New York-based writer Nigel Clarke continues his series on the martial arts film scene in New York City during the 1970s and early ’80s by interviewing Ron Van Clief, a veteran of over 200 feature films including starring roles in BLACK DRAGON and BLACK DRAGON’S LAST REVENGE. Van Clief talks about his film career, as well as battling racial discrimination and the trauma of war, hanging with rock legend Jimi Hendrix and being christened the “Black Dragon” by none other than Bruce Lee.
In the wake of The History Channel’s recent release of the documentary, HOW BRUCE LEE CHANGED THE WORLD, I was compelled to seek out those who knew the man intimately, someone who Bruce had actually talked to, someone whose life was changed after meeting him.
“You are the Black Dragon.” Those were the words imprinted on Ron Van Clief’s soul after meeting Bruce Lee years ago. Those words changed Ron Van Clief. Many martial arts film aficionados have heard of Ron Van Clief and may remember him as the star of BLACK DRAGON and BLACK DRAGON’S LAST REVENGE.
Ron Van Clief, the five-time world karate champion and 15-time all-American champion, is a native of New York City, born and raised in Brooklyn. Ron and I discussed his early training, and mentioned many martial arts “heavyweights” as early instructors. “My first sport was bodybuilding. Most of my teenage years were consumed with becoming a gymnast and martial artist. I started my martial arts training in the 1950s with Moses Powell, Tom Lapuppet, George Cofield, and in 1959 with Peter Urban in the USA Goju [Karate] system.”
As I learned more about Ron, I tried to picture him on the streets of New York City during the late 1950s and early ’60s. I know he had participated and been successful in plenty of sanctioned events, but he also spoke on some closed-door type events saying, “The illegal tournaments that I attended were in New York City’s Chinatown. It was exciting! The tournaments were in dirty, stinky basements. Fighters who were hurt, laid on the dirty floor as the crowd screamed. I wasn’t afraid, just excited.”
Ron’s training in the martial arts did not make him exempt from the blatant discrimination that was prevalent in this country during that time. Ron shared an experience he had while he served as an enlisted Marine (1960-65). “Racism was alive and well in the south in the 1960s… An elderly black lady was harassed by a white bus driver. I stood up for her. I was taken off the bus and put in a holding cell in Jacksonville, North Carolina. When I was released, I was attacked and beaten. I suffered a broken jaw, three knocked out front teeth, a broken arm, numerous cuts and contusions. I was hospitalized for four months. When I tried to report the incident, I was shipped off to Asia. I was sent to Vietnam and told, ‘If we don’t finish you, maybe the gooks will!’ I survived Vietnam.”
Ron had been “through the fire, to the limit” so to speak, and he “turned tragedy to triumph,” as he recalled. “I studied Okinawa-Te in Okinawa, with Grandmaster Shimabuku. I attained first-degree black belt while a marine at Camp Sukiran. I studied some Shoryn-Ryu, Isshinryu and also Kobudu weaponry. I competed in Okinawa’s Karate tournament in 1961. I fell in love with the martial arts.”
Although Ron managed to physically overcome his oppressors, the experiences in Vietnam have left psychological scars that may never heal. “After leaving Vietnam I was depressed. PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) affected my life. My PSTD has never gone away. I’ve been in therapy for over 35 years, learning how to cope. [I] learned to kill and had to learn how to live.”
Ron was honorably discharged in 1965. He came home to a new world filled with new thinking and attitudes. He recalls, “Coming back to the world was a great cultural shock. I became a hippie and beatnik. I hung out with Jimi Hendrix.”
Ron’s experiences with Jimi Hendrix had started years earlier while they were both enlisted. “He was a paratrooper and I went to jump school at Ft. Benning, Georgia. We smoked a lot of weed together… those were the days. He told me he wished he could do the martial arts like me. I wanted to play the guitar like him. Jimi and I had common interest like music and the martial arts. He had some Shotokan training and we played around with jiujitsu. I did security for him and the Band of Gypsys – real good friend and martial arts aficionado. He was a genius. Too bad drugs took over his life. He will always be remembered as a legend in rock and roll.”
Ron’s dedication to the martial arts would eventually open doors and allow him to enter the martial arts film world. “I started my film career as an extra and stuntman in 1968. One of my students was Harry Madsen, the president of the East Coast Stuntmen’s association. I worked in many films as a background, extra and set security. I got my SAG (Screen Actor’s Guild) card in 1973 and retired in 2002 after working on over 200 films. I worked on an additional 50 films in Hong Kong, Philippines, Thailand, Taiwan, and Korea.”
Considering Ron’s extensive experience in film, I asked him what elements created a successful martial arts movie. He said, “The keys to success… good script, good action director, good stunt personnel, good director, and good martial arts coordinator. A good camera man aware of fighting sequences is very helpful in getting the right material on the screen. Lastly, a good editor who can make the right cuts and transitions.”
Through a previous interview I learned that Ron was a fan of many martial arts movies. He listed all of the Shaw Brothers classics with FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH among his favorites. Seeing how he was fan of some of the movies, I wondered if he ever imitated any of the actors. “I imitated Carter Wong and Alexander Fu Sheng,” he admitted. Both actors had successful careers in Hong Kong martial arts cinema and were good friends with Ron.
“My good friend was Alex Fu Sheng….Wang Yu (ONE-ARMED SWORDSMAN) was also a friend of mine in Hong Kong. Bruce [Lee] and Carter Wong turned me on to the martial arts scene in Hong Kong. It gave me a new life.”
I asked Ron if he remembered the first time he met Bruce Lee. “I met Bruce in 1966 at the All-American Championships at Madison Square Garden,” recalled Ron. “Although I didn’t win the title, Bruce Lee told me that I was the ‘Black Dragon.’ It was something that I never forgot.”
Less than a decade later, Ron would star in BLACK DRAGON.
Although he worked on over 200 films, he counts BLACK DRAGON’S REVENGE and THE LAST DRAGON as two of his most memorable movie experiences. Taimak, star of THE Last dragon, studied with Ron Van Clief from 1981 until 2002. Although Taimak was the lead, many of Ron’s other students also appeared in the movie.
“My best film experience besides the BLACK DRAGON’S REVENGE was working as a fight coordinator on Berry Gordy’s THE LAST DRAGON,” remembers Ron. “I started working in 1984. I brought Taimak and about 30 of my students to the production. I was the senior fight coordinator and stunt coordinator. We worked on the film for one year. Eight of my students auditioned for the Bruce Leroy part. Several of my students played Shogun’s goons”
“What made THE LAST DRAGON so special is that it was shot in New York City and it starred an African American. No drugs, no prostitution. Just a clean Disney-like story. I consider it a martial arts fantasy. They used my Chinese Goju virtues in the film. It was excellent that over 30 of my students worked on the film. Taimak was selected from over 100 wannabes.”
Considering how Bruce Lee had changed his life, I went back to the topic to ask him how he learned of Bruce’s death and how he felt upon learning the news. “I was in Hong Kong when I heard about his death. My good friend Carter Wong told me. I was shocked. I had just seen him a few days earlier on the set. He was a legend in his own time. Bruce was a brilliant strategist and philosophically ahead of his time.”
Ron has left the turbulent streets of New York behind him. He is living in the Virgin Islands, raising and training his son. He is currently a tactics instructor for the Virgin Islands Police Department. He has also recently completed a pilot for Discovery Channel/PBS entitled “The Black Kung Fu Experience.”
Bruce Lee • Ron Van Clief