campbell was the first non-Okinawan to win the championships and earned his 7th Dan Black Belt. Romano and I both trained for five years under him, learning Chinese weapons (my favorite was the long spear), Japanese Iaido (fast draw with real Katana Samurai swords), Kendo, Bo-jitsu, nunchucks (Romano was great with double 'chucks'). We had the best students from poor to rich, sweating and training together at the Manila Polo Club school, which is still open to this day.

So... yes! I had some training in Martial arts, not just 'movie stunt training' like so many others. In Seoul I have a few personal students that I train in Uechi-Ryu.

Don and Romano (on the left) with their Sensei Robert Campbell.

Did your contacts in the martial arts sphere brought opportunities?

Through Ed Parker and his Hollywood contacts I was an extra in "The Green Hornet" (1968) and "Enter the Dragon" (1973) with Bruce Lee, traveling to Hong Kong. I also appeared with shaved head in four episodes of "Kung Fu" the first television series (1972-75) with David Carradine, who I met when he came to the Philippines later in early 1980's. David came up to me at the bar in Pagsanjan Falls hotel and looked me up and down. "You've trained... what style?" I bowed slightly and told him of my martial arts lineage. Unfortunately I was deeply committed to a project called "Rescue Team" with Richard Harrison that conflicted with the film Carradine was to work on. I believe my pals Nick Nicholson and Henry Strzalkowski both worked on it.

Don facing Franco Nero in "Enter the Ninja" (1981), directed by Menahem Golan.

Among the films you participated in, there are some pieces of bruceploitation like "Bruce's Five-Style Fists", "They Call Him Bruce Lee" or "Bruce's Fists of Vengeance"...

"They Call Him Bruce Lee" (1978) was the first one I did, it was a local production starring Rey Malonzo [Nanarland: sometimes credited as Rey King or Bruce Ly]. Rey was a terrific martial artist and actor, and it is him who gave me a break in my first real fighting scene in a movie. After he had seen me practicing on the side he asked me what I had studied. Soon, he and I worked out a good and long fight sequence that showed off my talent and made him look great too. Rey was very supportive and even introduced me to agents for other action directors. I guess he also realized that I was good for him because I was 'foreign' enough to be some sort of outsider who was obviously a 'type casting' against the good Filipino actor (just like Bruce Lee fighting against Japanese or Western guys like Chuck Norris or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar). Hey, this was how I did many Filipino films, not as a the main Contra-vida but the number two bad guy. See, my martial arts skills were good enough to gain contravida roles but I was an outsider in the Philippines and my "Name value" was limited to like 2nd bad guy roles. So for instance number one Villain had his top lieutenants like me, as in "Bruce's Fists of Vengeance" in which Romano Kristoff was the main bad guy and me his top henchman.

Don gets his ass kicked by Rey Malonzo in the last sequence of "They Call Him Bruce Lee" (1978).

Then, there was "Bruce's Five-Style Fists" (1978), which was, you guessed it, another film trying to fool audiences that the "Real Bruce Lee" was in it. It was actually starring Ann Villegas, Allan Shishir, Boy Fernandez, Jack Lee again and me, using my Korean name, Joon Yong Su (wrong spelling). This time, I was the main Contra-vida Lead so Jack Lee and I fought a couple of big fights. I was an "Eagle Claw Master" and after each day my fingers were so cramped I had some beautiful sweet thing giving me hand massages. "Bruce's Five-Style Fists" was written and directed by Leonardo C. Pascual and produced by Abella Pascual. Jack Lee and I were "loaned" to the Pascual producers by Mr. Lim, before "Bruce's Fists of Vengeance" (1979) was filmed with Bruce Le and Jack Lee the following year. It was sold internationally but I guess did not make it to DVD listings.

Don and Jack Lee on the set of "Bruce's Five-Style Fists" (1978).

Don, an extra, Carla Reynolds & Jack Lee.

What are your memories of Bruce Le, from "Bruce's Fists of Vengeance"?

Bruce Le was one of the best of the imitators that were coming out. He mimicked the real Bruce Lee quite well, though he was an accomplished martial artist in various Gung Fu styles, he was very skillful in mimicking the Jeet Kune Do style. Jeet Kune Do was Real Bruce Lee's own "no style style", a combination of Wing Chun, Chinese boxing, and many things that Lee picked up from other martial arts. I was very impressed with Le's skills in martial arts because I had met Danny Inosanto, one of Bruce's top students many times in Los Angeles.

Bruce Le worked with everyone to set up fights that each man could do well, often working late after a day of shooting with some of us on possible fight scenes. The director [Nanarland: Joseph Velasco, also known as Joseph Kong] and Bruce Le seemed to have worked very well together. It was the 2nd A.D. who could speak English that communicated with us most of the time. Le's English was good enough to tell us how to do fight scenes. I considered him to be the best of the imitations but a great fighter and martial artist in his own right. He knew so many different Kung Fu styles and his general ability of coordinating a fight scene with the limited ability of some untrained people was very good. He could utilize the each man according to make the scene better cinematically.

I regret that Bruce Le had to simply imitate and not innovate his own character. I would be curious to what happened to him later in his career.

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