Even four decades after the passing of Asian martial-arts superstar Bruce Lee, his achievements still attract adoration from millions of movie fans. The biggest fan of all may be Jon Benn, who befriended the high-kicking hero while playing “the Big Boss”, a villain in Lee’s acclaimed 1972 movie The Way of the Dragon.
In Remembering Bruce Lee, a tell-tale autobiography, Jon reminisces fondly about his experiences with Lee and a lifetime of other adventures. Read this excerpt from the book.
THE ULTIMATE MARTIAL-ARTS MAESTRO, a blurry-fast, high-kicking guy named Bruce Lee, bashed around an entire roomful of my tough-guy employees. He sent the whole bunch of them spinning and collapsing like bowling pins at a ten-pin world championship.
Then Bruce turned his rapt attention squarely onto me. At that moment, I alone faced the slickest possible human fighting-machine. To make matters even worse, I knew next-to-nothing about how to wage brutal hand-to-hand, foot-to-foot combat like my adversary did with such success.
In that menacing dilemma, almost any other man, being merely flesh and blood like me, might have started to quiver, gone weak at the knees or even lost control of his bladder. Happily, none of those less-than-macho symptoms befell me.
Indeed, I felt surprisingly relaxed – so much that I almost wanted to say, “Hey, Bruce, how about if I smoke another cigar?” And I never did take much of a thrashing either.
Actually, our confrontation, with all of its glares and threats, happened strictly for the sake of the movie cameras that pointed at us. In fact, Bruce and I worked together as members of the same Hong Kong film-cast and soon became firm friends.
I’m Jon Toby Benn. Whether or not you recognize my name, a really strong chance exists that you have seen me before. For most of my lifetime, now nearly eight decades, I have worked partly as a businessman and partly as a movie actor, first in North America and then in Asia. Those two professions, although I honestly considered acting to be more of a hobby for most of the time, forged together into a really interesting combination.
Throughout the years, so many fascinating and fun things have happened that I really want to share them with you. This book tells my story.
By no coincidence, I devote this, the first and foremost chapter, to also covering a significant part of Bruce’s story. Forty years have passed since Bruce died, but I still regard him as a precious friend, still remember him clearly almost as if I had spoken to him last week and still respect him for being obviously the very best at what he did and for how greatly that he inspired so much of the world.
Not too long after I first arrived in Hong Kong back in 1971, I met Raymond Chow, the president of Golden Harvest Films, at a cocktail party. He asked me if I would like to appear in a movie with Bruce Lee. Although I did not fully realize it at the time, that question would have a profound impact on the rest of my life.
When I replied “Sure”, Raymond gave me one of his name-cards, and we went from there. Honestly, I had no clue then even about exactly who Bruce Lee was, although he just had completed two blockbuster films, The Big Boss (1971) and Fist of Fury (1972). Much of the rest of the world already had noticed the most impressive martial-artist ever to grace the big screens of movie theatres. Yes, I had a lot to learn, and I soon began to realize that Bruce already qualified as a very big star, especially in Asia.
Always, I liked to seek out new experiences. Having never before been in a Hong Kong movie, I badly wanted to join the cast. I thought that it definitely would create great fun for me.
So Raymond and I reached an agreement, and he assigned me to play a villainous Big Boss, the leader of a dangerous mafia in Rome where the entire film, The Way of the Dragon (1972), has its setting and where part of it was shot. I guess that Raymond must have reasoned that I looked somewhat like a ruthless, bad-ass Italian. Maybe my beard gave him that sinister impression.
A film crew already had started to shoot the movie. No problem! Raymond immediately telephoned Bruce, who not only starred in the film, but also directed for the first time, and told him to “get rid” of the guy whom they had hired earlier for the mafia-boss part because he (Raymond) had found a more convincing scoundrel. I did not even do a screen-test. And considering the “mafia” aspect, I decided against asking anyone too many questions about exactly what they meant by “getting rid” of the previous guy.
At first, Bruce, a smiling, athletic-looking guy, shorter and five years younger than me, just said “hello”, shook hands with me and then began to tell me what to do and say. Soon the cameras rolled. I got no chance to talk much to him until later in the day.
For my virgin acting experience in Hong Kong, the crew gave me a cigar, and I had to sit behind a big desk while my “assistant” explained that Chuck Norris (a many-times world karate champion and ultimately an American action-movie star) would come to Rome to fight against Bruce. In theory, by doing so, and presumably winning, Chuck would help my character to get his way in a one-sided “business” deal.
It was Bruce’s idea to give me a cigar to hold in nearly every scene. After that, movie fans everywhere always expected to see me smoking one.
With that initial cigar (the first of many that I have held in movies) placed comfortably between my fingers, I felt right at home. Everything just kind of clicked into place, and we successfully shot the first scene within a few minutes. Definitely, Bruce moved fast in more ways than one. Together with the other cast members and the crew, I tried hard to keep up with his brisk pace.
In those days, the movie crews shot films in 16mm without sound. When the movies were finished, they were blown up to 35mm and then dubbed into various languages, often with sub-titles. In The Way of the Dragon, Bruce actually dubbed some of my parts in English using his own voice. But he shied away from doing much of the Chinese dubbing because his Mandarin skills left something to be desired.
Then, as sometimes still (although less frequently now), many movie-makers more or less wrote the script as they went along. Bruce, of course, kept a general outline of the plot firmly placed in his mind, but much of the rest and most of the details were done by the seat of his pants, and by the seats of our trousers too.
Everything was, “Okay, say this next.” So I would say that, Bruce would signal his approval and then we moved on to the next lines. That may not be the ideal Hollywood way to make movies, but it was the Hong Kong way back in 1972.
Regardless, Bruce performed like a real perfectionist. He designed, visualized and choreographed every scene. The cast rehearsed each of the fight scenes over and over again to make sure that everything looked realistic and that no one would get hurt. I enjoyed watching exactly how Bruce handled things and, in doing so, I learned a lot about the film business.
Still, accidents do happen despite the best of planning, and sometimes they did then too. Once for a big fight scene in my fictional office, we had about 20 extras, many of them found in the
waterfront bars and hired for just a day or two. Bruce had showed them all of their moves, and we had prepared to shoot.
One big guy, a burly American backpacker hired as an extra, was supposed to swing at a small Chinese fellow, who in real life had scheduled his wedding for 3 o’clock that very afternoon. Perhaps distracted by his plans for later in the day, the little chap neglected to duck fast enough.
When the bulky backpacker swung a little too wide, his flying fist slugged the soon-to-be-groom hard on the mouth, threw him back into a wall and knocked him out temporarily. The little guy regained consciousness and groggily got back up onto his feet, but one of his lips promptly swelled up to at least twice its normal size.
With everyone, including Bruce, invited to the wedding, we wrapped up our work early and rushed to the church. There, the groom said “I do”, despite struggling to make the words audible past the biggest fat lip that I ever saw.