The Last Dragon Returns: An Interview with Taimak

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It may be that anyone under 30 who resolved to watch “The Last Dragon” for the first time would find it utterly bewildering, bordering on insane.

It is the sort of movie you get when you combine “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers,” “Pretty in Pink,” “The Karate Kid,” “Pee Wee’s Playhouse” and “Shaft.”

There’s “over-the-top” and there’s “The Last Dragon,” which found new tops to go over.

It is a movie of its time (1985) and it is a movie that has transcended its time: A 30th anniversary Blu-ray edition of the film came out last week.

“The Last Dragon” concerns the romantic, spiritual and martial-artistic maturation of young New York City kung fu expert named Leroy Green, a role assayed by a young New York City kung fu expert named Taimak (full name: Taimak Guarriello).

It pays tribute to grindhouse fare of the ‘70s — blaxploitation and Shaw Brothers-era martial arts films — but the outlook of the film is sunny; the violence, toothless; the racial mix, harmonious; the villains, absurd.

Leroy Green was Taimak’s first major acting role and it shows. But sometimes an actor’s inexperience works in a movie’s favor.

In 1985, the box office was ruled by tough guys like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone and Chuck Norris, so the guilelessness of Leroy Green (aka Bruce Leroy) was refreshing.

Asked by phone if he was essentially playing himself in the film, Taimak said…not quite.

“That’s what they say. I didn’t know myself,” he recalled. “I analyze myself now and say, ‘Yeah.’” There was a side of me that was very innocent and there was a side of me that wasn’t. I grew up in New York City. There were sides of me that definitely weren’t innocent.”

Taimak started learning karate at the age of six, inspired by his father, who also trained. He said that when he saw his first snippet of Bruce Lee on television, he understood the standard to which he wanted to hold himself as a martial artist.

The early ‘80 was an exciting time to be a teenager in New York City, Taimak said.

“I grew up with friends going to all the discos,” he said. “It was an amazing time. Kids were dancing, partying and having a great time. And there was music.”

In the months before his friends informed him of an open audition for “The Last Dragon” at the Apollo Theater, Taimak had been considering college.

“I’d just won a kickboxing title,” he said. “But there was no money in being a professional kickboxer.”

Taimak admits that his first audition for the film was a disaster.

“I choked,” he said.

So he went off to spend some quality time with the script and then returned to ask for another chance.

It is difficult to imagine what it must have felt like for a young, Bruce Lee-obsessed man with no real acting experience — or significant acting aspirations, for that matter — to find himself the focal point of a major Hollywood martial arts movie.

“Going to the set every day was like walking into a comic book,” he said. “A great comic book. We were all just full of life. Everybody had something.”

The movie features a great hammy performance by the late Julius Carrey III (“The Adventures of Brisco County Jr.”), the screen debut of cult action star Ernie Reyes Jr, former Prince protege and pop singer Vanity at the height of her seductive powers, and small roles assayed by William H. Macy and Chazz Palminteri.

Taimak said he knew the film would be popular among martial arts buffs, but he had no idea it would have three-decade staying power.

“I didn’t think I was going to be talking about a year later,” he said, “let alone 30 years later.”

Taimak was offered a sequel long ago, but he turned it down.

“It wasn’t so much about what was in the contract,” he said. “It was about how I was getting treated. It’s not always what it’s cracked up to be.”

The lasting action stardom that Taimak envisioned for himself (and many others envisioned on his behalf) never materialized, but he nurses no grudges.

“It was a different lifetime and I am a different person,” he said. “I’m a trained actor now.”

“I am a grown man,” he added with a laugh. “I’m not a kid anymore.”

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Taimak said it is a blessing to have people “love you for something you did.” The anniversary has given him a chance to sit with audiences at screenings and re-experience the film with them.

“It’s interesting because you see how much meat is in the movie,” he said. “It is a very positive movie for young people. It celebrate racial differences and it has wisdom layered through it about looking at oneself and finding that inner strength.

“There are a lot of great messages in the film,” Taimak said. “There are black characters who are not shooting people like they do in shoot-em-up movies. (Leroy Green) is a humble character who works hard and has a big heart. It resonates with all races.”

The anniversary has given Taimak the opportunity to meet numerous martial arts champions who have let him know that the movie was what inspired them to start training.

“So, of course, I feel really honored,” he said.

These days, Taimak is training with a Brazilian jiu jitsu champion named Marcello Garcia. He also mentors inner city children, writes screenplays (including a “Last Dragon” reboot) and auditions for acting roles.

He will soon star in the action comedy “Enter the Fist and the Golden Fleecing” alongside other ‘70s and ‘80s action stars including Michael Dudikoff, Reyes Jr. and Don “The Dragon” Wilson.

He said he has worked out a publishing deal for his autobiography. It is scheduled to come out next spring.

Had things worked out differently in Taimak’s career, a book like that might have more scandal, but less perspective.

Taimak, 51, said he’s genuinely grateful to be able to offer more wisdom than gossip.

“There’s only right now,” he said. “If you’re not walking around complete, then you’re putting that in your future. If it doesn’t serve me, I don’t keep it.

“Of course, after the film, there was a lot of expectation,” Taimak said. “But life is a search, a journey. It’s not about making money. We all fall into that because we enjoy things. But, at the end of the day, if you find yourself in a room full of dollar bills but no one to love you, what does it all mean?”
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It’s Elementary: The Dominion of Earth, Wind & Fire

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Verdine White performs with Earth, Wind & Fire at the Seminole Hard Rock Live Arena in Hollywood, Florida.

The Internet is rife with tips and lists about persevering through adversity, but there’s nothing quite so inspiring as examples from real life.

Even when they’re pre-Internet examples.

Especially when they’re pre-Internet examples.

Here’s one from 1971.

Somewhere between the beginning of that year and the end of the year prior, Chicago-born brothers Maurice and Verdine White formed a 10-piece R&B band in Los Angeles that released two albums and recorded a movie soundtrack in a span of no more than 11 months.

Then the band abruptly broke up, purportedly because eight of the non-brothers didn’t see eye-to-eye with the two brothers.

Thus it was that Earth, Wind & Fire almost ended after a smattering of well-reviewed but hardly earth-shattering recordings.

Singer-songwriter Maurice and bassist Verdine could have given up and moved back east.

No one would have blamed them.

“Thank God I was young,” Verdine White said in a phone interview. “I was 19. Ignorance is bliss. You know what I’m talking about.”

It wasn’t easy to get records made in those days, White said, so he knew he must have some talent.

“So I said, ‘I’m staying in California. This is what I am going to do,’” he recalled.

“I was getting good at what I was doing. And I started looking like a musician: sideburns, platform shoes, you know what I’m saying? Bell bottoms. People would come up to me and say, ‘Hey, are you are musician?’ And I’d say, (White lowers his voice) ‘Yeah, I’m a musician, man. I’m a musician.’

Added White, with a laugh: “Most musicians are broke anyway, so I fit the bill.”

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Earth, Wind & Fire, of course, eventually became the sort of musical force that hardly needs to be described by any self-respecting feature writer to any self-respecting reader.

The band performs Wednesday, Aug. 26 at the DTE Energy Theatre in Clarkson, Michigan.

The hits endure, but the band’s achievements go far beyond the persistence of its repertoire.

“It was a big deal,” he said, referring to the group’s eventual success in the ‘70s. “You have to understand — people talk about the music, the songs and the sound, but we were really the first group of color that solidified a certain aspect of the music business.

“We had no infrastructure prior,” he said. “It was because of the work Maurice did and his vision. He enabled other groups to have a career. He enabled record companies to start black divisions for a certain kind of music.”

Were it not for Earth, Wind & Fire, White said, there may not have been a Commodores or a Dazz Band or a Prince.

“A template was established,” he said. “Our contribution was not only to music but to the music business.”

Maurice had a vision, White said, and he “matched up (the people) with what was in his brain.”

That included vocalist Philip Bailey, who Maurice invited to join the band in 1972.

“Philip came over to the apartment at that time,” White recalled. “Maurice wasn’t there so Philip spent the afternoon with me. We talked about music. He played harmonica. He was so talented. I called my mother — my late mother — to tell her about him.

“It was down to Philip and another gentleman and I said, ‘No, you should get Philip. He’s not only talented. He’s a great guy.’”

Character is as important to Maurice as talent, White said.

“In order for us to take this long journey, you not only had to be talented,” he said. “You had to be a good person and a strong person. He had all those qualities.”

When Maurice stopped touring with the band in 1994 due to Parkinson’s disease, it was Bailey who took over as bandleader.

Maurice may not be making as much music as he used to, but he is still in charge, White said.

“He’s got it under control,” White said of the Parkinson’s. “He’s the patriarch. He’s the icon.”

One of the ways a person can appreciate the full scope of Maurice’s artistic genius is to listen (via YouTube, for example) to a range of singles, from “La, La, La” and “Uh Huh Yeah” in 1969 (by Maurice’s early group the Salty Peppers) to Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Mighty Mighty” in 1974.

With “Mighty Mighty,” the band’s first top 30 single, Maurice had found the sound he’d been imagining, a sound like no other before or since.

“We made such a great progression from the first album in 1970 to 1979,” White said. “There was great growth from song to song, great maturity. You hear it record by record.”

The digital age means the same things to Earth, Wind & Fire as it does to other bands: Less interest in new recordings and less interest in paying for old ones.

But White says he is grateful for YouTube.

“People actually can go about going back to the past and seeing the work we’ve done,” he said. “There’s so much information on the Internet now. It’s actually helped extend our career.

“You don’t have to tell people what you did,” White said. “If we didn’t have that, you wouldn’t know.”

Some acts chafe against the prospect of having to tour on their greatest hits, but Earth, Wind & Fire’s position may be unique: The band’s catalog has a rather singular perennial freshness and buoyancy.

White said he saw a survey where “September” ranked fifth on a list of most popular songs in the history of popular music.

He hears “September” everywhere he goes, even at a recent college graduation ceremony, he said.

“We were in the stands and the band way down on the field played Bruno Mars’ ‘Uptown Funk’ and ‘Happy” by Pharrell. And my wife said, ‘Wouldn’t it be interesting if they played ‘September’? And that was the very next song.”

The band didn’t know White was in attendance of course.

“So I go down and thank them for playing it,” he said. “They about dropped their instruments. It was like Superman coming down.”