Sunday, June 30, 2013

RIP Jim Kelly: The Interview I never got.

Jim Kelly as Williams in Enter The Dragon
Jim Kelly as Williams in Enter The Dragon, with Kein Shih as Mr Han.
"Man, you come straight out of a comic book!" That is Jim Kelly's famous line from the Bruce Lee film, Enter The Dragon   I sought him out in the course of making my documentary film,The Search for Count Dante. It was that line he said to Mr Han, who was played by Kien Shih. I was curious about whether the line had anything to do with the Count Dante comic book adverts, I was curious if it was part of thescript or if he had ad-libbed it. I follow crazy leads and yes, it would have been great to have him as an interview in my film. 

I first saw Jim Kelly in the film MELINDA with Calvin Lockhart in 1972. This was the year Five Fingers of Death hit the screens. MELINDA was a very impressive debut for Kelly. Melinda was directed by former sound man Hugh Robertson, one of the first people I ever met in LA during my 1971 debacle of a trip at 17 to sell a screenplay. Hugh was nominated for an Academy Award in 1969 for Best Editing on Midnight Cowboy. Hugh had also worked on my surrealistic film noir favorite, Mickey One and Shirley' Clarke's Cool World. Back then I remembered everything, not so much now. He was impressed I knew either of those films. 

I think it was my source, Bob Wall who got me Kelly's phone number. Bob Wall, played the heavy in Enter The Dragon. You remember him, the guy with the scarface that Bruce serves up his special dish to? Well Bob runs and knows everybody and is a wonderful human being. He has been very helpful like that. 

Jim and I talked on the phone before I went to Comic Con in 2009. I asked him for an interview. I was told he had been in Chicago. He worked for Delta Airlines. He worked the ticket counter at Merchandise Mart. He came here to study martial arts he said, but he never met Count Dante. He started studying martial arts when he was in college with Parker Shelton, he then quit school to come to Chicago to really focus on martial arts. He told me
Bob "Scarface" Wall with Bruce Lee
he studied with some people on Mannheim Rd near O'Hare Airport.

He was a bit guarded. He told me he would not be very useful to me as an interview. I let it go at that. But he called me back about 20 minutes later, we talked almost an hour about martial arts in general but not very much more about himself in Chicago studying martial arts. We met up at Comic Con when I got there, still no interview. He was sharing a booth with the Eric "Lionman" O'Neal of the Lionman Foundation. I never did figure out why he ran so hot and cold at the subject of Chicago and his time here. 

We had a good talk, argued about whether Enter The Dragon was the greatest martial arts film ever made, him and the Lion Man against me. I thought not. It definitely made the most money. It was certainly the greatest of Jim's time. But my pants don't sync that way. We had a wonderful debate. I include japanese chambara films in list and Sword of Doom with Tatsuya Nakadai always comes to mind, as well as King Hu's films like Dragon Gate Inn and Touch of Zen. And of late films like Merantau and Wong Kar Wai's recent The Grandmaster really resonate with me. It is about what we are exposed to. We had Omar Kaihatsu's Japanese Cinema every month at Francis Parker auditorium. To me Bruce Lee's Chinese Connection was and shall always be the shit. Raw, out of control with that b-movie saccharine sweetness. For me, great as Enter the Dragon might seem, it was like Charlie Parker with Strings. I bet Bruce felt like that too. Art gets lost in the
The role Bruce Lee was supposed to get,
Kwai Chang Caine, in the
KUNG FU TV series.
middle of too much spectacle. But commerce won out, and Bruce was back to low budget productions, getting no love from Hollywood. He would never get to be Kwai Chang Caine (too oriental looking).

I did not get to know Jim well in those brief phone calls and the two times I tried to coax him into an interview at Comic Con, but I appreciated his honesty. There are a of bullshitters out here. 

Nganga Tolo-naa aka
Ray "The Chicago Tiger" C00per
Above is my parting photo of him after the big debate where Lionman tried to Bogart me with his credentials and abilities. I was like "Dude, I am from Chicago, I know the great martial artists. We had Tolo-naa, The Baker Brothers and Oso Tayari Casel in Chicago, dude, and we had that wild ass John Keehan who taught everybody back in the early 60s."
In the end we were all laughing. All macho bravado. Mr O'neal is too young to know who those names were, but Kelly did. 

It is a shame he did not want to sit down with me and recount his history in martial arts. It would have been invaluable. 

Good journey Mr Kelly.

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