Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Cool Ass Cinema Presents: An Interview with Legendary Martial Arts Cinema Actor, John Ladalski

There have been many foreign actors (Gweilo's) in Asian Action and Kung Fu movies since the genre exploded on the international scene back in the early 1970s. Old School Kung Fu fans know Roy Horan and his works for, among others, Seasonal Film Corporation; Richard Harrison and his participation in numerous ninja movies from the team of Joseph Lai and Godfrey Ho; but there's one Anglo actor who ran the gamut in HK/Taiwan cinema--appearing in big studio productions, independent films, Bruceploitation pictures, ninja movies, HK New Wave and American and Italian action movies. A martial arts instructor of various styles, the legendary John Ladalski has done it all and worked with virtually everybody in the Asian Martial Arts/Action film industry. Of all the foreign actors featured in this unique genre, Master John Ladalski is one of, if not the single most important contributor to Asian cinema's rich legacy of intricately choreographed fists, feet and clashing swords.

John and Tony Jaa
Venoms5: Where were you born and how did you get into martial arts?

John Ladalski: I was born in Chicago, Illinois in 1950. My interest in the martial arts began the moment I saw Bruce Lee in THE GREEN HORNET (1966-1967). When I went to Vietnam in 1969, I got to see ROK (Republic of Korea) Marines practicing Taekwondo. My desire to learn only grew from there when I came home in 1973 after two tours overseas. After I got a copy of 'Tao of Jeet Kune Do' in 1975 I took up boxing. In 1976 my veterans benefits from the GI Bill allowed me to study Shorinji Kempo in Japan while attending university there and then Wing Chun for two months in Hong Kong. Before I left Japan, I got to interview both Sonny Chiba and Yasuaki Kurata for Black Belt Magazine O'Hara. In September of that year I also studied at the Filipino Kali Academy of Sifu Dan Inosanto.

V5: How many styles did you train and which style suited you best?

JL: Many styles, actually. My formal training began in 1975 when I learned Western-style boxing. Other styles were Shorin-Ryu Karate, Taekwondo, Jeet Kune Do, Wing Chun, Filipino Kali, Aikido; and I also studied Southern Praying Mantis, Northern Style Kicking techniques, Tai Chi and Yoga. I am a Sifu in styles of Wing Chun, Jeet Kune Do and Kali Sticks, so those three suit me best. I also teach Qigong Meditation. I'm a Christian, but am into Buddhism. I've studied all religions, philosophies and healing methods.

Dan Inosanto (left) and John Ladalski in THE CHINESE STUNTMAN (1981)
V5: At what point in your life did you decide to get into the movies?

JL: I wanted to get into movies when I got back from Vietnam. I learned JKD while in California and, with an idea I already had for a film, wanted to show authentic JKD onscreen. But to get into the business, I had to show what I could do. I eventually made my way back to Hong Kong where I did some live JKD demonstrations on HK television. Later on I was able to convince a producer to use me in a local production with Sifu Dan Inosanto. Just before that, though, my first film work was in 1977 with Ed Parker and Tadashi Yamashita working on the Andy Sidaris movie, SEVEN (1979) starring William Smith. Then in 1978 I was an agent for Sifu Dan Inosanto. I got him the job at Golden Harvest on GAME OF DEATH. I was also on set and did some parts that were unpaid.

V5: When you got to Hong Kong, that film was THE CHINESE STUNTMAN (1981), correct? If so, how did you get the job on this film?

JL: Yes, it was also called COUNTER ATTACK. I got the job on my own, basically. I was looking to meet Ho Chung Tao (Bruce Li) to see if he'd be interested in using an idea I had for a film featuring Dan Inosanto. I went to the various movie companies there like Goldig and Eternal to see who had a contract with him. This was in September of '79. I had a Chinese friend helping me as we looked around. I had explained to the company rep I spoke with at Goldig about my idea. Anyway, I called them back later on and she told me Ho Chung Tao was out of town. Not long after I discovered they had appropriated my idea and wanted to use Ho and Dan Inosanto in a movie that was my idea. I also learned that Ho had his own production company called Viking Films. So I got the address and went there and saw him on the corner going up to his building. We went up to his office and discussed the situation and ended up making the movie with his Viking Film Company. 

Naturally, Ho took my idea and modified it to suit the Hong Kong audience, although I knew it was going to turn out good. I got paid everything I was promised, but we did have problems shooting the picture around February 1980 in Hong Kong. We then moved the production to Taiwan and shot most of it there, then came back to HK to finish it. I did have an issue on this picture as I was under the impression I was going to get rights for America, but Ho was worried about the money as he'd put his own funds, including his house, into the picture. It was a big success in the long run. He ended up selling the rights to three HK film companies; one of which was Roy Horan's film company and another was Huang Kin-Lung's company. He's from Burma, and another of the Bruce Lee-alikes, Bruce Le. This is one of the reasons there's three, maybe four different versions of CHINESE STUNTMAN, aka COUNTER ATTACK.

V5: Apart from the problems you incurred on this picture, did you have a good working relationship with Bruce Li (Ho Chung Tao)? Or Bruce Le (Huang Kin Lung) for that matter?

JL: In the beginning we had a great working relationship. About halfway through the film things began to break down. The story changed and there were problems on set for some because I wanted to use authentic JKD, but Ho didn't want to go that route, instead relying on movie style martial arts. Anyway, I had a falling out with the fight directors but a year or two later we were friends again and disregard what happened in the past. Unfortunately, Ho Chung Tao is still upset with me as he hasn't spoken to me since.

As for Bruce Le, he bought the license for THE CHINESE STUNTMAN and I shot some additional footage for his version. I also met the Korean Bruce Lee from GAME OF DEATH (1978), Tong Lung; he was the stand-in for Bruce Lee. He died a few years ago. He was very funny and got into a lot of fights in Hong Kong.

One of my students was in that 50 episode CCTV series, THE LEGEND OF BRUCE LEE (2008). My student is still doing work in China. He was supposed to be in a major film, I think it was supposed to be called 'The Spirit of Bruce Lee', but it never happened.

V5: What was your opinion of the Bruceploitation genre? Did you feel they were dishonoring the name of Bruce Lee?

JL: The Bruceploitation movies... I think some are in bad taste; but then some people appreciate those films because the audience wants to see the continuing adventures of Bruce Lee. The films were obviously popular because of Bruce Lee, the man.

John on G-MEN '75 (1975-1982); Japanese series shot in HK

V5: Did you ever get to meet Bruce Lee and what was it about him that got you hooked on martial arts?

JD: I never met Bruce Lee in person, but have met his family--Linda Lee, his late son Brandon, his daughter Shannon, his mother... I've met the whole family as well as most of his JKD students. I did go to California in 1968 to try and meet Bruce since it was his role as Kato on THE GREEN HORNET that got me heavily into martial arts. It was also because of Bruce Lee that I became interested in Transcendental Meditation and Chinese Philosophy. His movies came out while I was in the Navy and I was blown away when I saw them. I had to learn everything about him. His philosophy and meditation and everything Bruce preached about the Chinese arts captivated me.

V5: How did you get on at Shaw Brothers and what was your impression of Sir Run Run Shaw and the Shaw Studio?

JL: The studio was massive. You could visit some 20 different productions going on at once. How I got there was through an agent who offered me a film that was starring Alexander Fu Sheng. I only met Shaw twice. He didn't talk much. His producer, Mona Fong, was running the company and she didn't do such a good job. Mr. Shaw was already very old at that time and he was just enjoying life for the most part. 

V5: You worked on Sun Chung's MY REBELLIOUS SON (1982). Do you have any memories of this production and working with Chen Hui Min (Michael Chan Wai Man)?

JL: Working on this film was okay. Two of my friends, Mimmo Gasbarri and Randy Channell, got work on this film also. I was on the picture for a month of shooting. I had known Michael Chan for years. Everybody knows of his Triad associations but he's a very likable guy and everybody likes him. He was attacked by a Chinese gang once, but that's a story for another day. As for the director Sun Chung, he later opened a Chinese restaurant in Chicago back in 1990.

V5: Did you get to know Fu Sheng very well? How was he to work with?

JL: Alexander was always late coming to the set. Everyday the director Sun Chung would get angry because of the delays. Fu Sheng did his job, of course. He was a superstar and a little bit arrogant. He wasn't always like that, but at this time in his life he was making a lot more money and his popularity became a problem for him until he died. 

John and Ti Lung sparring JKD vs. Wing Chun.

Ti Lung, John, Chow Yun Fat: CITY WAR (1988)
V5: How did you come to meet Ti Lung the first time and how was he to work with?

JL: Ti Lung, or Tommy Tam, was a friend of mine for a long time. He does Wing Chun and Goju-Ryu Karate. He actually has his own fighting system. I asked him to teach me some, and he did. It's very good. He told me back in 1977 he would work on many movies at once, sometimes five or more. He'd shoot scenes for one picture then move to another studio set for an entirely different film. Unfortunately, Ti Lung had some problems after his mother died. She committed suicide, which has affected him ever since. He is, and always was, an extremely professional actor. I first met him on the set of Shooting the Hidden Bat (LEGEND OF THE BAT [1978]). He speaks English extremely well and spoke it to me first when we met. A very friendly man. We got along so well he invited me to Taiwan to make a film there where the production company ended up making two films out of one. I even accompanied Ti Lung on a trip to Japan, but I haven't seen or spoke to him since those times.

V5: That 'two for one' film you reference was INHERITOR OF KUNG FU and the sequel HERO AT THE BORDER REGION (both 1981). Was this sort of deceptive behavior a common practice in HK cinema productions back in the day?

JL: Tommy (Ti Lung) was very angry over that. But yes, that picture was supposed to be one film but was really two and Tommy wasn't told that initially. He was being paid for a single film that was actually going to be two pictures. He didn't even finish all his scenes. We shot that one in Taiwan and he left after that incident. The Taiwan movie industry was at a low point at that time. I never personally experienced that sort of practice while making films in Hong Kong unless it was something already stipulated in the deal.

V5: Did you ever work on a film without a script, or a script that changed daily?

JL: Well, I'm a foreigner. I didn't even see a script. Many times they do have a script but it often changed, anyways. Jackie Chan, for example, made up films as they went along. He didn't like the American way at all; too complicated. Producers and directors have a rough idea of how the film will look and some just wing it all the time. So long as people can get a feel for the character that's all that is necessary in those cases.

V5: You worked with John Liu Chung Liang at least once on IN THE CLAWS OF THE CIA (1981). What was he like to work with?

JL: I lived with him in Spain when I did the film for him there with my friend from Canada and a couple Korean action guys. We never finished it. If you've seen the movie you can tell Liu Chung Liang likes porn. He learned his style in Japan, from Okinawa. It's a variation of Taekwondo. I've learned his whole system, which is similar to JKD. Liu Chung Liang is a man of many stories. He told me once his father was American and was a rocket scientist that moved to China and was a CIA spy who, upon escaping back the USA, faked his death and lives under government protection in some unknown city. Liu Chung Liang speaks perfect English, too. He lives in Vietnam now. He did a movie with Robert Tai over there with Toby Russell and George Tan called TRINITY GOES EAST (1998).

V5: Joseph Lai and Godfrey Ho. How did you come to work for them and what did you think of their method of making movies from bits and pieces of other films?

JL: Those exploitation guys. They take old films and try to make a product they can sell out of it. They thought of themselves as professionals but their pictures were really cheap and shitty. I was always butting heads with them and only did work for those guys because I needed the money. Others had trouble with them, too. They had a whole stock of films that were never finished so they would shoot new footage to put together a full feature. Surprisingly, they made money off those cut-and-paste jobs. They set fire to the floor of the building their offices were in to destroy evidence of some or all the negatives they maybe didn't own. Before IFD, their first company was Asso Asia Films. IFD is where they made all those mismatched ninja movies.

V5: Do you recall how ROCKY'S LOVE AFFAIRS (1985;NINJA STRIKE; NINJA HOLOCAUST) came about? The film with Chan Wai Man and Casanova Wong. It's another patchwork production.

JL: I don't know much about that one. I only worked one day on it. I had injured my leg and was out of movies for a year. I had just recovered and got the job to do that picture, but it was only one day of work.

V5: THE MAN FROM HOLLAND (1986; MAGNUM THUNDERBOLT). Do you recall anything about that one? You had a cameo playing an unusual character in it.

JL: I was playing a hitman in that one. The idea was I was supposed to paint a naked girl on the beach who was tied up to these stakes. Only it wasn't me who was doing the actual painting. Godfrey Ho and the cameraman was painting the girl between takes. It was like a fun thing for them to throw in a nude girl and paint her. Like they'd had a dream about it or something. It was more for their pleasure than me doing the part at all.

V5: What was your opinion of Richard Harrison? He did so many of those 'cut and paste' ninja movies.

JL: Richard Harrison was a guy trying to survive in Hong Kong. He was married at that time and had been blacklisted in America over some problem with a producer. The times I worked with him he was always sociable and friendly. He did his job very well. A professional even though he was working with unprofessional people. He did a lot of films in Italy and the Philippines too.

V5: How did you meet Robert Tai and how was his style of choreography compared with past martial artists you'd worked with?

JL: Robert Tai's style was very cinematic and very Chinese oriented. Compared to some others, he knows what he's doing but it's always the same style every time. He didn't like a lot of the companies in the business so he created his own. He never got very big, though; just kept doing the same thing over and over again. He got sick in Taiwan while making NINJA THE FINAL DUEL. He's in Hong Kong now recovering from Cancer. Another thing involving Robert Tai, I got Robin Shou his first role in DEATH CAGE (1989), which Tai directed. I was his personal trainer and agent for that picture. I also played a fighter in the film.

John and Toby Russell (left) in NINJA THE FINAL DUEL
V5: How long did you work on NINJA THE FINAL DUEL?

JL: I worked on that one for a month, at least eight hours a day. We were shooting it really fast to try and get as much footage as possible.

V5: Did the choreographers you work with allow you to implement your own techniques in fight scenes or did you have to do it their style?

JL: Yes to both. On THE CHINESE STUNTMAN, I would try to do a little of my stuff and then they'd put their timing and technique in there which sometimes would make you look bad onscreen. I tried to do things my way as much as I could. On ARMOUR OF GOD, if the choreographers had trouble directing me, I told them this is how I'd do it and they let me do it my way.

V5: How did this job come to you and what was your experience like working with Jackie Chan at Golden Harvest on ARMOUR OF GOD (1986)?

JL: I was hired on that by a local HK agent for, I believe 4 months; this was after Jackie almost died and was recovering in hospital after falling on a camera due to a failed stunt. On the film, he directed me 2/3 of the time. He knows how to act and direct the actors extremely well. He tried to get a feel for me as an actor and there was something like 12 different versions of things to get various possibilities of what to use and what not to use.

V5: What would you say is the best production you ever worked on and the actor or director you enjoyed working with the most?

JL: Jackie was unique so ARMOUR OF GOD was one of the better productions I worked on. For Viking Films with CHINESE STUNTMAN, that picture was a great learning experience for me. Working with Mel Gibson and Robert Downey, Jr. on AIR AMERICA was probably the best overall because it was an American production.

V5: You've worked with virtually everybody connected with martial arts films and even a fair number of big name American movie stars. You worked on a Sho Kosugi movie, 9 DEATHS OF THE NINJA (1985). Can you tell me anything about that project?

JD: I only played a government agent and shot my scenes for that one in Georgia. Kosugi was in the Philippines shooting so I never saw him.

V5: Did you ever see Klaus Kinski get out of control on the set of Antonio Margheriti's CODE NAME: WILD GEESE (1984)?

JD: Kinski was very easygoing on that one while shooting in the Philippines. I never saw him lose his temper. He was very professional. He's a very strong actor and always wants things done properly.

V5: This is amazing, John. You've met or worked with virtually everybody in martial arts films.

JL: Pretty much every martial artist in modern times so to speak. I also did some work on a Japanese TV series shot in Hong Kong called G-MEN '75 (1975-1982) with Yasuaki Kurata. I later worked with Kurata and Bolo on BLOODFIGHT in 1989. I've also met and interviewed Sonny Chiba for Black Belt Magazine, which I mentioned earlier.

V5: Is there one film you regret and if so why?

JL: Well, I'll just say none were so bad I wouldn't do them.

V5: What are you doing today? Do you still do film work? What is your opinion of the industry today?

JL: Right now I'm producing an action film called GARUDA 7 in Jakarta. We are still trying to get an investor, hopefully in America. Barry Prima and Billy Chong are starring in it. I have many possible people for this project who have the look for the world stage; one is a beautiful Indonesian lady who fights better than Jeeja, in my opinion. I'll be in the film and also have a hand in the martial arts choreography.

John and Joe Lewis in late 80s
I am also an action director and trainer. I offer an eight week training course for my students in Thailand if they want professional training to work in movies. I have trained many people in Thailand and Malaysia for many years now. For example, I trained the participants for my Malay film, OPS BELANTARA back in 1990. My main job is action choreography, films and minor television commercials. I give my students insight in how to work on films. Not everybody is talented, but some gradually realize their own abilities. My way is unique in that I teach you how to do real fighting first then give you the movie way of self control, controlling their punches and kicks to not hurt anybody. In this way they get a feeling for fighting onscreen so they can perform better. I have many ideas and thinking of new ways to do things. I want to do realistic action. Nowadays you see people favoring the style of action in the BOURNE series, which is realistic like the Bruce Lee or Dan Inosanto way of action. People here are following that method; in England, and of course, in Hollywood. Even Robert Downey, Jr. does Wing Chun; Tom Cruise and Liam Neeson are all doing realistic martial arts, and that's what I do as well.

CAC would like to thank Master Ladalski for granting this interview, contributing so much time discussing his career in film and his other interests and his current projects. We wish him luck on all future endeavors.

At this link HERE you'll find an Impact Online article about the gestating project, THE GARUDA 7. 

John Ladalski is a producer for Lifevolution Pictures and a producer at Jeet Kune Do Concepts.

***All photos, except for screen caps, courtesy of John Ladalski***

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