8 Things You Didn’t Know About James Lew

Black Belt - - Fightbook - BY JA­SON Mc­NEIL

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.”


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.


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!”

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