Don Gordon Bell
Actor and photographer Don Gordon Bell appeared in a number of action movies during the 1980’s, mostly shot in the Philippines. Some of his early roles included two entries into Bruceploitiation. Appearing as a henchman in They Call Him Bruce Lee and Bruce’s Fist of Vengenace. In this exclusive interview he shares his memories of working on both movies.
Could you tell the visitors a little about yourself?
I was born on January 25, 1952, and when I was four and a half my Korean mother was forced to give my younger sister and I up. Apparently our American father could not marry back then easily (Mitchner’s ‘Sayonara’) and had to leave the country. Soon after our mother gave us up for adoption rather than have us suffer under the prejudice of the people against children like us. I am very grateful that we were were adopted into a good family. Sure we had some normal difficulties but I grew up with a strong identity of being a “Half-Breed”. Movies about marital arts like the Billy Jack series appealed to my similar situation. Even the famous Kung Fu series was about a Mixed-Blood person
How did you get involved in the movie business?
I arrived in the Philippines just as “Apocalypse Now”, starring Marlon Brando and Martin Sheen, was in pre-production and they were casting local extras. It was late 1975, and the Local Casting Director, Ken Metcalfe, walked by me and noticed my USMC tattoo on my right forearm. Ken asked if I had been in Vietnam with the Marines and ten minutes later, he took me to met Director Francis Coppola.
When Francis heard I had been with Marine Recon, in-country Vietnam, ‘been shot at’, and actually fired weapons in combat, I was hired immediately as a sort of military advisor and Casting Assistant. On the set I was responsible for all Foreign, Ifugao, Vietnamese, and Filipino stuntmen, to place them and give them directions on each setup. I helped teach both foreign and Vietnamese how to fire American and Communist weapons. After principal shooting ended I again worked in “Boys of Company C” under Ken Metcalfe and am credited as a Junior Drill Instructor. My three month vacation turned into ten years.
After that I began to be approached by Filipino productions because of my experience with these two films. I worked on more Filipino productions and got many others jobs because I had been casting assistant and could find people. I would get calls to round up ten or twenty guys for a film. I provided many extras for the Philippine epic “This is the Philippines” filmed for television series in 1978, where I met Directors Cirio Santiago and Jose Mare Avellena.
I lived and worked on over 30 International films, big and small, plus approximately 50 Filipino films. My years of martial arts study in Tae Kwon Do, Judo, Uechi-Ryu, and Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino stick fighting all helped to get into action films.
It was in late 1977 that I first met Mr. K.Y. Lim of Kinevesa Films after my good friend Bugsy Dabao introduced us. Of all those who worked with him, I did more in between projects because I would help develop stories, re-write scripts, do preproduction work along with Bugsy Dubao, also with the directors who worked with Mr. Lim. I was paid monthly, as though I was on a director’s staff or a producers assistant. Between the big productions I never went hungry and gained a lot of experience though I missed some films because I was committed to Kinevesa and Premiere Productions equally.
What are your memories of working on Bruce’s Fists of Vengeance and They Call Him Bruce Lee?
First let me talk about Mr. K.Y. Lim. He was a man of many different personalities, hated by some, mysterious to many, exasperating to others, but I had a long good history with him. In my own experience Mr. Lim gave me a chance to do what others did not…expand my horizons, play better supporting roles, try my hand at writing stories, treatments, then screenplays with Bugsy Dubao at first, then later with Richard Harrison.
I had begun to work with Bugsy on pre-production on several projects that we actually co-wrote together. Bugsy was able to teach me about breaking down the screenplay as a Production Manager would do, figuring out all the costs, finding locations, costume and equipment, props, every aspect of the film.
By 1980 I was starting to be a regular with Director Cirio Santiago, Mr. Lim, Bobby Suarez, and Rey Malonzo gave me a break on some Filipino action films. Mr. Lim paid low to most, but to us “insiders” he paid us well, and sometimes asked me to discretly say that I was paid LESS that he gave me! I was treated by Mr. Lim like an actor in the days of the Studios, almost on contract. He introduced me to several other Producers such as Regal, Monteverde, Pascual, Sining Silangan. Most of the Filipino films that I had guest roles in were from being ‘farmed out’ by Mr. Lim.
I believe that once you had proven your loyalty he treated you fair. He is Chinese, and is the consummate producer who always seemed to not be making money, but in reality was doing better than most thought.
When I first met Romano Kristoff he was very impressive. I saw his potential and liked him from the start. Bill James and I first met him at Kinevesa Productions I remember. Later, we went to some clubs and what I noticed was how the women stopped talking and just stared at him. He was an “Alan Delon” type of guy who looked so cool, had a presence yet he was not overly pretentious, just a real charmer. He was the life of the party kind of guy.
Funny thing though about Romano and I…we both had scars over our right forehead and at the time I did not know it but I later learned that I had Spanish blood from the same region of Spain. We were always asked if we were brothers or at least cousins. Frequently at parties, beautiful women mistook me for Romano, slapped my face or chided me for not calling them. I had some interesting results, even though I kept telling them “No, I am NOT Romano”. When he came to the party not one of them greeted him, they already had greet “him” his ‘brother’, ME.
But let me tell you, Romano focused on film work with great abandon. In the filming with Bruce Le and Jack Lee, they worked out some great fight scenes together. The three of them would plan out sequences and respect each other mutually. I would join and help out, like the “kicking dummy”. I was amazed at the skills of both of the Hong Kong action stars. Romano was not as skilled in GungFu techniques but that was okay as he was strong in the Okinawa UechiRyu under our friend and instructor Robert Campbell from Boston, Mass. The Japanese style for the film was good, you know Chinese versus the Japanese was a major theme in Hong Kong and foreign markets. Romano was taller, more muscled, and as a foreigner a perfectly cast villain for the film.
Jack Lee had worked with Mr. Lim on the project They Call Him Bruce Lee a year earlier, that starred Filipino actor Rey Malonzo, Philip Gamboa, Manny Luna, Donna Villa, and quite a few Filipino actors. The story was done by Bugsy and I had a small part as one of the “goons” of the bad guys. Jack had only really a supporting role and his character was of the ‘right hand man of Bruce Lee”. Jack Lee trains Rey Malonzo on Jeet Kune Do (in the film they called it something else).
Jack was very good fighter and very personable guy. He was very flexible and long limbed. Rey Malonzo was perhaps the best Filipino martial artist I ever met. Rey and I had a good long fight during the end fight sequences and we fought it out in one of the ruins in Manila.
Jack Lee and I worked together on “The Five-Style Fists” where I was the main Contravida using the Eagle Claw style against Jack Lee. This was filmed between “They Call Him Bruce Lee” and “Bruce’s Fists of Vengeance”. It must be remembered that movie’s came out mid-80’s but the three films were done and sold in theaters from 1978 to 1979 I remember.
Both Bruce Le and Jack Lee seemed to respect each other and were always on the set helping out. I saw no rivalry and since Jack could speak better English he translated for Bruce.
Bill James (Haverly) was directing his first film and I was involved from the beginning to the end. Mr. K.Y. Lim was giving him a chance and Bugsy was Assistant Director and Production Manager. Bugsy, Bill, and I worked on the story and script together, pre-production, all through editing.
Director Bill James was my partner in Great Faces our talent agency’s name, providing models and extras for advertising and television, film extras and actors/actresses. From 1978-82 we provided most foreign extras and models for all these genre. Our agency became the best because we could provide work for extras on TV and films, both Local and International, as well as Advertising in Commercials, for Print, TV, and Theater ads.
Do you have any stories to share from the set of the films?
Since Bill was doing his first gig as a director, Bugsy and I were helping him out like two A.D.’s on steroids. We had to run around and get everything done. The crew were fantastic because we had worked together already many times. We had to trust the Filipino camera crew to make it happen. With all the language barriers it was amazing that we got it done but everyone worked together and after a few crazy first days got into the swing of it.
I remember the first day being quite hilarious. Bill had discussed with everyone the scene he wanted to do and blocked it out, and Bill ‘thought’ that Bruce Le had more understanding of what he was saying. Unfortunately Bruce Le did not quite understand and was “on the wrong page of the script” and his dialogue was all wrong. Jack Lee had to step in and explain to him that we were doing THIS scene.
One thing that stood out…Mr. Lim provided a very good caterer or at least gave them more money because perhaps of the Chinese stars with us. We ate very well on this project and it became a standard that Mr. Lim continued. In later projects we even got him to use “SMOKELESS” squib body hits!!!
What did you think of leading star, Bruce Le?
Bruce Le was one of the best of the imitators that were coming out. He mimicked the Real BRUCE LEE quite well, though he was an accomplished martial artist in various Gung Fu styles, he was very skillful in Jeet Kune Do. Jeet Kune Do was Real Bruce Lee’s own “no style style”, a combination of Wing Chun, Chinese boxing, and many things that Lee picked up from other martial arts. I was very impressed with his skills in martial arts because I had met Danny Inosantos, one of Bruce’s top students many times in Los Angeles. My martial arts instructors were all from Hawaii, such as Ed Parker’s American Kenpo.
Bruce spoke only simple English but was able to demonstrate and choreograph the fight scenes with each character actor, whether they had no martial arts ability or not. Those few of us that did have training our scenes were longer. Bruce Le worked with everyone to set up fights that each man could do, often working late after a day of shooting with some of us on possible fight scenes. I considered him to be the best of the imitations but a great fighter in his own right.
What language was Bruce’s Fist of Vengeance filmed?
We filmed in English but I remember that we told Bruce Le that he could speak in Chinese and we would “dub” him later. He managed to say most of his lines in English but I believe we later had all his lines dubbed. Jack had no problem with his lines but worked with Bruce. It was not exactly a film with lots of lines anyway remember. I could probably put all his lines on three pages, double spaced. But hey, it’s action not drama
Since working on these movies, have you been in contact with any of the stars or makers?
Through various means I have had contact with some people still living in the Philippines, James Gaines for one. Others who worked with me in the film business were Nick Nicholson, Henry Strzalkowski, Steve Rogers, David Light, and others are still over there in the P.I.
What have you been doing since that time?
Since I left in 1985 I have been out of film work. I came back to the country of my birth, South Korea in 1995 and am teaching English. I appeared on Korean television for several years and recently worked with a young Independent Film maker Michael Arnold. I am working on writing a book mainly on Adoption issues but will devote several chapters to my small contribution to B-movies made in the Philippines. It was great fun, I worked hard but most of the time I was happy to be “in the film business”. I do regret one thing, I would have like to try my own hand at directing. In another life…
TEXT: © Lee Holmes/The Clones of Bruce Lee 2010.
PHOTOS: © Don Gordon Bell
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Whilst modelling and living in Taiwan and Hong Kong, Caryn White Stedman was cast as Linda Lee, the wife of Bruce Lee in the biopic, He’s a Legend, He’s a Hero (1976). >>