The name Billy Blanks has become synonymous with the incredibly successful exercise system he developed known as Tae Bo.
But before Blanks become a famous exercise guru whose Tae Bo videos took the fitness world by storm, he was a national Karate champion and a very popular martial arts action star with films like Bloodfist (1989), The King of the Kickboxers (1990), Talons of the Eagle (1992) and TC 2000 (1993) under his black belt. His fans might also note that he starred in two films alongside the late wrestling legend Rowdy Roddy Piper: the direct-to-video hits Back in Action (1993) and Tough and Deadly (1995).
Blanks eventually left his career as an action star behind to fully pursue developing Tae Bo, and he’ll be at The Fit Expo in Anaheim this weekend (August 22-23) to meet his fans and to promote the growth and expansion of his fitness system.
I think one of the first times I saw you in a movie was when I saw Driving Force where you played a bad guy. I thought to myself, Who‘s this guy? He’s so cool!
Oh, thank you.
When did you become interested in the martial arts?
It was when I saw the T.V. show The Green Hornet. It was something that really grabbed my attention as a child. I wanted to be able to do martial arts. At the time, my family couldn’t afford it. I went to a youth center in my neighborhood – it was called The Martin Luther King Youth Center. I joined a martial arts youth program at the youth center. I got my black belt when I was 16 years old. Then I got a chance to compete as a competitor in my own region. I became a champion in my region. I took that chance to step out and join the United States Karate team and won the national title. It gave me a chance to travel around the United States with the Karate Team. I traveled with that team for five and a half years all over the world. I became a three-time world champion and then won several gold medals.
You became one of the busiest and most successful martial arts action stars of the late 80’s and early 90’s, which was the pinnacle period of that genre. How did you get started in movies?
It had always been a dream of mine. I went over to the Philippines as a bodyguard for Catherine Bach, who played Daisy Duke in The Dukes of Hazard. I was her trainer and bodyguard. While I was there they ended up firing an actor who was in this movie she was starring in called Driving Force. They asked me if I wanted to play a part in the movie, and I said, “Oh, yeah, thank you, I’d like that.” I was in the right place at the right time. They needed someone who knew martial arts and they needed someone who looked tough, and I got the part. Eventually, I did a movie with Don Wilson called Bloodfist because they needed someone who knew martial arts. So I ended up doing those two movies while I was in the Philippines. That set it off for me.
Shortly after that you did King of the Kickboxers with Loren Avedon, and that was such a great fight between you two. That was in the Philippines too, wasn’t it?
That was a great opportunity too. I came back to the Philippines. They asked me to come in. They just wanted me to play a bad guy. They didn’t even give me a script. They just wanted to see what I could do. I came in, showed them what I could do, and as I’m getting in my car to leave, they called my agent and said, “Hey, he got the part, when can we sign him up?” They signed me up for that part, and that really opened up the door for me to play other parts in movies even though it was a bad guy. It gave me an opportunity to be in a movie with Sylvester Stallone – Tango and Cash. I was a prisoner in that movie, but Stallone saw that I worked really well, and that started getting me smaller parts to other movies. Then my career really took off.
Being a busy actor is one thing, but being a successful action star is another thing entirely. What was that like for you to be an action star during this period?
It was a dream that came true, to do what Bruce Lee did – to get to be on a movie screen. I tried really hard to stay in really good shape and to hone my martial arts skills. I took acting lessons. I didn’t try to be the best actor in the world, but I wanted to be able to enhance my skills and make a lifestyle of it. Then all of a sudden, Tae Bo comes up. It comes out and kind of took me away from the movie industry. I was helping people to try to be in better shape. Now I got another opportunity to do another movie. I’ve been waiting for that. Since I’ve been on camera a lot for Tae Bo, I haven’t been in the industry for a long time. I’m looking forward to getting back into action films. You know, do a little bit of that now!
When I interviewed Roddy Piper a few years ago – God bless him – he mentioned to me that while you guys were on the set of either Tough and Deadly or Back in Action you were already developing Tae Bo, and he was kind of observing you while you were working on that. That was the beginning of Tae Bo.
He really encouraged me. He was like, “Billy, you know what? When you got something like that, you work it, you work it, you work it! You give it all you got!” He was so encouraging, God bless him. He gave me a push. I got a chance to do two movies with Roddy. We were always talking on the set. He showed me the things he had to do to become a championship wrestler in that world. He gave me some good pointers.
Those two movies you did with him were the “A’s” of the “B’s.” Those movies were really good.
Well, thank you. Being around Roddy and watching him work, he was a hard worker and a super athlete. I got a chance to work out with him, and I trained with him. We sat and talked. He empowered me and challenged me to do the same thing that he did with wrestling. He kept saying, “Keep up the good work and work hard. When you have a dream don’t quit, don’t give up.” That inspired me. I used to watch Rowdy Roddy Piper on T.V. all the time. It was hard for me to believe that I got to do two movies with him at the time. He told me, “Believe it.” I said, “Okay.” He said, “Believe it. I’m just like you. It takes hard work to be able to do the things that we do. Keep doing hard work and watch what happens.”
Yeah, it was.
When he passed away a few weeks ago, Facebook just blew up with the news. Everybody was posting pictures of the two of you together from those movies. He’ll be sorely missed.
Roddy really appreciated the love that people had for him. I wrote a big thing about him on Facebook, talking about the love and care he put into me. He didn’t really know me that well, but hearing what I’d done with Tae Bo … He opened things up for me back in the day. He’d say, “If I can help you in any way, let me know.” One time, he wanted me to come back in as his partner. He was going to go back into wrestling. He wanted me to be his partner as his secret weapon, as a tag team. I was going to do it, but something happened and I couldn’t do it. That would have been another dream for me, to be able to do something for the WWE. To come out and do it. That would have been really fun.
You had some great on-screen fights with all kinds of fighters and martial artists. You even did TC 2000 with Bolo Yeung.
On TC 2000 with Bolo Yeung … I actually got to be in a movie with a guy who did movies with Bruce Lee and Jean-Claude Van Damme, and all these other guys. He was my instructor on the movie. He enhanced my abilities. I came in good shape and I wanted to develop my martial arts skills well. Being able to do that with him and Jalal Merhi, who I’d actually done competitions with at the same time, and he said to me, “Hey, Billy, I’m doing this martial arts movie, would you be interested in starring in it?” I said, “I would love to come in.” He gave me a shot at a three-picture deal. I also did Talons of the Eagle with him. He was the one who really kicked all that stuff off for me, was Jalal. He game me an opportunity. He helped me out a lot.
What do you consider to be your best on-screen fight?
I think my best on-screen fight was the one with Loren Avedon. That was fun. It had some good choreographers from Hong Kong, and they really used my attributes and they took advantage of my abilities as an athlete. We did some really good things.
Who would you like to do a movie with that you’ve never been able to work with?
At the time, I really wanted to do a movie with Tony Scott, and I got to do The Last Boyscout with him. I played that football player who kills himself. My goal was for Tony Scott to direct me in a movie. I’m looking forward to having Antoine Fuqua direct me. That’s my dream. I used to train him before his movie days. I’m hoping that one day I’ll get to do an action film with him.
Tell me a little bit about how you developed Tae Bo as a new exercise system.
When I retired from fighting I was trying to find a better way to stay in good shape. In 1975, I won the national title to compete for the United States team. Then I took the theme song to Rocky and I put it on. In the projects, I was listening to that theme song. Within two to three minutes I got cardiovascular-gitis. At that time I was the national champion. If I couldn’t go two rounds or two minutes, I’m not going to be able to do well in the world championship. So what I did was I developed my workouts to music. I started to put together my own stuff to get my cardiovascular on.
I did weight training, Karate, boxing, all into one form that would give me the best workout to prepare me for a fight. I did it. I put a Walkman on my ears and I did all this stuff with the Walkman on. Most of the martial artist guys told me, “Hey, Billy, that ain’t gonna work.” They used to tell me that all the time, but I knew deep inside of me I was developing something. My ex-wife told me, “Billy, you should take that and teach women how to do that. That’s a great way for a woman to learn Karate and self-defense at the same time.” So I went to a hair salon and I told all the women there and said, “Hey, I’ve got this new exercise called Tae Bo.” At the time it was called “Karobics.”
I put it out there and started doing it. I started getting women in the door. Eventually I changed the name to Tae Bo. When I changed the name to Tae Bo, that’s when it really opened the door. The word came from Korean. “Tae” comes from the word leg. The word “Bo” comes from boxing. The whole term became an acronym. “T” is for “Total. “A” stands for “Awareness.” “E” stands for “Excellent.” “B” stands for “Body.” “O” stands for “Obedience.” It became this big hit. I didn’t expect it to go the way it went.
It wasn’t really about the money, it was about the people.
When people really saw that I was trying to help them get into shape and that I was coming from my heart, it really opened up the door for me. It wasn’t really about the money, it was about the people. People saw that. My studio back then was nothing special. I had tape to keep the carpet down. It was a run down place. People came in there and they felt love. Before I knew it, everybody started coming in the place.
Tae Bo really redefined workouts and physical fitness.
Well, I think when Tae Bo came out … every generation … everybody loves martial arts. I took Karate, I took boxing, I took calisthenics, and put them all together into a form of exercise when people were gravitating towards the martial arts. Everybody wants to be a warrior. Deep down inside, everyone wants to be a warrior. They want to feel like they can protect themselves. I thought that if I could put a program together that had those elements in it, it would bring moms, dads, daughters, boys, grandparents, and everyone involved in a workout. It actually revolutionized the whole fitness world.
When Tae Bo took off, you kind of left the movie business behind. You never left entertainment behind, but this was the next chapter for you.
I didn’t’ want to walk away, but what happened was that Tae Bo took up a lot of my time. I just said, “You know what? I’ll just put movies on the back burner,” hoping that later on in my career I could get back to doing movies. Now that Tae Bo has settled down, I can get back to doing movies. I’m still developing Tae Bo and making it better every year, but I feel like now with all the experience I’ve had in front of the camera … back when I was doing movies my experience in front of the camera was okay, but now I have a lot more authority about not being so nervous in front of the camera. If I had the opportunity to do another movie I feel that I would be a lot better.
You earlier said that you do have a movie in the works. Would you care to share what that is?
It’s set. I’m doing a movie with Jalal Merhi. They haven’t given me a working title yet, but it’s called The Tunnel. It’s about the drug cartels. I play a patrol officer on the border, and in the movie I end up shooting the son of the head of a drug cartel, and they come after me. I’m looking forward to it. It’s going to be a really good action film. The script is great. I’m looking forward to who they’re going to cast in it.
You’re going to be in Anaheim this weekend (August 22-23) for The Fit Expo. Say something about your participation with that event.
The Fit Expo is something I’ve been doing for three years now. I’m the one who kind of started it off. After I came back from Japan – I went to Japan for five years to live – I trained a lot in the martial arts to make my martial arts skills better, focused on meditation and things like that, but when I came back I got involved with The Fit Expo. We’re going to have a Tae Bo booth there. It will give me a chance to get Tae Bo back out there. To show people that Tae Bo is not dead – it’s still alive. It’s an opportunity to show that Tae Bo has grown, and you’ll see what people have taken from it every day.
You’re seeing all these different workouts that are based on Tae Bo moves. I’m looking forward to showing people how Tae Bo has grown. I was 40 years old when Tae Bo first came out on video. In about two weeks I’ll be 60. I’m still in good shape, still performing well. I teach 8 classes a day. I want to show people Tae Bo is still alive for this generation as well as the Baby Boomers. Because there’s martial arts in it, it’s for every generation. I’m looking forward to meeting people and talking to people at The Fit Expo.
What would you like to say to your fans, Billy?
Thank you for giving me an opportunity to come to into your households. I’ve really appreciated it. I’m looking forward to getting back into their households, to give me another opportunity to come back. If you’re at The Fit Expo, come on down and have a good time. I’ll be there teaching classes on Saturday and Sunday. I’ll be at the Tae Bo booth signing autographs. If you want Tae Bo wear and DVDs, that will be there too. Along with me there will be some other great teachers, including my son Billy Jr. I’m really looking forward to The Fit Expo. Come on down and join us!
Visit The Fit Expo at www.thefitexpo.com for more information.