Sunday, November 7, 2021

Kung Fu Theater: Interviews With Martial Artist and Actor Thomas Trammell

 "Something was in the air [in the 1970s]. Everybody around us in the neighborhood and in school were going to the theater to see [Kung Fu movies]".
The 1970s saw an international explosion of martial arts movies after the global release of FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH in 1973 (1972s KING BOXER); and the subsequent popularity and lifelong admiration of Bruce Lee by many around the world. Especially in America, everybody was Kung Fu Fighting in every aspect of society. A side-effect of the flood of cheaply made, badly dubbed Fu flicks ensured a decades-long stereotype that the movies were beneath serious consideration, relegating them frequent parodying; seldom in a fan-friendly way.
After STAR WARS (1977) changed the art of both making movies and watching them, Kung Fu was largely banished to the Drive-in circuit and then television where they thrived. Major productions would show their influence (like 1973s seminal ENTER THE DRAGON, or anything with Chuck Norris) even though so many American-made MA movies (like 1978s CIRCLE OF IRON and 1981s FORCE: FIVE) either pretentiously emphasized philosophy over fighting; or were outright mediocre imitations of their Hong Kong counterparts. 
However, a string of low-budget movies would remain truer to the unique style of Chinese choreography than the bigger budgeted interpretations. Some of this crop were high camp, and some with poorly executed choreography; but the creativity, love and inspiration visualized in the action design was undeniable (like 1975s FORCE FOUR, 1976s DEVIL'S EXPRESS, 1976s DEATH MACHINES, and 1977s DEATH PROMISE)
With the genre finding even greater appreciation among the urban and black communities, it's no surprise a number of black martial arts performers would seek out opportunities to show their stuff in these films, if not make a career out of it. Jim Kelly (1974s BLACK BELT JONES, the same years THREE THE HARD WAY, and 1978s THE TATTOO CONNECTION) is the most famous example. Others followed like Speedy Leacock, Warhawk Tanzania, Sonny Barnes, and Ron Hall. Then there were those like Ron Van Clief, Thomas Trammell, Carl Scott, and Robert Samuels that went to Hong Kong or Taiwan, starring in Kung Fu movies for Chinese filmmakers.
Virtually everyone across the nation and around the world had a fascination with Kung Fu, Karate, and the surge of Oriental cinema that captured Anglo imaginations. It's integral to further understand the mystique of the Kung Fu genre by its popularity and its influence on the many black martial artists who sought out to star in them and or make their own. There's little to no history from the point of view of these men whose love of the arts was born out of experiencing the 1970s martial arts craze; a trend that will never be duplicated nor seen again. Their stories can only further enrich the history of the genre, its fans, and its future.
Eugene Thomas Trammell, aka Thomas Trammell (also billed as Eugene T. Trammell, Thomas Yau, Yau Jin Thomas, and Thomas Trannells), was one of thousands of moviegoers who were blown away by Chinese Kung Fu movies in the 1970s. He was also one of many who took up training in the martial arts, and one of the few to make it as an actor in the Asian market; embarking on an adventure as an American making Chinese Kung Fu movies in Taiwan. Mr. Trammell went on a decade-long journey that ultimately brought him away from the industry and into becoming a musician; another career path that was also inspired and fueled by his love for martial arts and spirituality. What's fascinating about Mr. Trammell's story is it goes much deeper than a man wishing to be a star in Kung Fu films, but a man wishing to learn about himself through the study of martial arts.

This is a two-part series of interviews with Mr. Trammell and Mr. Ron Hall on their experiences in making martial arts movies--their love of the genre, its popularity in the 1970s, and its place in the cinema of today.
VENOMS5: Can you talk about your childhood and what led to you becoming interested in the martial arts and the movies?

THOMAS TRAMMELL: I was raised around my uncles, coming from a family of all girls. My uncles were all athletes; they were baseball players. So that type of activity was always in me and I became an athlete, too. I got attracted to the martial arts while in high school. I was always into physical type of activities like basketball. A friend of mine in ROTC studied Korean Karate, Tang Soo Do. I had seen other arts but his was one I got attracted to so that lit the fire in me to take up training. So I went up north to this Korean Taekwondo school. I liked it so well I was never struggling with learning it. I liked it because I was working my legs. However, I really didn't know what I was getting into. TKD ultimately didn't adapt to my way of thinking and movements so I eventually moved into something else; but TKD was the foundation for me.

V5: So which was most influential for you? The arts itself or seeing the arts in the movies that pushed you to want to take up training?

TT: It was the art itself. Seeing the movies really motivated me; seeing all those types of kicks and spinning kicks and variations with the legs was a big motivator for me. As I began studying and sparring it gave me an opportunity to express myself in ways playing basketball never did.

V5: Can you describe what it was like seeing a Kung Fu film in a theater for the first time and what was the movie that hooked you on the genre?

TT: For me it was Bruce Lee in THE CHINESE CONNECTION (1972). I had seen all the other ones like FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH but when I saw Master Lee on the screen I knew right then that's what I wanted to do. It was the way he was expressing himself with his martial arts that captivated me. At that time everybody was imitating him. The first one I ever saw though was FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH. Others followed but it was Lee who jumped out at me right there; and I said, "That's what I want to do".

V5: What was the atmosphere like back in the 70s seeing those films for the first time--during a time period that will never be repeated again?

TT: It was captivating. Something was in the air at that time. It was almost hypnotic. Just seeing something foreign like that, and seeing so many of them coming out at once. Everybody around us in the neighborhood and in school were going to the theater to see them. Before that we had Kato on THE GREEN HORNET, but seeing something different of that magnitude was amazing. Compared to today, what I see now with martial arts, it's so commercialized; the form of expression is so different now. It went from being artistic to being combative. Bruce Lee started that whole MMA style of fighting; but it's different now. I understand why it's changed, though. In my opinion, the newer ones are not as entertaining as the classic movies, which were more theatrical in comparison. It's two different styles then and now. It's a culture thing, too.

V5: How did you end up in Taiwan making Kung Fu pictures and what was your first movie you acted in?

TT: My first movie was MAFIA VS. NINJA (1985). I ended up in Taiwan because it was the desire I wanted. It was really quite interesting. Everybody practiced martial arts for their own specific reasons. Before I answer this question I'm leading up to a point. I realized for me that practicing TKD was guiding my inner thinking; and that's what I really wanted to do. I wanted to learn about myself. I was introduced to different people from India. After a while I was so successful from sparring I began teaching MA at the YMCAs. This one guy from Southern California named Bobby Ghee started telling me things about myself, and how I can improve myself as a person. He was showing me how to use the physical aspect with my mental aspect. He asked me where did I want to go and what did I want to do, and I told him I wanted to go to China and study the arts and do movies, you know; you're inspired by what you see. He told me it was best for me to go to Taiwan because they were more English-friendly than China. He said it was the best time to go because the military had pulled out and there would be a good opportunity for me; there wouldn't be a lot of competition for me to find what I want and that's how I got over there.
Just listening to Bruce Lee and his philosophy helped a lot too. He opened up some doors subconsciously to make you think in that manner. He made people want to pursue and learn about the martial arts. So that's what led me to Taiwan. I met some interesting teachers over there who spoke English, too. I couldn't speak Chinese. It was amazing to find some English-speaking Taiwanese over there. The language barrier wasn't as bad as I thought because they had English schools in Taiwan too. They had import and export companies there with their families and they had Taiwan-American schools so it wasn't as crazy as I thought it would be, since a lot of people could communicate in English.

V5: When you arrived in Taiwan how did you find out where to go for auditions?

TT: I didn't. That's where my martial arts came in, believe it or not. Your art forces you to focus on your inner self, your breathing like in Chi Kung. One of the things we don't realize is if you're patient enough and practice the right way opportunities will come your way. It's ironic how it happens. I learned how to sell myself, too, basically being the only black man over there it was easy to attract attention. 
I figured out a way to bring attention to myself by playing semi-professional basketball in Taiwan. I wasn't that good but I was good enough to be on the team. By me being the only African-American over there in basketball it brought attention to me so I really didn't have to go looking for it. I played for the Bank of Taiwan. I didn't play for a long time because being a basketball player wasn't my goal but just long enough to get people talking about me. It's one of those untold stories but a lot of Asians know of me being over there doing what I've done. So I used that to my advantage and teachers started coming and asking me "Why are you in Taiwan?" And I told them, "I'm studying martial arts"
To this day, through martial arts I've learned about centering myself. You hear about these things all the time. You can wield your presence you just have to be patient and let it come to you. That's what Bagua martial arts is all about. It's an art that centers yourself. It's a fighting art but it's a meditative art, too. When I was doing my films I didn't do my Bagua style, they particularly wanted me to do the kickboxing style of fighting. I was kinda disappointed because they wouldn't let me move the way I wanted to move; but again, it wasn't my toy, it was there toy. I met a lot of good people over there in Taiwan that had a big influence on me. 
Just leaving America, meeting people outside of my race, practicing the arts, it gave me a different outlook on life. People are people everywhere you go. A lot of Americans have asked me how was I able to relate to them in the way that I do, and I would tell them I'm just being myself. They could feel I was sincere in wanting to learn. They would tell me, "If you really want to learn about the martial arts you have to live with the Chinese, be among them, to learn why they practice the way they practice and move the way they move". It's a spiritual thing. Just like us. All of us are spiritual; it's how we tap into it.

V5: Can you describe your first on-camera experience working on MAFIA VS. NINJA (1985)?

TT: I didn't get paid on that movie. The only pay that I got was experience. I felt inside of myself that I really shouldn't have gotten paid because what they were showing me, in my view, was priceless. I met Robert Tai and those guys through a Chinese friend of mine who was a photographer and we used to go up into the mountains a lot. He knew different people in Taiwan so he introduced me to them and the next thing I know I'm on a movie set. 
At the time I didn't know who Robert and Alexander Lou were. That particular movie I filmed for about two weeks. We would be on the set all day and I would stay on the set with them even when I wasn't on-camera. We were all like a bunch of buddies and friends. So my only pay was gaining experience and learning from them. They really did show me a lot about rhythm and the timing of movements. But they wouldn't let me do my own style. When we practiced they did let me do a lot of my stuff. But I understand why they wouldn't let me do my own thing for the camera. Like I said, I was over there studying. I wanted to know about different types of martial arts.

V5: Did the script change daily or did you know from one day to the next what you would be doing?

TT: Alexander Lou Rei was the only one on the set that spoke English so he would tell me what the story was about. I never had a script. They had a script but I didn't. And when the movie came out it wasn't even my voice. So Alex would tell me what we were going to do in the scene or what we'd be doing in the fight. So I was playing all of it by ear. A lot of my scenes were just speaking lines to get into the character for the fighting. I worked mostly with Alex because we could communicate. Later on I did speak some Mandarin and there were some more Asians speaking English so it got easier and sometimes I'd have a script. But on MAFIA VS. NINJA it was totally freestyle.

V5: What was your working relationship like with Robert Tai? What type of man was he?

TT: He was one of those quiet, silent, humble types. He didn't talk a lot. He wanted to get to know me but there was a language barrier. He did make me feel comfortable on the set. He understood what I was doing through Alexander. He would translate a lot of my writings to him. In that way, Robert and myself got closer. Alex was from Taiwan and he spoke really good English as I mentioned earlier. Everything I really did in my career was because of Robert Tai. The reason I was getting other roles was due to him. I knew I wasn't getting those roles just on me alone. It was planned, you know. They were showing me how to move with them. At that time I was a showcase being a foreigner in their movies. They're gonna make some money and at the same time I'm gonna make some money, too. It was a business. Robert was initiating me because they had a group of about twelve men, and they would do all their moves and they made me a part of that. Like my classmates that worked with Robert, they also got work in other areas. 
V5: How long did it take to film fight scenes on your films? Were there any injuries?
TT: There wasn't a lot of injuries because everybody had so much control in their art. Unless somebody got upset but I never saw that, myself. A fight scene, like a brief one, could take as long as two hours to do. Being in shape really helped a lot. They tested my endurance too, to see how far I could go. They would have me out there doing action for hours at a time just to see if I could stand up with them. They were testing my art too. Being honest, they liked that I wasn't an arrogant type person. A lot of foreigners came over and didn't get good fight scenes because they were arrogant. I couldn't tell these people about their own high-mindedness or make them see that it wasn't their toy to play with. So I was easy to work with. I would go out to eat with them all the time and they would tell me what to eat and what not to eat. For example, I don't eat pork so they would make sure I didn't eat any. It was like a family.

V5: You worked a lot with Alexander Lou but also his brother Tong Lung. Can you talk about him?

TT: They were from Southern Taiwan. I was honored when Alex took me down to his house. It was like a farm out in the country. Alex had the right look. He had a commercial look. Now his brother, I saw his movies in America so I already knew who he was when I worked on MAFIA VS. NINJA. He helped me with my Bagua art with my breathing. He's a real nice guy. He has a no-nonsense air about him. But once you get close to him he's a great guy. I would be on the set and I could see how Alex would mimic him in some ways. He took it to a different level. Alex told me his brother went to join the army and when he came back everybody forgot about him. He was doing movies, but once he went into the military and came out, it was all over. Alexander didn't go; he didn't want to go so he sabotaged it to keep from going.

V5: You also worked with some of the Venom team like Chiang Sheng and Chu Ko, who designed action in some of your films.

TT: I didn't spend a lot of time with Chiang Sheng but Chu Ko, I greatly admired him and the way he moved. He wouldn't let me study him, though. Some of them would but he wouldn't. He was humble in his own way. At that time I didn't know who he was with the Venom group. I just thought they were guys on the sets choreographing action sequences. It wasn't till later on when I started seeing their work. I had no idea I was in that deep. He was amazing. Those guys were from Chinese Opera too, so they incorporated a lot of Opera into their action. That fascinated me as well. Alexander took me to see some of them.
Chiang Sheng (at right with Alex Lou) I didn't get to know very well. I was just breaking out and many of those guys were very secretive. Sometimes they wouldn't even let me watch them choreographing their fights. But with Chiang he never designed any of my stuff. Everything I did was between me and Alexander and some other Chinese brothers. When he died in 1991 I was shocked. I was back in the states by then. You think you can take death but you just sit and stare when you think you knew this person and worked with him in some capacity. And when I saw his movies he was like that in real life. He was always being himself and that's what I liked about him. To me he was genuine. He was amazing with a sword and tumbling.
V5: One of the biggest movies you did was NINJA: THE FINAL DUEL (1986); in its original version, a 12 1/2-hour Kung Fu movie edited down to two 90-minute features.
TT: I was disappointed in how that one turned out. It was a long movie and a lot of the hours of filming we were in different locations. That one was heavily advertised too. I got to show a little of myself in it, but I was disappointed in the way they split it up. It was supposed to represent dual personalities in a human being. We have a righteous side and a dark side. My light side was playing a monk and the dark was the spiritual boxer. I brought the concept to Alexander and he took it to Robert. Somehow, somewhere, it went in a different direction. I don't think the audience caught the real idea of what it was supposed to be; and they just ended up making two movies out of it. My character was supposed to have had a struggle within himself of doing right and wrong. 
I understood it was being done a certain way to make money. Robert was a good director and working on it was indeed a lot of fun. We traveled to so many different places. We were on islands, in a lot of temples; just seeing all those temples and filming inside of them was an experience in itself. And I got to meet a lot of new stars coming up.
V5: You had a love scene with Alice Tseng, who is frequently naked in the movie. Were you uncomfortable at all shooting that sequence?
TT: We were all being professionals on that sequence and it was strictly business. They knew I was a respectful type of person and I believe that's why they allowed me to do it. Ms. Tseng was very bold to strip down like that. To be honest, I was embarrassed because I am not that type of person and it felt like I was doing porn. Still, I understood what Robert was doing in that scene in trying to evoke a spiritual message of female energy.
V5: How was your working relationship with the other Anglo actors like Silvio Azzolini, Toby Russell and the late John Ladalski?
TT: It was a lot of fun with all of them. We were all young then. Silvio was over there to learn martial arts and medicine. He's a doctor now. We got along well. We used to talk a lot about what we wanted to do. The chemistry was there and it was good to be around Americans, too. Toby was a martial arts buff and he knew everybody. It was so interesting just being with so many different people of the world. They were all easy to get along with.
As for John, we used to call him Kung Fu John. He was there with Mimmo Gasspari, and very much into Wing Chun and Jeet Kun Do; a student of Dan Inosanto. He was a martial artist and he loved the arts. He was from Chicago, too. I was working at the fitness center down there and he would come down and talk to me about martial arts all the time. He was an interesting human being. His death caught me by surprise. 

V5: You did a movie called A BOOK OF HEROES (1986) with Yasuaki Kurata and Yukari Oshima. How did that one come about and how did working with the Japanese compare with working with the Chinese?

TT: That came about from Robert, too. The Japanese were very quiet. The only time I got the chance to talk with them was when we were filming. Communication was easy as they spoke English. They were laid back they just didn't speak much. That particular film I liked a lot because it was a different type of fighting from Robert and Alexander and their group. I wanted to do more in that fashion. That movie gave me an opportunity to do some acting, too. The choreographer, Lin Wan Chang, was a Wing Chun practitioner and I enjoyed working with him. He was a Taiwanese. During my fight scene with the young lady with the pig tails, he was her stand-in so I was fighting him.

Now the film I did in Taiwan that really got people all over Asia to recognize my face was THE KUNG FU KIDS (1986). It was a small part but that was my first test for working outside of Robert Tai's group. I used to see the director and the kids watching me on Robert's set when I was with Alexander but I never paid attention to it. But that part was being set up for me intentionally. They used that fight between me and the kids to promote it all over television. From that movie people took notice. People there knew me from playing basketball. So that movie opened up a lot of other films. They were kinda grooming me to go a certain way. 
I remember Robert was telling me at that time he had went to New York to make a movie called 'The Black Ninja'. He wanted to use Taimak in the lead but he was disappointed to learn the fighters he found couldn't move the way he wanted because they were too rugged and stiff. Taimak wasn't available anyway due to his contract. They wanted to use a name. By then they were feeling comfortable moving outside of Taiwan to try something outside the Chinese circle. They were a small group. They used me to get outside that circle. Before, they were doing Asian-style movies; and when I came along they were doing ninja-style movies. It gave them something different to work with and at the same time they were educating me on how to do certain things. Taimak was already popular because THE LAST DRAGON (1985) had already come; out so it wouldn't have worked and that fell through.

V5: Some of your last movies were for Tomas Tang's Filmark International like NINJA, THE BATTALION (1987) and NINJA CONDORS (1988). Was there a difference between working with him compared to Robert Tai?

TT: Tomas Tang was geared more for that international market. His movies were more American-style. He wasn't into the culture thing the way Robert was. I didn't talk to him a lot, actually. I do remember one time the investors were calling to tell him his explosions weren't big enough (laughs). He wasn't difficult to work with and he stayed to himself. He gave me everything I wanted, though. He allowed me to use my own ideas and wardrobe. I'd come on the set looking a certain way and he'd say, "I like that, Thomas, I want you to wear that in the scene". He was always looking for ideas. 

V5: Were you receiving scripts on these Filmark pictures?

TT: Broken scripts. On BATTALION I had no idea what I was doing (laughs). One example, we were doing a fight scene at a train station. I had no idea what the story was about, just that I was doing a fight with Alexander and another ninja character (laughs). I didn't even see that movie till recently on the internet.
V5: Was there a reason why they had you doing so many ninja movies? Was it because they were more marketable overseas?

TT: I think they were viewed as more marketable because at that time America was putting out a lot of ninja movies with Sho Kosugi and others like AMERICAN NINJA (1985). Personally, I think that was probably the reason why.

V5: Footage from NINJA: THE FINAL DUEL ended up in SHAOLIN DOLEMITE (2000). Did you know Rudy Ray Moore, and if so did you two ever get together and watch Kung Fu movies together?

TT: Rudy Ray Moore was the one who started it all with me back in 1977 with PETEY WHEATSTRAW (1977). I went to California with my high school buddy from ROTC. He went out there to make movies so when he came back he told me he was going to make movies with Rudy Ray Moore. And I said, "Hold up, you mean Dolemite?" And he said, yes, they were looking for some fighters; martial artists for some fight scenes. That's what started it all with my film career. Rudy and myself, we hit it off. I was living in Santa Ana so I would travel from there to Los Angeles just to get this small part in the movie. One time we were filming so late I missed my train so Rudy let me spend the night at his house. From there we became friends and talked about martial arts and I was telling him about my dreams. I wanted to go to China to make martial arts movies; and it happened. 
And crazily enough, while I was over there, Alexander brought that movie to me. He said, "Eugene, this is you, isn't' it?" And that's how that relationship started with Robert Tai and Rudy Ray Moore. When I got back to LA I thanked Rudy because I told him that's what I'm gonna do. And that's how Rudy got with Robert to do SHAOLIN DOLEMITE. We did PETEY WHEATSTRAW and moved on so I didn't see it till Alex brought it to me. It was little things like that when I knew I was on the right path. Now, I didn't like how they took the NINJA: FINAL DUEL footage and turned it into a comedy because it wasn't supposed to be that way. But what made me feel good was I was able to make my dream a reality. And I also felt good I was able to be the middle man to get that connection between Rudy and Robert. The two of them wanted to do something else together but then Rudy passed away.

V5: Was there a reason you quit the business when you came back to America?

TT: I got disappointed in Hollywood. I got disappointed in the games; disappointed in the backbiting; everybody fighting to get this part and that part; everybody had their own cliques. I just felt like I did better while I was in Asia. I didn't want to do films so badly that it meant I had to hurt another person, or keep someone from getting their part. Between my martial arts and my music, I went full-force into music after that. I was doing it on and off overseas. I decided I'm just going to wait for my time and put it all together.
So I went back to school, practiced my art, developed my saxophone and flute playing; and if an opportunity presented itself I had my martial arts resume. I was meeting people like Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs and some of the actors, like Wesley Snipes and Michael Jai White. I just feel like it wasn't my time. A new style of fighting was emerging at that time, too. 
I had a couple of agents and I would go on auditions and they weren't looking for that type of fighting. They wanted the style of action like what Jean Claude Van Damme was doing. Van Damme blocked me a few times, too. The director loved it, but Van Damme didn't want it. I just got tired of the games out there.

V5: I didn't know you were a musician. Would you like to talk about that part of your life?

TT: Sure. I play saxophone and the flute. I arrange my own music. I've always been involved with music as much as my martial arts. I found the flute and the clarinet while I was overseas. I say I found them because I was over there looking for myself. You know, being young and trying to find your place under the sun. My martial arts helped me be a musician. When I picked up the flute I was studying Chi breathing and meditation. So going between the two was time consuming because I was pretty much a gym rat at that time. And when I came back to America I decided to just focus on my music and drop out of the film scene. I know when it's time to stop and go to the next phase so right now I'm in the second phase of my life. I do smooth jazz. I play around with the Asian sound with my original stuff. That's what's been keeping me going--my music, my meditation, and my martial arts. 
Everything from my wife and what I have has kept me centered. Me being 66 you're not going to be physically fit the rest of your life. I know how to meditate, to breathe, to eat right, practice my music the right way, all of which is good for my chi--and that's what I was taught overseas because there's more to the martial arts than punch, kick and roll. At my age I can see what it's done and continues to do for me. Our bodies are designed to age properly if we treat them the right way. My teacher told me "You take care of your art, and your art will take care of you". I became a better person because of it.

V5: Who was your teacher?

TT: Wu San Chu was my teacher. He was a Chinese-Korean. He told me back then I could be the first American to do the Chinese arts properly. He taught me a lot. Like Cynthia Rothrock who became popular in Hong Kong and is a great forms practitioner. I didn't go to Hong Kong and just stayed in Taiwan. I didn't want to step into what you might say was her territory because she was doing so good in Hong Kong. She didn't come to Taiwan either. There were a lot of us over there at that time. Richard Norton was another.
I remember when we were making NINJA IN THE USA Robert told me, "Eugene, we need some Americans". So I went down to the language center and began recruiting Americans and Europeans. I'd pick out ones that had a certain look. 
I was over there for a ten year period; playing basketball and making movies. I even did a little radio over there as a DJ in a Taiwanese club. Those were among the best parts of my life. Those ten years had a huge influence on my life and what I was gonna do. I had no kids so it was just me and what I wanted to do with my life; now it's all just memories. I've written a manuscript on it too called 'Bridge To the Moon' about my experiences being an American martial artist in Taiwan.
V5: What is your favorite of your films and is there one you weren't happy with and why?
TT: My favorite was THE KUNG FU KIDS (1986). I just wish I had a bigger part in that one. Our harmony was so on point on that movie. I loved working with those brothers on that movie. The chemistry felt right. There was just a lot of professionalism working on that film. They allowed me to study them, and they showed me how things worked behind the camera and how to choreograph a fight scene. So that was my favorite movie I worked on. 
The one I didn't enjoy making as much was actually NINJA: THE FINAL DUEL (1986). I wish the fight scenes could've been better. I liked the experience but out of all the ones I did I liked doing that one the least. I wish I could have been allowed to do my own thing to a greater degree. Also, I was soured on it more when that version of it as SHAOLIN DOLEMITE came out. I can't even watch it, the way they did the voice-over and how they portrayed it. Fighting with Alexander was fun, and seeing all those temples and teaching me things about Buddhism up in the mountains was an enlightening experience. Rudy is a comedian so when they made it comical it took it to a different level.
V5: When did you last speak with Alexander Lou?
TT: We text from time to time. He's living in China now. I didn't ask him why he left Taiwan. Last time I talked to him was about a year ago. He was choreographing and directing some television series. He always wanted to go to China.
V5: You two worked together several times and had good chemistry on-screen.
TT: One I did get a lot of positive feedback on was THE SUPER NINJA. Some of my best fight scenes were cut out of that one to keep the focus on Alex who was the star. They also wanted me to keep the action entirely in a kickboxing style. Alex and I spent a lot of time in the gym. He was strictly into TKD and Kung Fu so I showed him how to box. His boxing style was a lot like Joe Frazier; a flat-footed style and he could move. We became very close. In return, Alex would show me a lot about changing techniques in front of the camera to make it look a certain way.

V5: Did you get to see or speak to Robert Tai before he passed away in 2018?

TT: Yeah, we talked about six months before he died. He smoked a lot of cigarettes and drank a lot. He had a strong chi, though. When we would go out all the time, they loved to drink and toast. I'm not a drinker and I'd try not to offend them. I got tired of waking up with my head in the toilet, I just couldn't do it. Robert would say, "Thomas, you're a man if you can drink this", and I'd say, "Well, I guess I'm not a man because I'm not gonna do it" (laughs).

V5: Do you have any other memories you'd like to share?

TT: When I made NINJA, THE BATTALION there was some tensions between myself and another American actor who was also a martial artist and the Asians sensed that. So we got into these sparring matches when we weren't filming. Alexander told me at one point, "Take it easy, Thomas" (laughs).
When we were filming MAFIA VS. NINJA (1985) some of the Asians would be laughing at us wondering how we were going to move like them, because Americans fought with that stiff style. So they didn't know I had been working with Alexander and other Chinese brothers. When they saw I could keep up with them I earned their respect. You kind of limit them too when you can't move the way they want you to. Bruce Lee overemphasized it but he did it very well in educating us on the rhythm in his choreography. Asians are so theatrical, it's like a style of dancing.
Jackie Chan used to come on the set sometimes when he was in Taiwan. I'd see him from a distance but we didn't meet. I met a lot of other martial arts actors, though. Even at the basketball games I'd see them. I met Lung Fei that way (see insert). He's an Eagle Claw stylist and he loves basketball; speaks English, too. I'd see these guys at the movie theater back in Chicago and see them in person in Taiwan. I wasn't sure it was him at first and I asked him "Are you Lung Fei?" And he'd deny it at first then I told him "You know, you are very popular back in my neighborhood. We know who you are". And he started laughing because he couldn't deny it at that point (laughs). A lot of those guys didn't know they were popular in the United States.
Me and Carl Scott (see insert) were over there at the same time. I was playing basketball and I saw Carl in SUN DRAGON (1979). He was at a game and I saw him walking across the court and I said, "That's that guy I saw in the movie the other day". This brother was doing what I wanted to do and he was moving good doing it. Carl could've went much further if he had that commercial look, but he had great moves, though. As for myself, I'm 6'1" and had some muscle on me so I could pass for a villain. I had that type of look the Chinese could beat up on playing a bad guy. 

V5: What advice would you have for anyone wanting to learn the arts or be a martial arts film star?

TT: I'd ask them why do they want to do it. It depends on where they want to go with it. And do something that's going to be beneficial to the arts and to people. But don't be like everybody else. Don't try to be like Van Damme or a Michael Jai White. Don't be just another fighter because there's nothing unique among these guys. They're good artists but there's nothing they have that's going to put you on fire. A lot of these guys don't know how to entertain with their arts. Entertain and show the audience something; teach them something. Bruce Lee did it in his movies. When you look at those old MA movies, reading the translations, they're teaching you something. A lot of American movies today they're not entertaining, they're not showing you anything without a real purpose behind it other than showing you how to hurt someone. Try to be as different as you can.
A sincere thank to Mr. Trammell (Eugene Thomas Trammell) for giving his time to this interview. We wish him continued success in all his future endeavors.
***Behind the scenes photographs and publicity stills courtesy of Eugene Thomas Trammell***

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