One of the few western martial artists who could keep up the fast pace of Hong Kong’s action movie choreography. By the late eighties, Richard Norton went from screen villain to leading man and continues to work in the industry.
In this interview, Richard talks about his time working on Mission Terminate, a film he made in 1987 that co-starred Bruce Le.
Could you tell the visitors a little about yourself and your background in the movie industry?
My career in the movie industry started in 1979 in a movie with Chuck Norris called “The Octagon”. I had met Chuck in Australia a year or so earlier and met up with him again in LA when I arrived there in early 1979 as personal Bodyguard to Linda Ronstadt and James Taylor. Chuck had seen me doing a demonstration with Japanese weapons and cast me in the role of ‘Kyo’, the masked ninja, who fights Chuck in one of the end fight scenes. I had moved to the US with no thought in mind of being in movies but found myself playing a number of roles in “The Octagon” and thinking to myself, “Wow, this is a pretty cool way of making a living”. I then went on to work with Chuck in a number of his earlier movies and now, some 65 movies later I am still at it.
How did you get involved with the movie Mission Terminate ?
Mission Terminate came about as a result of working in movies with the late Filipino Director, Cirio Santiago. He had brought Tony Marharaj in to direct a movie called ‘Future Hunters’ in which I had a supporting role to Robert Patrick. Tony, I guess, was impressed with my action abilities and cast me as the lead in ‘Mission Terminate’. This was a relationship that resulted in me working on a number of projects with Tony Maharaj.
What are your memories of working in the Philippines?
The movie was filmed entirely in the Philippines, in and around Manila. My memories of the filming and of being in the Philippines so many times are rich and wonderful. I so enjoyed working there as the Filipino people are so warm and friendly and eager to please. I just loved the local crews and their attitude. The biggest problem I had with them is that they were so eager to please that no matter what you asked them to do, the answer was always ‘yes’, even though the appropriate answer should have been, well ‘no’, as I don’t really have the skills to carry out what you have asked for. I used to call shooting movies like ‘Terminate’ the ‘Guerrilla school of Film making’ as it was so raw and rough and ready. If you didn’t have the necessary equipment you would just improvise. I often look back at some of the stunts we did and wonder how I am still alive. I mean running the gauntlet over explosions that were literally just sacks of petrol that were ignited by the local special effects guy as you sprinted across a field. Overall though I again have such fond memories of working on ‘Mission’. Too much fun for one person. Haha.
The strong memory I have of filming in the Philippines is the constant threat of the NPA, or ‘New Peoples Army’, which were a band of supposedly Communist insurgents. Everywhere we were shooting you could see we were being observed by NPA. One of the main reasons for the interest from them is that for the most part we were using real military armaments that had been hired form the local military with a little bribe money. So the NPA were of course very keen on getting their hands on this weaponry that we were using during the shooting. Often we would take different routes to the set to try to avoid being ambushed for the weapons. Crazy huh? The final funny thing when I think of it is that here I am, dressed in US military garb looking like a Special Forces dude, but with blanks in my rifle. Shit, not a good thing when I think back if the real bullets started flying.
What are some of the more memorable moments you had whilst working on the film?
One stunt I remember was a scene that had me travelling across a waterfall on a single line, hanging from my Army belt, shooting an Armalite rifle as I went. When we looked at doing this stunt, we didn’t have any safety lines or ways of preventing me form falling and crashing to the rocks below if something went wrong. It was my idea to just loop my belt over the cable and put my arm thru and just hang on with one arm. Again, there were no safety harnesses or anything to save me if I lost my grip. I remember asking the local stunties to test the tightness of the line by attaching a sack and sending it across the falls. Thank goodness as the sack ended up hanging midway across the falls as the lines had too much slackness in it. If that had of been me I would have been hanging there in the middle over the falls with no way of anyone being able to pull myself back to the sides. All good though. What made it fun for me was trying to come up with ridiculous stunts and having to perform them myself as I had no stunt double then. I guess it was a stage in my life where I just felt indestructible.
Another memory is having the fight with Dick Wei. Dick had a reputation as being a very tough fighter from Hong Kong and a veteran of movies with people like Jackie Chan. Anyway, on the day of the fight I arrived to the set to see one of the local older martial arts masters with a nice swollen black eye after a fight scene with Dick.. So I though Hmm, this will be interesting. Time to set the pecking order. So one of the first moves in our fight involved me hitting Dick Wei in the chest with an elbow strike. I remember in the take I caught him flush on the jaw which nearly knocked Dick out. After a break with a cold towel over his head we continued the fight with Dick Wei nicely controlling everything. In fact at one stage I commented to Dick that he should bring his kicks closer to me, with him replying “no, it’s okay”. Hey, nothing like setting up some ground rules. Don’t get me wrong, Dick Wei is wonderful and such an tough and experienced martial arts actor. I had nothing but respect for Dick, it’s just that I didn’t want to also end up with a black eye. Hah! All in fun.
What did you think of your co-star, Bruce Le?
Bruce Le was really great to work with. I remember him as being very good at his craft. His martial art skills were terrific and he was very easy to work with. I remember Bruce,Dick Wei and myself getting into a conversation about the strength of his version of Bruce Lee’s ‘one in punch’ against the strength of the karate reverse punch. Dick and myself regarded the reverse punch of Karate as being more powerful. Dick by the way had a Tae Kwon Do background. It ended with me asking Bruce to hit me in the stomach with his one inch punch so I could show that I could easily withstand it. So he punches me and I was determined I would not show any reaction regardless of how it hurt, just to proof a point. I must say, even though I didn’t show any reaction, it really hurt like hell. Hey, what we can do when our ego’s are on the line. But again, I had tremendous respect for both Bruce and Dick Wei’s ability, both in their respective martial arts as well as their professionalism on set.
Where there any problems or conflicts during production?
I don’t recall there being any conflicts on the set during shooting. We all seemed to get on really well. You see the thing about low budget movies that I love as opposed to the bigger productions is that everyone just joins in and helps with whatever needs to be done, with no overblown ego’s about it. It really is such a collaborative affair as opposed to the ego’s and ‘posturing’ that can go on with the larger budget productions. We all just basically pitch in and help get the job done.
Have you kept in touch with anyone from the movie?
As far as keeping in touch with any of the stars I worked with on ‘Mission’, the answer would have to be no. But this is very typical of our industry. It always starts with the wrap party and the exchanging of tel numbers with the promise of staying in touch, but that rarely ends up happening. Everyone just kind of gets back to their lives and you may occasionally met up again on another movie set, but that is usually about it. So I haven’t heard or been in touch with Bruce or Dick since. I have though run into Tony Maharaj a few time over the past number of years which has been great, as Tony and I formed a great friendship over a number of films.
What are your thoughts on the ‘Bruceploitation’ genre and the Bruce Lee Clones?
My thoughts on the ‘Bruceploitation’ genre and Bruce Lee clones is good on them. Bruce Lee was such an important icon in the world of action movies and I feel is absolutely worthy of idolization. They say that imitation is the greatest form of flattery, and though one would argue there will never be another Bruce Lee, the legend continues in the clones that continually attempt to emulate Bruce and his remarkable Martial Arts ability. Bruce lee paved the way for people like Chuck Norris and, to a lesser degree, myself to forge a career in action movies that continues to this very day. So again, all due respect and thanks to Bruce and all the clones that follow and help keep his legacy alive.
What projects are you currently working on?
My next project is ‘Mad Max, Fury Road’, which is due to go into full on production in Feb, 2011. I am so excited to be a part of such an iconic Australian action franchise. Even if this turned out to be my last movie I cannot think of a movie I would rather be involved with. George Miller is an absolute genius and with him at the helm again as Director, I know this instalment will be nothing short of spectacular.
TEXT: © Lee Holmes/The Clones of Bruce Lee 2010.
Caryn White Stedman
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). >>