The black Bruce Lee

In an era when so-called ‘blaxploitation’ films blew up alongside the chop-socky cinema coming out of Hong Kong, ‘Bruce Leroy’ became the kung fu flavour of the month. Now, the martial artist who played Leroy in The Last Dragon — an afro-kitsch homage of sorts to the great Bruce Lee — has released a tell-all autobiography. Jarrod Boyle caught up with the star, Taimak, and a couple of Aussie martial arts greats for a nostalgic look back to the time of Bruce Leroy.

Taimak and co-star Vanity at the launch of the movie.

How did you become involved with The Last Dragon?

It’s a long story. The short story is that I was a kid in New York City that grew up doing martial arts. Anyhow, when I was 18, I won the New York state kickboxing title. My trainer was Ron Van Clief — incidentally, the oldest guy to ever fight in the UFC. He fought Royce Gracie in his early fifties.

Everyone was talking about the film at that time; it was the biggest thing out there. Everyone in the competition was talking about it. I had always dreamed of being in a movie. I was a big Bruce Lee fan [and of] Shaw Bros movies.

I ended up speaking to a friend of my mother’s, who was working as a dance choreographer on the film. Lee Van Cleef was also the fight choreographer. He got me the audition. I didn’t have any acting experience, other than school plays.

At 19 years of age, my expectation was that I was going to walk into a big room and kick in the air, jump and flip around, and they [the producers] would be excited and give me the role. It was more of a professional casting office with about three feet of room — papers and chairs and a table. They treated me like a pro actor and asked me to do a cold reading. I did horrible.

I went off and learned all I could about how to audition properly and went back to see them. The bottom line was, they had already cast someone when I got back, but he hadn’t signed a contract. When I came back, I wooed them with a great audition and they fired him and hired me.

What did you think of the script when you read it? How did the producer sell the film to you? It’s a rather eccentric idea.

I didn’t know what it meant! I couldn’t make it out. I didn’t have any experience reading scripts; it’s not like reading a novel. There’s so much jargon. It was funny and interesting, but it didn’t make sense on paper. Once I started rehearsing, it started to come together.

What are your memories of Berry Gordy, producer and impresario of Motown Records?

He was very hands-on with me because it was my first film. He did more directing than Michael Schultz did. Whatever he said, went. He had an amiable personality, though; he wasn’t harsh or brash. I had an acting coach and I had Berry.

Was the actor who played Sho’nuff as crazy as his character would suggest?

Crazier. He was the best! The funny thing was, he tried to start fights because I would laugh at him. He was a serious actor. He didn’t like it that I’d laugh. His concern was that we would lose the edge between us on camera. I didn’t have any [acting] training; he wanted to make sure we had that [hostility] going on. He would start stuff, then when I took him serious, he’d run away.. 

What has your career comprised of since the film?

The reason why I wrote the book is because I got turned off by Hollywood. I didn’t play the game. I didn’t have a ‘business mind’, meaning I was man of colour at a time they didn’t hire people like me to star in movies or play a lead character that is a positive character. A good businessman would have known how to integrate me. Racially, it was tough. 

Gordy was frustrated with TriStar [because] they didn’t market The Last Dragon to a white audience. In the US in 1985, the white audience was the biggest. The film was only marketed to a black audience. Then, once cable networks started playing it religiously, the film developed a cult following.

What is it about the film that has caused it to achieve cult status?

I’ll tell you what I heard. People love the movies from that era. The story is unique; it’s not a film you take seriously [tell Anthony Kelly that!] but the magic of film is that it’s very deep on another level, because Bruce Leroy had a problem believing that he was built for greatness.

He discovered he was a master already, without the exterior trappings. That type of dynamic, where you have a character loved by people because he has an innocent personality, and people like Sho’Nuff and Arkadian were trying to tear him down… People [in the audience] don’t like bullies.

That dynamic resonated. It captivated people emotionally. People [in the audience] wanted him to succeed. That’s the subtext. Then, there’s the stuff on the surface; the romance and humour layered in with the wonderful characters that came to life in the film. 

What was your relationship to your female co-star Vanity? She died recently, as you know.

May she rest in peace. She was a great girl. Unfortunately, she got caught up in the Hollywood thing. She had a couple of hit songs [before the film]. While she was dating Prince, she had a song that did well, ‘Nasty Girl’: very provocative type of stuff. After they broke up, she wanted to clean up her image. That’s when she auditioned. It came down to her and another girl and I chose her. So Berry hired her.

Did the film prompt you to continue your martial journey? Do you still train now?

That’s like asking mama if she still cooks! I was born to do it, whether there was a movie or not. I started training with Marcelo Garcia, one of the top jiu-jitsu practitioners, some time ago.

While I was rolling, I tore my hamstring and my labrum. Recovery has been a two-year process. I was watching the female soccer world cup and there was a girl playing who had suffered a horrible injury and was told she’d never play again — after two years of rehab therapy, instead of surgery, she got back. That motivated me.

My training consists usually of BJJ. I mix it up. I really enjoy different styles of martial arts; I enjoy growing in mind, body and soul. It’s a playground. I still live in New York. I want to get out and continue this journey with fans who haven’t seen me in so many years. I co-wrote a story treatment for The Last Dragon sequel; it’s in the autobiography at the very end.

I see there have been cast reunions and the like. Can you tell me about them?

Demetrius Angelo does an independent film festival in New York that focuses on minorities and women. It’s called the Urban Action Showcase and Expo. He wanted to honour me at the festival. They threw a 30th anniversary celebration of the film and all the fans showed up.

I decided to keep doing it. I got an appearance agent. I worked on it with the Drafthouse theatre and we toured Texas and a couple of other places, where it was sold out. I started writing the book two years ago. I’ve continued the tour to promote the book.

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