Remembering the mighty Bruce Lee...Continued (2 of 2)
By Jon T. Benn (excerpts compiled by LJF)
When in Rome, or Not...
While working on The Way of the Dragon, I never got taken along to visit Rome, the setting for the story. Instead, all of my scenes were shot in Hong Kong, either on a set or in a vacant lot.
Actually, Bruce, Nora and the crew spent less than two weeks in Rome after going there on May 4, 1972. Even so, one of the movie’s main themes, especially in its opening minutes, deals with culture shock as Bruce’s character feels badly misplaced, like a fish out of water, being a less-than-worldly Chinese person arriving in a large European city. Humorously, he attracts prolonged stares at the airport and struggles to make himself understood while trying to order food in a restaurant.
When in Rome, the film crew shot mostly just some important exterior views that later appeared prominently in the movie so that its audiences would believe that everything happened in Italy. The restaurant at the heart of the movie’s plot – the place over which my character wanted to seize control – really was a set on the Golden Harvest back-lot, and we shot many scenes in an alley, supposedly right behind the restaurant, but really on another set.
Obviously, Bruce loved to work the nunchaku (a martial-arts weapon consisting of two sticks joined by a short-chain or a rope), and he seldom made a mistake or a wrong move. But there were rare exceptions. My good friend, Anders Nelson, who played a baddie in my band of henchmen, became one of the few people ever hit by those weapons. He still sports a beard to cover the resulting scar on his chin.
Another time, a less-adept, already-bearded Italian guy in the movie, acting as one more of my unreliable thugs (none of them any match for Bruce, of course), accidentally stuck himself on the head with nunchaku. We all needed to wait for quite a while until he recovered from the self-inflicted damage.
At a certain point, the movie shows Bruce throwing nunchaku that fly through the air and wrap around my waist. That sounds horribly painful, but arguably I fail to react onscreen with the appropriate agony. Actually, that was a trick scene using trick photography. The crew filmed the nunchaku wrapping around my wrist and then matched that with Bruce throwing them. In that instance, the achievement came down to just some trick photography, not a great feat of skill at all.
Later and far away, the British Censor Board, compulsively worried that the use of nunchaku can be very dangerous, insisted on cutting all of the scenes in which such a weapon appeared. No one in Britain ever screened the entire film, an uncut version, until a Bruce Lee convention there that I had the good fortune to attend in 1997.
Walloping a Waiter
One thing that deeply impressed me was that Bruce easily could perform all of the martial arts stunts tat he set out to do in the movie. Although I never appeared in any of the movie’s alley scenes, where much of the fighting took place, I watched what happened and became even more acutely aware of Bruce’s phenomenal abilities. When he once demonstrated his prowess by kicking one of the restaurant’s waiters into a row of stacked cardboard boxes, everyone, including Bruce himself, expressed astonishment at how far and hard the guy went.
All of the actors who played the roles of waiters at the fictional restaurant were very professional. If they had been real waiters, they would have deserved really big tips/
Without exception, I enjoyed working with those guys. I know that several of them later became very successful businessmen. Occasionally, we see each other, and then we reminisce a little, fondly recalling those fun days that we spent together in the movie-world version of Italy’s food-and-beverage industry.
Groin Kicks, Gunshots and Good Driving
One day, the action for The Way of The Dragon took place in a field as we shot various fight scenes. Bruce inadvertently kicked an actor called Bob Wall (a champion kick-boxer) quite hard between the legs, and Bob limped around, painful even to observe, for the longest time. I had been busy taking pictures then, some of which later appeared in the media.
Movie fans may remember the red Mercedes automobile that I drove, racing up to the scene of battle onscreen (actually a vacant lot) near the end of the movie. Moments earlier, Bruce had prevailed in a brutal fight to the death against an American martial arts champion played by Chuck Norris. I appeared in time to engage in a bit of foul-tempered gunplay, blasting away at Bruce, who had thumped and battered all of the best men whom I could send against him, thereby thwarting my ambitions. But my furious marksmanship, as seen in the movie, lacked the accuracy of Bruce’s kicks, luckily for his character. (Ironically, in real life, I was an exceptionally accurate shooter.)
Suddenly, the Italian cops arrived onscreen with their sirens blaring. They leaned me up against the hood of my impressive car and then took me away for incarceration. Soon after that, the movie’s credits rolled.
Actually, Bruce had bought that Mercedes just the day before, and so he warned me, in dire terms, to exercise great care behind the steering wheel. As a precaution, I fearfully kept one foot on the brake pedal the whole time because I absolutely did not want to have an accidental smashup (not even a fender-bender) that would make Bruce angry at me./
Both Bruce and I had lived in San Francisco, although we never met each other in the United States. Indeed, Bruce was born in San Francisco’s Chinatown before his parents moved their family back to Hong Kong. So, I have no hesitation in saying that Bruce was “San Francisco street smart” about cars and everything else.
Girls Flocked Around
More importantly for those of us cast in the movie with Bruce, he also loved to joke and play around, making him really a joy to know and with whom to work. He knew dozens of tricks besides martial arts and always demonstrated them to the cast and crew, especially to the girls. He appreciated attractive girls, and many of them flocked around him for much of the time.
Of course, I appreciated the girls too. I also admired Bruce’s ability to attract them. On most days, I brought a few girls along with me to the set because they all wanted to meet Bruce. Once he said to me, “Hey, Jon. Make sure not to bring any girls with you anymore tomorrow because my wife will be here.”
Quite often, the Taiwan actress, Betty Ting Pei, visited our set too. Eventually, she appeared in more than 30 movies, including Games Gamblers Play in 1974 and My Name Ain’t Suzie in 1985.
Sudden, Tragic Death
Betty’s biggest role turned out to be away from the cameras entirely as she unwittingly played a part in the tragic events that led to Bruce’s death. On July 20, 1973, he had stopped by and entered Betty’s apartment, at 67 Beacon Hill Road in Hong Kong’s Kowloon Tong district, when he abruptly died. The press reported that he had visited her to review the details about The Game of Death, a Golden Harvest film which she had secured a part. Considering what happened next, that’s a highly ironic movie title.
Bruce had planned to meet with Raymond Chow and with an Australia-born actor, George Lazenby, for dinner at the across-town Miramar Hotel later that same night. He turned out to be late, very late indeed.
Finally, Betty anxiously telephoned Raymond and said that Bruce had fallen asleep and that she could not awaken him. It seems that he had come down with a painful migraine headache. Sympathetically, Betty then gave him a single tablet of an aspirin-based prescription pill that she often used for headaches of her own.
Later on, doctors suggested that he appeared to have been highly allergic to one of its ingredients.
After swallowing the medicine, Bruce badly wanted to lie down and rest. Promptly he fell into a coma while Betty thought that he merely slept. Two hours later, she tried in vain to wake him up.
It took Raymond more than half-an-hour to drive through the traffic to reach Betty’s apartment. After he too tried without success to awaken Bruce, he called for his doctor to come. The medical man also needed more than 30 minutes to reach the scene.
Finally, they called for an ambulance but entirely too late. Away too much time had elapsed. When Bruce arrived at Hong Kong’s Queen Elizabeth Hospital, the doctors there pronounced him dead, allegedly from an allergic reaction that led to swelling of his brain.
Speculation never ends about exactly how and why Bruce died while still so young, vigorous and apparently healthy. Many people appear reluctant to believe that it came down to such a simple matter, but it really did. No deeply suspicious things happened.
Bruce used to suffer from serious migraines quite often when on the movie sets. At those times, he just temporarily collapsed, usually lying down for 20 minutes or more. Then he would get up and say, “Sorry, let’s continue.”
Ironically, Bruce had gone all the way to Los Angeles for a full medical checkup not long before he died, but the doctors there told him that he looked extremely fit. They could find nothing wrong with him.
Shock, Mourning, Grief
Soon, the whole world learned the staggering news that Bruce had died. People read about it in the newspapers or heard news reports on July 21, 1973, the day after that missed dinner meeting at the Miramar Hotel. Nearly everywhere, the public reacted with momentary shock, almost disbelief. After all Bruce always had looked so powerful, nearly invincible, in his movies.
Many folks who lived in Hong Kong at the time never will forget the shock and overwhelming sense of grief when the city unexpectedly lost its brightest star. Much like a decade earlier when the United States president John F. Kennedy died (the 46-year-old victim of a sharp-shooting assassin’s bullets on November 22, 1963), I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when first learning the news. (Incidentally, when Kennedy died, I heard about it while sharing a San Francisco hotel room with Mexico’s leading ballerina. We are not performing Swan Lake. I really remember that.)
The day when the startling news about Bruce broke, I became aware of the tragedy while walking past the Hyatt Hotel in Kowloon, and there I saw the newspaper headlines. What? Bruce had died?
A jolt from what I read – delivered just a few days before my own 38th birthday – seriously shook me. I felt a little dizzy, weak and queasy, almost as if I had taken one of Bruce’s famous kicks right to my mid-section. Along with everyone else, I hardly could believe it.
Just two days previously, I had seen Bruce at the coffee shop inside of that same hotel. He had come over and introduced me to Fred Weintraub, an American film-and-TV-show executive who produced Bruce’s movie, Enter the Dragon.
On that occasion, Bruce had looked reasonably fit, and he joked around as usual. Yet I must admit that he also appeared to have lost some weight, and others had notice that too.
Together with 25,000 other people, I attended at the site of Bruce’s funeral in Hong Kong on July 25, 1973. Another smaller ceremony took place a dew days later, on July 31, 1973, across the Pacific Ocean in Seattle, Washington, where Bruce previously had lived as a student. He was buried there at Lake View Cemetery......
Images of Bruce Lee and Jon Benn: https://www.google.com.hk/search?safe=strict&client=aff-cs-360se-channel&hs=2iY&channel=bookmark&biw=1280&bih=647&site=webhp&tbm=isch&sa=1&q=Bruce+Lee+Jon+Benn&oq=Bruce+Lee+Jon+Benn&gs_l=psy-ab.3...160232.160232.0.1603126.96.36.199.0.0.0.99.188.8.131.52....0...1.1.64.psy-ab..0.0.0.Q_zSqOKQfHM#imgrc=_