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Interview with John Saxon

Roper in Enter the Dragon

John Saxon

1. What did you know about Bruce Lee before you first met him and could you please tell me about that first meeting and your first impressions of Bruce?

John Saxon: I'd only seen Bruce Lee doing a Television interview at a local Boxing match, perhaps a scene from a movie starring James Garner where Bruce lept up and kicked a chandelier. Upon meeting him at his home in Kowloon on my first day in Hong Kong we talked about Martial Arts, and he told me he was a Martial Artist first and an Actor secondarily. I said I was an Actor first, and Martial Artist secondarily (though in fact that was more of a matter of exchange since I'd probably never referred to myself, then or now, as a Martial Artist. I am someone who is interested in practicing Martial Arts for my own purposes.

2. I'm really looking forward to your forthcoming project, '12 Weeks in Hong Kong'. Can you tell me more about this project and how it finally came to fruitition more than 30 years after the release of 'Enter the Dragon'?

John Saxon: It came to fruition because 'Enter the Dragon', continues to be fruitful after thirty plus years, and I had photos I'd taken on the set and around Hong Kong, and memories.

3. Could you kindly tell me more about the photos that are being featured in '12 Weeks'. Are they all on-set photos or do they include scenic shots from Hong Kong and other locations? And what else is featured?

John Saxon: Most photos I took during filming, so Bruce and others were the object. Some photos are of my son who was 2 years old playing with Chinese children at the park across from the Apartment the company had rented for me and my family. Some are of the Hong Kong skyline at the time.

4. How did you get offered the role of 'Roper' and did you change anything about the character and diologue from the original script?

John Saxon: After the film was finished, and Bruce was no longer with us, I learned that he had mentally pegged me for the role of 'Roper' after he had seen me in a Karate demonstration done with my class-mates at UCLA, the University of California in Los Angeles probably in the mid-or-late sixties. I broke a board with a 'shuto' and sparred with young Japanese guy ten years younger, who beat me on points. But I think it was enough for Bruce to determine that I was whom he wanted for the role of 'Roper'. Had I known this I might have insisted on more money. In addition there weren't many actors who had already done twenty films, and co-starred with Burt Lancaster, and Marlon Brando etc, who had also undergone as much Karate training as I had at the time.

Behind the scenes

5. Your fighting techniques look very impressive in 'Enter the Dragon'. Can you please tell me about your background in the martial arts and a bit about the process of staging the onscreen fight scenes? Did you do your own choreography or did Bruce Lee have your fight scenes already mapped out? How hard was it for you to get your fight scenes to look good onscreen?

John Saxon: I began doing a little Judo around 1957, before Karate was to emerge visibly in Los Angeles. I then began training under Sense Nishiyama, in Shotokan Karate, and continued until about 1968, just short of Black Belt. During this time when I became very active doing movies abroad as well as in the U.S I also became interested in the Internal Chinese Martial Arts. By the time 'Enter the Dragon' began I was approaching 38 years old, and had not done any serious Karate training for four years. The only fighting scene of mine not choreographed by Bruce Lee was the scene in which I mightily dispatched three or was it four 'toughs' on the Golf Course who were demanding I pay my gambling debt; the reason 'Roper' flees to Hong Kong. That scene was developed in the Producer's offices at Warner Bros. by my Tai Chi Instructor James Wing Woo, and myself. I'd gone there the day before the scene was to be filmed in Griffith Park to ask Robert Clouse just how he saw doing the scene? I discovered Clouse didn't have a clue. As a result he turned the question to me. I conferred with Jimmy Wing Woo who made suggestions, which I demonstrated to Clouse and Fred Weintraub for more than an hour with foolish exhuberance: high scissor type kicks and spinning slap type kicks until I left satisfied that I knew what I was going to do in the scene the next day. But leaving the Office I found I was limping to get to my car. By the time I got home and in the shower, I discovered the back of my right leg was turning reddish-blue and I must've torn my 'ham-string'. After finishing the filming of the scene the following day, with different angles and innumerable takes, I was 'out of commission' for a month. Luckily filming in Hong Kong didn't begin until after that.

6. How do you feel that after all this time 'Enter the Dragon' is still talked about with such reverence, is it an honour or do you sometimes feel that because of the Bruce Lee phenomenon with 'Enter the Dragon' that your personal career was hindered?

John Saxon: I began doing 'character roles' soon after I began making films. 'Roper' was a character role of a 'Martial Artist', of sorts, in a new 'genre' for Westerners: The Martial Arts Film. Because of this I thought it would be successful, and I was right about that, but I never wanted to do another Martial Arts film, nor imagined 'Enter the Dragon' would continue to be of interest 30 plus years later or that it would be enrolled into the U.S. LIBRARY OF CONGRESS, as a significant cultural change.

7. Bruce Lee was regarded as a very generous person, did he give anything to you and do you still have it?

John Saxon: Bruce wrote to his Taekwondo friend Jhoon Rhee in Washington, D.C. to send me some of the protective gear equipment and I still have some of it.

Enter the Dragon

8. Bruce Lee liked to play around and liked showing off his skills to people around him. On the set of the 'Green Hornet', he accidentally dislocated a crew member's jaw. I've heard that he stopped showing off after that incident. What was your experience with Bruce Lee during the filming of 'Enter the Dragon'? Was he a quiet and cool person or was he still showing off his marvelous skills? And what is your fondest memory of filming 'Enter the Dragon' with Bruce?

John Saxon: In Hong Kong my Wife and I threw a dinner party in a restaurant, inviting Bruce and his Wife, and Raymond Chow. I also invited Jay Tunney, who was doing business in Hong Kong, and his wife and introduced them all to each other. Early on during dinner I casually mentioned that Jay was one of Gene Tunney's sons, the Gene Tunney who had been the Heavy Weight Boxing Champ of the World, and if my memory holds, defeated Jack Dempsey. A short while later Bruce said to Jay: 'I could have taken your Father! I have four weapons, he only had two'. And I cringed.

9. I appreciate that it is 30 years ago but are you able to recall the events surrounding Bruce's real life fight challenges on the set? Also, do you know if any of these fights were recorded on film?

John Saxon: I saw a young extra sitting on a wall, loudly address Bruce in Cantonese. I don't know exactly what he said, but I gathered it was something like: 'You're just an actor, for the Movies' Bruce beckoned to him to come down off the wall. The kid foolishly did, and like Humpty-Dumpty quickly received a lightning crack to his face, and fell to his knees. It was all over in a flash, and I remember wondering if it was at all necessary.

10. Can you please tell me about your memories of the premiere of 'Enter the Dragon' at the Grauman Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles in August 1973? Did the film pass all of your expectations?

John Saxon: I'd seen the film before the Premiere. So, besides all the excitement in crowded Lobby of Grauman's, the further excitement was after my wife departed for the women's Rest-Room and came back into the Theater hysterical. Some guy had followed her into the Rest-Room. I and others including my friend James Darren, and Ushers rushed around the Lobby, looking for the guy my wife described, but he'd disappeared.

11. Mr. Saxon, what was it like working with director Robert Clouse on the set? I've read that Bob Wall (O'Hara) considered him to be lazy and the worst director in the world! On the other hand, it's been said that Bruce could only rely on Robert Clouse to care about the film as much as he did, and Paul Heller stated that he had a great sense of action. Can you share your opinion and experiences on Robert Clouse as a professional filmmaker?

John Saxon: Besides not having any acquaintance with the Martial Arts Robert Clouse seemed unacquainted with humor also. Being a gambler 'Roper' schemes before his fight scene at the beginning of the Tournament to take some 'lumps' in order to promote higher odds against himself, thereby making more money when he won which he was sure he could do. When I suggested to Clouse that the 'lumps' that Roper takes be extended beyond what the script called for, he became very peeved. Clouse was unable to see the irony or humor that Roper was having to take a greater beating than expected to make a bet. I prevailed to the extent that the beating Roper took was long enough for it to be the only humorous scene in the movie.

12 weeks in Hong Kong coming soon

12. How did you get on with the other actors and martial artists who appeared in the film? Ahna Capri has commented that she thought it was a miracle that the film was ever completed. How do you feel and what were some of difficulties that you faced?

John Saxon: I basically had a good time working on 'Enter the Dragon'. My wife and I would try a new Chinese Restaurant everytime we could. Shopping was good. And my son was growing up, learning to read and talk.

13. Henry Wong reportedly filmed around 5 hours of behind-the-scenes footage on the set in Hong Kong. Have you seen any of this footage and would you get involved in trying to bring this footage to the light of day?

John Saxon: I know nothing of behind the scenes footage.

14. Having known Bruce on a personal level, albeit a long time ago, what do you think now when you see him on mugs, posters, in magazines etc? Does he still seem like a real life person or has his legendary status taken over your memories of him to any extent?

John Saxon: I often wonder how Bruce Lee, who considered and based his ability to do what he did On-Screen, what he could actually do in Real-Life, would feel seeing Martial Art's films using Computer Graphics of movies characters fighting hundreds of enemies at the same time, or the use of 'wires', to have Martial Art's heros fighting and flying across tree-tops?

15. Are there any famous actors that you have worked with in your career that have asked you about Bruce Lee and were a fan of his work? Any names would be much appreciated.

John Saxon: Can't think of any famous actor who asked me about Bruce Lee, but I have been asked by the general public more often about Bruce Lee, perhaps than about all the famous actors I have worked with combined. As a result I once daydreamed that walking during the dead of night across an empty parking lot, except for my car, with the only light shining on it coming from a nearby street lamp, I drew my keys to open my car door. At which point a guy sprang up from the other, passenger side, of my car pointing a pistol at me, saying: ' Gimme those keys..or else I'll, I'll ' Then lowering the Pistol he said: 'Man, you're John Saxon. What was it like working with Bruce Lee?'

12 weeks in Hong Kong

16. Can you please tell me about the martial arts training that you did with Bruce Lee whilst in Hong Kong and how good was he in your eyes as a martial artist?

John Saxon: Even during my first day's talk and when Bruce showed me his way of doing a Side Kick, into the shield I was holding I knew he was the 'real thing'. That the kick propelled me across the room into a chair which broke when I hit it, I found out was a stunt Bruce had done often before. He seemed disappointed only that the chair was broken, that had never happened before. But since Bruce was intent on breaking down all the folk tale culture about the Martial Arts, I caution people sometimes at having created in him the very thing he deplored.

17. Mr Saxon, did Bruce Lee talk to you about 'The Game Of Death', the film which he had half-completed at the time of starting 'Enter the Dragon'? Did he want you to appear in the film or did he inform you of the storyline? Anything that you can kindly recall?

John Saxon: Bruce ran two of his films for me to see in Hong Kong, before we began 'Enter the Dragon'. I don't at the moment remember the titles of them. One was his first and the other was shot in Rome and had a prolonged fight with Bruce and Chuck Norris. I also saw footage of he and in 'The Game of Death'? The only thing Bruce and I were going to do together was to go on the Johnny Carson show together to publicise 'Enter the Dragon'.

18. I've been somewhat upset for a long time with what author Albert Goldman said concerning Bruce Lee in the "The Curse of the Dragon" documentary, describing him as an 'overbearing bully' while he was making films in Hong Kong. Goldman said that Bruce was 'always playing the strong man', and that he'd 'bark at people, would push them around and threaten their lives', and so on. Lee would be the first to admit that he had a bad temper, but I think Goldman was exaggerating his portrayal of the Little Dragon. From your experiences in having worked closely with Bruce on the set of "Enter the Dragon", what was his behaviour like? Would he burst into frequent angry confrontations with Raymond Chow, Fred Weintraub and Paul Heller or anyone else he'd run out of patience with, as it was once reported by Bolo Yeung in an interview, and get out of his way to be nice towards yourself and his other co-stars, the extras and the people working in his stunt team? I would like to get into contact with Albert Goldman to verify his sources, but he died in 1994. Nevertheless, I always thought that Goldman went for a sensationalist approach in biographies of John Lennon and Elvis Presley, and in the articles he wrote on Bruce Lee for 'Penthouse' magazine, opting to draw the darkest picture he could on his subjects.

John Saxon: The only time I saw Bruce grow extremely angry was when during the fight with Bob Wall, as Ohara, Bruce's fist was cut by the bottle Ohara broke as the last chance to save face. After going to the Hospital for stitches, in a couple of days Bruce calmed down.

Thank you so much for your time and willingness to answer our questions, Mr. Saxon. Also thanks to David Tadman for arranging it.

Thanks to the following for prividing questions - Pedro, Jim, Graham, Jan, Peer, Leon, Tom & Eyal. Nick Clarke 20 July 2005