8 Things You Didn’t Know About James Lew
If you’re at all in the know — and since you’re a BlackBelt reader, we know you’re in the know — you already know that American martial arts pioneer, perennial kung-fu-movie bad guy and Hollywood fight wizard extraordinaire James Lew recently won an Emmy for Outstanding Stunt Coordination in a Drama Series for the Netflix series LukeCage. But there are one or two things you might not know about the inimitable sifu Lew. In fact, I’m betting that there are eight things you don’t know about him, and I’m here to fill you in on all the gory details.
THE OLD NEIGHBORHOOD: Along with kung fu legends Douglas Wong and Al Leong, Lew was a member of the “Winningest Martial Arts Team” on the American tournament circuit in the 1970s. How did this conflagration of super champions come together to rock and roll the Kung
Fu Fighting era? Their origin story might surprise you.
“I lived next door to Douglas Wong forever,” Lew says. “We grew up together, doing kung fu and putting things together in the backyard. When we got older, we took it to the next level and did pretty well on the tournament circuit. We were the kung fu guys in the 1970s tournamentkarate world.”
With characteristic self-effacing humility, Lew sums up his team’s record-breaking trophy hauls with a laugh and a shrug. “They called Eric Lee the ‘King of Kata,’ and he had been doing his thing for a few years, so I guess we just picked that up and ran with it. I guess we did OK.”
IT SLICES, IT DICES! IT WINS TROPHIES AND DEFEATS HORDES OF
EVIL NINJA! Lew has mastered a number of martial arts weapons and is proficient with many more, but he’s hard-pressed to pick a favorite. Near or at the top of the list, though, is the Chinese ninering broadsword. Lew won dozens of trophies with his nine-ring form, which he performed right- handed, left- handed and two- handed.
“People seem to like that one,” he says. “It’s tremendously versatile, and there are so many things you can do with it. Nine-ring broadsword is definitely a favorite.”
YOU NEVER CAN TELL: Although he’s breathing that rarefied Emmy air now and has 330-plus film and television credits to his name, Lew’s first movie was a little picture called Young
Dragon (1979), which his IMDB page — perhaps humorously, perhaps generously — refers to as “now collectible.” However, it was that little stinker of a movie, shot in Taiwan for about a buck and a half, that led to Lew’s big break: the fan favorite Big
Trouble in Little China (1986).
“I had a rich friend who wanted to be a movie producer,” Lew recalls. “I had done a few things — the Kung
Fu TV show and so on — so we went to Taiwan and shot Young Dragon. I didn’t even speak Chinese, so the other actors and fighters would say their lines, and I’d just sort of go, ‘Umm, OK,’ and say mine back when someone cued me.”
Laughing at the memory, he continues: “The movie is really bad, so I never promote it, but when I got back to Los Angeles, John Carpenter had just announced Big Trouble in
Little China, and I had all this Hong Kong–style fight footage from Young
Dragon. So I showed Carpenter that, and it got me my first big moviechoreographer job!”
I PITY THE FU! In addition to the aforementioned appearance as a Shaolin monk in the original Kung Fu TV series (1972), Lew paid his dues as a film fighter and kung fu thug in such classic ’80s shows as The Fall Guy, T.J. Hooker, MacGyver and Murder, She Wrote. He played not one, not two, but five different bad guys during the glorious half-decade run of The A-Team (1983-1987). To this day, Lew’s record of being repeatedly pitied by Mr. T stands unchallenged.
THAT GLAMOROUS HOLLYWOOD LIFE
STYLE: The exact number escapes him, but Lew estimates that he’s appeared on 20 magazine covers over the past few decades. Which is at least eight more than Gerald Okamura, who’s barely managed to scrape up a dozen.
Okamura, however, would like to point out that he has appeared on the cover of Black Belt more than once, compared to Lew’s zero Black
Belt covers. And Okamura wishes to remind Lew that while he may have an Emmy, he’s never appeared in a
Vogue magazine ad, being all “ninja cool” next to a lady in a bikini. Which Okamura, of course, has.
SPEAKING OF FASHION: In addition to putting in time both in front of and behind the camera, Lew sold his own brand of martial arts workout wear in the ’80s and ’90s. The line was called, appropriately enough, Dragonmaster.
He says he discontinued it years ago but thinks he still has a bit of old stock in storage, including the zipfront sleeveless track jackets with the cool dragon logo on the chest — which would look awesome on this writer, who just happens to wear a size large or a generously cut medium.
THAT EMMY IS HEAVY! “That photo of me holding the Emmy statue triumphantly in the air? I didn’t want to do a whole lot of takes!” Lew says, laughing. “The first thing you think when they hand you the statue is, ‘Oh, my God, this doesn’t seem real! I really won!’ The second thing you think is, ‘Holy geez, this thing’s heavy.’ Then you have to remember your speech.”
THE POWER OF THE PRESS: Now that the post-Emmy brouhaha has settled down, Lew is taking the opportunity to put pen to paper and share his hardwon wisdom and experience in the world of film fighting through a book. It’s tentatively titled Fights, Camera, Action: The Art and Science of Cinematic Fights. Look for it soon.
“When I got back to Los Angeles, John Carpenter had just announced BigTrouble inLittleChina, and I had all this Hong Kong– style fight footage from YoungDragon. So I showed Carpenter that, and it got me my first big movie-choreographer job!”