One of the most overlooked and dangerous jobs in the movie business is that of the stuntman. The average movie patron tends to forget how important they are to the industry, and more often than not, the stuntmen don’t get the recognition they rightfully deserve. Then there are men like Al Leong. An actor, a stuntman, and an author, Leong spent more than two decades appearing (in at least one capacity as either a stuntman, actor, or both at the same time) in major motion pictures such as Lethal Weapon (1987), Action Jackson (1988), and as the candy bar-stealing terrorist in the perennial classic Die Hard (1988). Many viewers may also recognize him as a guest star from various syndicated television shows like Magnum P.I., Simon and Simon, or The A-Team.
He’s worked alongside many action genre greats such as Brandon Lee, Bruce Willis, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and David Carradine, and he later ventured into stunt coordinating and directing. With his long black hair, Fu Manchu mustache, and goatee, it was hard not to recognize him from almost every major action film from the 1980’s and 1990’s. Health issues have forced him into retirement but he is still as passionate about film as he ever was, and has every right to be proud of his rich legacy. In 2010, he released his autobiography The Eight Lives of Al “Ka-Bong” Leong. Having survived brain cancer as well as two strokes, Leong has proven that the man who had fallen victim to many of Hollywood’s tough guys on screen is far stronger and inspiring in real life than his on-screen persona. Al was generous enough to take the time to answer some questions about his career in front of and behind the camera.
Can you give a brief history of your martial arts background and how you broke into the film industry?
Fred Phillips and I had a custom car paint shop. A friend of mine got in the movie biz as a grip and he sort of talked me into trying it. I applied at Warner Bros. and it just so happened to be a busy time and I was hired within a couple weeks. I worked on the lot for a few months then ended up on Vine Street on the Merv Griffen/Steve Allen lot setting up the two shows. After so many months I ended up doing feature films and low budget films. The director came to me and asked if I knew martial arts. He then asked if I could teach four girls a routine as cheerleaders and I said yes. After a few hours, the girls were asked to do the routine and the director told me to go up and do it with them. A week later I worked on another film and was asked to run through a set up with fake rain in swimming fins and with one of these jobs I got my SAG card. What I was going to do with it, I had no idea.
Talk a little bit about your stints on episodic television shows like Magnum P.I., The A Team, and Knight Rider.
First of all, Bob Minor, Craig Baxley, and Jack Gill are the great stunt guys from Magnum P.I., The A-Team and Knight Rider. Magnum was shot in Hawaii and just to go there was great. I do believe in one episode, Magnum picks me up on his shoulder and throws me over the bar, which I think he actually did. Also, I am a stunt guy and not an actor. Craig and his stunt guys were always great. Craig would come to me and ask if I could do this and we would try it. Jack was always on top of the game. Sometimes strange things are in the script, like jumping on the car and trying to beat it up. You really can’t beat working on jobs with great coordinators and I have worked with great ones.
What I really like about the man is that he’s a real person.
Big Trouble in Little China was a major film with a predominantly Asian cast. How was it being able to work with so many of your colleagues at once?
Working with all the guys on Big Trouble was great. And equally important is the people behind camera: the crew. As you see, I was not on the poster because I got into an argument with the guy that put it together. John was so great, he gave many Asians opportunities, even behind camera. That is how this guy got his job because John was so nice.
Do you have any stories from the classic back alley fight sequence?
Before the alley fight began, John walked the alley and asked what door I wanted [to go through]. We talked about putting James [Lew] through the glass, so John told the guys behind us to put in breakaway glass and a breakaway door.
Many people remember you from Die Hard as the terrorist with a sweet tooth. Did the idea of you stealing the candy bars originate from you, was it scripted, or just thought up on set?
From what I remember, I asked McTiernan (director John McTiernan) if it was okay to take the candy. It definitely was not in the script, but it was a well-written story.
You were in two quintessential big-screen action films from the 1980’s that both spawned franchises: Lethal Weapon and Die Hard. When you were acting in these films, did you get the sense that you were appearing in something particularly special?
The story is very important to me. Whenever I can, I like to get the script and read it first. And if I know the story is no good, I’ll try to leave the show. Fifty percent of the time I can do it, and yes, I passed up a lot of money. Some people say you have been in great films but I think it is because I will leave movies when I sense they are not working. And no, there is no way of knowing what will happen after you leave the set of a movie.
What was your overall experience like on Lethal Weapon working with Mel Gibson and Gary Busey?
Both Mel and Gary were great. The helicopter in the air was great because there were two choppers flying way too close, with one filming us. The pilot asked me what I was doing and I said I was getting ready to jump if things go wrong. He said you don’t want to jump, you want to ride it out. It was exciting when he was bouncing the chopper on top of the car – that pilot was great. The guy that picked me up after Mel kills me was an L.A. Hell’s Angel member, another great guy to work with.
What was your impression of Bruce Willis on the set? Were you at all concerned with the casting decision? It’s fairly well-known that Richard Gere was offered that role first.
On Die Hard, Bruce was great. He is one of these guys that walks in and can memorize everybody’s name. I mean everybody’s name. The electrician, grips and everybody else. I mean, I have trouble trying to remember my own name. I had no idea someone else besides Bruce was supposed to do the part. I was brought on by Joel Silver after he used me on Lethal Weapon. I was originally introduced to Joel Silver by Craig Baxley who directed a Carl Weathers film I was on, Action Jackson. As far as the casting, I knew nothing about that.
Yes, the fight was shot in one day. I would say a fight like this would normally take three to five days to do. And no, it was not pre set-up, it was put together on the spot by Jeff Imada, Brandon, and me. I was also working with Craig Baxley in Hawaii [at the same time]; he was shooting a pilot for a TV series called Raven. The producers were nice enough to let me go in the middle of shooting. It actually became three days because of flying time. The director for Rapid Fire was great and so was the crew. Of course Brandon and Jeff are always great to work with. The producer was an asshole. At the end he made sure I didn’t get paid because he made it a point to let the Screen Actors Guild know I was working another job. It was a lot of fun doing the fight because a lot of the time you are under control by someone who knows nothing about fighting and you end up with a mess.
Having worked with Brandon Lee more than once, what was your impression of him and the legacy he left behind?
I really miss him, he was an incredible man.
You’ve had scenes cut from films like Ghost of Mars and Lethal Weapon 4. Does it bother you when you have put so much into a scene like that only to have it removed?
Fights get cut all the time. I don’t mind what they decide to do. On Lethal Weapon 4 there were two reasons to cut me. One was because I was killed in part one. The other is Jet Li is in it and you can’t go against the effects they will back him up with.
How was your experience working on the film Cage when your performance hinged mostly on your acting skills and not fighting skills?
I’m not sure if I remember Cage. I think it was a quick throwaway film.
You tended to work on films with the likes of James Lew, Jeff Imada, and other great stuntmen. Would you guys recommend each other for jobs or was it just coincidence that you all worked in the same circles, with the same groups of people?
I would always want to work with people I know because I know what they can do and this is true with anybody out there when they look for people.
Steele Justice is such a great action movie. What do you remember about working on that film and working with Martin Kove?
I don’t remember much about Steele Justice. I do remember Martin was fun to work with.
Other great action films you worked on around the same period were Action Jackson and The Perfect Weapon. Any memories of working on those two films?I don’t remember anything on The Perfect Weapon but Action Jackson was a lot of fun with everyone like Craig T. Nelson, Carl Weathers, James Lew and of course Craig Baxley as director.
Talk a little bit about working with director Andy Sidaris on his T & A action films. That must have been fun.
Andy and his wife are great people. Andy knows what he wants and writes it on the plane as we fly to the locations. It’s always great to work with people who love what they are doing.
How did you find yourself moving into the role of stunt/fight choreographer? Was it what you wanted or something that you just sort of fell in to?
The business is weird. I could have stepped up the action from day one but a lot of time it’s who you know.
Do you have a method to choreographing a fight sequence?
When I set up a fight, I have a million notes. Some directors couldn’t care less, others love it. Whenever I can, I try to find out what the actor likes or wants to do.
When choreographing something like a sword fight with actors who have no experience, what are some of the steps you take in order to train and prepare them? Was this something you went through when working with Duane Johnson and the cast of The Scorpion King?
On The Scorpion King, and all the others, I always start with foot movements first. Then hand movements, and finally the weapons. The Rock and Mike [Clarke Duncan] were fantastic to work with. Both of them needed no help. I was so sorry to hear of Mike’s passing. The rest of the cast and crew were excellent and Billy Burton, the stunt coordinator was great. He originally hired me some twenty plus years ago on Simon & Simon. Also, The Rock is a pro wrestler so things with him were very easy.
Your stint as choreographer on Kung Fu: The Legend Continues was plagued with behind-the-scenes problems. Do you regret the experience or did you just see it as living and learning?
On Kung Fu, David Carradine and the other actors and crew were great. The two main writers were lost. The producer and stunt coordinator on season four were total idiots. I didn’t learn anything except that it’s truly who you know.
How were you approached to write episodes of Kung Fu: The Legend Continues?
When they asked me to come back and do season four, I told them I had written episodes of the show and if they wanted me back they would have to buy one, and they did.
You directed a film called Daddy, Tell Me a Story. Not much is known about this film. What is the film about, and why did you choose this as your directorial debut?
Daddy, Tell Me a Story became Scarecrow’s Dream after an actor did not want to come back for pick-up shots. The whole story had to be changed and a million shots now couldn’t be used. I had written about 30 scripts in the past and this was mostly a non-action script and that is why I wanted to do it. At the time of the shoot, video cameras where just coming in. If I would have waited another two years, I could and would have shot it in video for a lot cheaper. The film is about a young P.I. looking for a missing boy that is supposed to have his brain transplanted in the young girls head. He only has so many days left to find the boy or his company has to pay out three million dollars. He talks to the father of the girl who denies any such transplant ever happened. He even speaks to the doctor who owns the big hospital where this had to have happened. He also talks to a thug who may have been involved and the mother of the missing boy and finds nothing.
What film are you most recognized from?
I think I’m recognized most from Big Trouble, Rapid Fire, Lethal Weapon, and Die Hard.
Do you have a film or role that is a favorite or are particularly proud of?
Big Trouble and Rapid Fire were the most fun casts. I could actually do some things which allowed the fights to be more real.
You’ve been in many great films that don’t get the same recognition as others. How was your experience working on Joshua Tree and Dark Angel (a.k.a. I Come in Peace) with Dolph Lundgren?
Joshua Tree was a waste of time and I really don’t remember it. I Come in Peace was fun because Craig Baxley is always a blast to work for.
Who choreographed the fight between you and Mark Dacascos on Double Dragon and what are your thoughts on that film?
The fight with Mark and I was sort of put together between the both of us. Mark is an amazing guy and I had so much fun shooting the movie.
Having appeared in major studio films with stars like Willis, Gibson, and Jean-Claude Van Damme as well as the direct-to-video market with guys like Gary Daniels, Jeff Wincott, and Lundgren, was there ever an instance where you were incredibly impressed or disappointed by some of the action stars you worked with and their fighting styles?
The stuff I did that went straight to video I just don’t remember them at all. And no, it does not bother me if someone has a different approach or style.
Did you ever have a favorite person to work with or someone you never had the chance to but wish you had?
The people that I would have liked to work with are Bronson, Stallone, and Eastwood. I’m surprised Eastwood did that film (Letters From Iwo Jima) with all those unknown Asians. He did a great job but I didn’t care for those Asians. I wish he would have used more established Asian actors.
Why do you think Chow Yun Fat was never really accepted as an action star in the states when The Replacement Killers was such a perfect vehicle for him?
The Replacement Killers and Chow Yun Fat are great! I wrote in my book [The Eight Lives of Al “Ka-Bong” Leong] that Asians themselves are a good portion to blame. They don’t support themselves. I don’t depend on the Asian community to back me up, they’re not there. Also, the Asians have no music that the American market are interested in. I feel that’s a big thing. They have actors that can do the job but if your own people don’t support you and the music’s not there you have nothing.
What is your take on modern action films and action stars? Is there anyone you’ve got your eye on, in terms of who’s the real thing and deserves more recognition?
I think the effects today are looking very good. This allows anybody to do almost anything or at least look like they can. I don’t follow actors the way everyone else does. There are a lot of great people and stunt guys out there.
Is there anything you’d like to say to your fans and those who’ve admired you and enjoyed watching you throughout the years?
I love all the people out there and I think things will look better and I wish the best for everyone.
(All Photos Courtesy of david j. moore.)