It was the type of Hollywood break millions dream of. thousands pursue, but only a handful get. In just three years, Ernie Reyes, Jr. of San Jose, California rocketed from obscurity to starring roles in motion pictures and television. With Chuck Norris moving out of the genre, could Reyes become the next big martial arts film star?
Hollywood’s Real Karate Kid
by John Corcoran Photos courtesy of MGM/UA and Dino De Laurentiis.
He’s the closest thing to the real “karate kid” in all of the martial arts. He was the first child ever to be rated In the top ten professional adult forms division in America. He’s an accomplished martial arts entertainer who’s performed from Acapulco to Seoul, Korea to Madison Square Garden and seldom fails to get a standing ovation. He has played to perfection Mr. T, Yoda, and many other pop culture characters In his live demonstrations. He is Ernie Reyes, Jr., a lovable, talented kid whose time has come In Hollywood. In September 1984, veteran producer Dino De Laurentiis (King Kong; Death Wish) signed “Little Ernie” for a co-starring role in Red Sonia, a $20 million spinoff of De Laurentiis’ Conan films. After appearing in Motown’s The Last Dragon and Disney’s The Last Electric Knight, Reyes won his own TV series, “Sidekicks.” For Ernie Reyes, Jr., it represents the type of proverbial Hollywood break that millions dream of, thousands pursue, but only a handful get. Ernie Reyes, Sr., who was signed as a martial arts choreographer for Red Sonja, hardly needs an introduction in martial arts circles. Besides being one of the most popular and respected practitioners in American martial arts today, he has since 1979 led the foremost martial arts demonstration team In the United States. What distinguished his performing troupe besides great talent was the Incorporation of lights, music, costumes, and even story lines In their performances. Simply put, Reyes and his troupe are outstanding and have added a new dimension to martial arts entertainment. It was natural that the Reyes duo should go Hollywood. How they got their break, the trials and tribulations they faced, and the sacrifices they made along the way, should serve as an inspiration to all martial artists. Hollywood Adage Number One: “He’s an overnight success— after 20 years.” It means that most people who become successful in the entertainment biz have for years paid their dues before being discovered. Yes, Reyes beat the odds. After years of refining his martial art, it took him about one year to get a major break. But as this story will point out, It wasn’t as easy as it sounds. Because so many people fantasize about Hollywood and so few truly know the struggles it takes to make it there, perhaps it’s best to trace the Reyes’s rise from Hollywood obscurity, so to speak, to starring roles
in movies and TV. It all began in September 1983, when the Reyeses decided to leave the security of their thriving school in San Jose, California and face anonymity and the harsh realities of a cold town called Los Angeles. “First of all,” explains Reyes Sr., “I thought we had something special from all the years of doing martial arts demonstrations and competing. I felt like my son was really unique. He has an inbred sense of showmanship, a lot of intensity, and a lot of projection. “To be honest, nothing really moved me as far as martial arts entertainment except for Bruce Lee and my son. I don’t say that just because he’s my son; I’d have the same feeling if he wasn’t. “Moving to Los Angeles was a hard decision because everything was going right with my school. Business-wise, we were making a lot of heavy connections. People were making us offers to teach at certain places that would make it a lot more financially secure.” Reyes spent half the week in Los Angeles and the rest back in San Jose keeping things organized at his studio. Traveling back and forth involved much time, effort and money. Things didn’t go too smoothly for the first six months. For one, Reyes dropped the first manager who represented him. “There were certain personal problems,” he says, “so far as how we were going to attack Hollywood, and I didn’t agree with her [the manager’s] type of style. I have certain values and morals and it just wasn’t right for me and Ernie in that environment.” Hollywood Adage Number Two: “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” Ernie was encountering all the classic Hollywood obstacles. “It was very difficult not knowing who to trust or who to talk to in Hollywood,” Reyes adds. “First of all, Hollywood Is a big cultural shock. I’d been to Los Angeles many times, but living there is completely different from living in northern California, where my home is, where my friends and connections are. I felt like I was starting all over again. It was difficult getting oriented to a very fast-paced lifestyle, not knowing where anything was—things being so spread out there—and not knowing anybody. It got real lonely. Even though we had martial arts acquaintances there, at that time it was strangely kind of depressing. We didn’t even want to see other people. And we were suffering financially. “At times, let me tell you, it was really discouraging. I felt like giving up. As a matter of fact, I left Los Angeles for a few weeks. But then I drew strength from my martial arts training and it gave me the determination to continue. I said to myself, ‘I’m not gonna give up for anything.’ It didn’t make sense to quit when so many people seemed moved by what we were doing with the martial arts. What happens Is, when nothing happens you stop believing in yourself. But, as I mentioned earlier, I was very Impressed with my son’s talent. So I couldn’t quit without giving it my best shot.” Hollywood Adage Number Three: “Persistence pays off.” Reyes hung In there and he was on the threshold of getting his first break. Three years earlier, at one of his performances in Las Vegas, a Hollywood manager named Sally Baker saw Ernie Jr. and felt he had star potential. Ernie looked her up and she signed them both. Says Ernie, “Sally has been in the entertainment industry for 20 years and she does a lot of writing. Many people want her to manage their children, but Ernie is her first child client. She’s also managing me. She’s really a dynamic lady and through her we got connected with the Hollywood heavyweights. Things started happening.” Baker Introduced the Reyeses to Motown. An executive there, Michael Wisebarth, was trying to establish a new concept for television. He auditioned Little Ernie, was Impressed, and decided to create a concept for a TV series around him. That turning point came In March-April 1984. Wisebarth talked with the producer of The Last Dragon, a Motown motion picture that was already deep Into production In New York City. They had been working on the film
for about two months and were dissatisfied with the fight scenes. They wanted to put Ernie Jr. In it and hire his father to choreograph some dynamic fight scenes. “The theme of the movie is a combination of music and martial arts,” explains Reyes. “I brought in three of my students to help, too: Scott Coker, Soo Gin Lee and Julian Villaneuva. They really liked Ernie Jr. It was a weird situation because they established him as a character by writing In some dialogue with one of the co-stars, then he helps the hero at the end of the film.” The Last Dragon, released in 1985, made national news when teenage audiences leaving a Philadelphia theater where the film played ransacked the city. Meanwhile, things weren’t going smoothly with the Motown TV concept. Hollywood Adage Number Four: “If it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage.” Everything begins with a good script. “They went through a lot of writers,” says Reyes, “and just kept turning over ideas. But nothing worked.” In June, however, through a Motown connection, Reyes secured his next link in the chain of events
necessary for success. He and Little Ernie were accepted for representation by International Creative Management (ICM), one of the foremost talent agencies in the entertainment business. “So we had a whole team of people on the Motown project. Finally, in September, they came up with the right concept and were ready to present It to the networks. Then we were signed to do Red Son/a.” Hollywood Adage Number Five: “When it rains, it pours.” It cancelled out the Motown presentation. But Motown, as we’ll see later, wasn’t deterred. After all, Motown founder Berry Gordy had already dis-covered more rhythm-and-blues superstars in the music business than anyone in history, and his company was determined to move into TV production. Besides Motown’s project, the Red Sonja role also cancelled out a chance for Little Ernie to do a national spot for Mattel Toys’ He-Man line of products. The commercial would have been released during the lucrative Christmas market. The pay Is terrific for such commercials since the actors appearing in them are paid a residual for each and every time the spot airs. “The casting director at Ogilvey Mather, a well known agency that casts kids In national commercials, wanted Ernie pretty badly. But the Red Sonja producers wouldn’t let us take off the time to do it.” You think Hollywood’s easy?
Those were the preliminaries. Here comes the main event, the Red Sonja show. It took one personal interview, one reading, two auditions, one screentest, seven martial arts demonstrations, and a 6,000-mile trip to Rome, Italy before the Reyeses were finally hired. Now you’ll see the real inner workings of Hollywood. “ICM gave us the lead,” Ernie explains. “They said there was a part for Ernie Jr. to play a prince in a new concept, a spinoff of the Conan films entitled Red Sonja. So we first went in for a personal interview. The next time we went back we had to do a reading from a part of the script. The third time we went back and met Rafiella De Laurentiis, Dino’s daughter, who’s an important executive in his organization. “Ernie walked in, she looked at him and said, ‘My name is Rafiella. How are you?’ And that’s It! The next thing she says is, ‘Your next interview will be with my father.’ “So then we had to go to one of the bungalows behind the Beverly Hills Hotel and do a demo for Dino De Laurentii’s. Earlier, I had given them a promotional videotape of Ernie performing martial arts. It proved to be the edge we needed. The other kids trying out for the part could all act, but they couldn’t do martial arts like Ernie. “We walked in and Dino said, ‘So you’re the black belt kid, huh? Let me see what you know right off the top.’ Ernie never even spoke. We just did two techniques and Dino said, ‘That’s great. I want him. Let’s make a deal.’ Unfortunately, Reyes was not yet acclimated to the way business is done in Hollywood. He thought he had a firm deal. Hollywood Adage Number Six: “Hurry up and wait.” “We were really excited,” says Ernie. We went back and told our manager the good news. The next day they phoned ICM to tell them that we had to go back for another audition. So we did. This time Rafiella and David Lynch, the director of Dune (De Laurentis’ big-budget Christmas release) were there with Dino. So he says, ‘Show them your best martial arts stuff.’ “We had prepared some new techniques. We started doing them and Ernie kicked me square in the mouth and blood started seeping out. In all the demonstrations we’ve done I’ve never gotten hurt. But this time I was standing there with my mouth bleeding and worrying that we had blown it. Dino said, ‘Do you want to go to Italy?’ I answered, ‘We’re ready to go anytime you want.’ Okay,’ he said, ‘you guys will probably leave in a week.— Again, Reyes thought he had the part and the deal. Wrong. “Little did we know that we had to go to Rome to take a screentest for the director, Richard Fleisher (Tore, Tora, Tora; The Vikings). We were set back because we thought we had it, then suddenly it’s a very unsure situation. Then they phoned back and said, ‘You’re going to be leaving in two days.— Finally, all of Reyes’ justifiable frustration erupted. “NO WAY!” the usually even-tempered Reyes told them. “I thought we had a week. We just can’t do that!” Of course, they did. “We went to Rome on September 3, 1984 and did the screentest. Not only that, we had to do five more demonstrations for various people on the production staff in Italy. Ernie did some dialogue with the star of Red Sonja, Gitte Nielsen of Denmark, who plays the female title character. They wanted to see contrast, how the chemistry would work between her and Ernie. He also did a kata and a sword set. Mr. Fleisher was impressed. He’s a soft-spoken gentleman who’s been directing for about 40 years. Ernie finally landed the role—second lead in the film—and Ernie Sr. was hired to choreograph Little Ernie’s fight scenes. Another noted martial artist, Kiyoshi Yamazaki of California, who had worked on the Conan films, was hired as the sword master to set up any fight scenes requiring sword techniques. And, of course, Arnold Schwarzenegger appears in a cameo role, playing an advisor, much like Obi-Wan in Star Wars, to Ernie Jr. and Nielsen. In 1986, Little Ernie made his television debut on the Motown-Walt Disney co-produced The Last Electric Knight, a one-hour pilot that led to his current series, “Sidekicks” (see news section).
We couldn’t resist asking Reyes Sr. a key question all of his other interviewers have missed. Is being a single parent an additional hardship? “It’s come natural to me now because it’s been so long,” he answered candidly. “I can’t take the place of a mother. Sometimes Ernie needs softness and warmth that maybe only a lady could give him. I Just try to do the best I can and give hlm as much love and care that I can.” They also appear to be inseparable companions in a mature way that belles Little Ernie’s young 13 years. “It’s really a unique situation because we spend so much time together,” explains Ernie. “I never thought it would lead to something like this. Martial arts Is really a big part of my life and it’s becoming the same for my son. I don’t have to force him to do it; he loves it. It’s that bond that kind of really keeps us together. A lot of times he’s like my son, yet he’s also like my companion and friend. Hollywood Adage Number Seven: “To make it in Hollywood you need 10% talent and 90% luck.” “I guess we’re really lucky,” reasons Reyes, “because a lot of people are continuously spinning their wheels in Hollywood and never getting anywhere. It’s a very insecure business. But we’ve met the right people and got the right breaks. Our future looks bright, if things keep going the same way. Before trying to break into Hollywood, we used to do things for nothing, purely for the pleasure of entertaining people. We love the martial arts and we love to entertain. I hope to be able to express that feeling on film and leave something memorable there for the audience.”
Further reading: Interview with Ernie Reyes jr at age 18