Mike Vendrell, 40, has studied kung-fu since he was three years old. He’s also been a fight choreographer and stunt coordinator for 20 years, working with such stars as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Brandon Lee. His enormous experience brings a new kind of martial finesse to Kung Fu: The Legend Continues.
Interview by Dwight Brown
Q: What are your functions on the show?
Mike Vendrell: Fight choreographer, technical advisor…
Q: Are you the advisor for the philosophy of kung-fu, too?
Vendrell: That’s it.
Q: What is your martial arts background?
Vendrell: I have studied kung-fu since I was three years old. I learned from a friend of my father’s. So I’ve been studying my whole life. I also studied with [martial arts veteran] Gene LeBell for about four years and learned judo from him. I’ve also been in the motion picture business for twenty years as a martial arts choreographer. I train actors like Arnold Schwarzenegger. Brandon Lee [Bruce Lee’s son] has been a student of mine for nine years. So all the stuff that Brandon does is what I gave to him. I’ve worked with David [Carradine] on and off for eighteen years. I don’t work consistently with David because I do other shows and stuff. I’m also a stunt coordinator.
Q: Were you with David in the original show at all?
Vendrell: I worked with David in Kung Fu: The Movie [see feature in this issue]. I’m a little young to have worked with him in the original. I’m forty years old. I was a senior in high school when it first came on the air. At the time, I don’t even know if people knew what kung-fu was. Most people didn’t do kung-fu back then.
Q: So exactly what is kung-fu to you?
Vendrell: It’s my life. I’ve made a living at it my entire life. I’ve taught since I was 16 and I’ve studied all over the world. I was a professional streetfighter for three years. I never lost a fight. In all the fights I choreograph, I try to use moves that I used when I was a streetfighter.
Q: How would you explain kung-fu to someone who knows absolutely nothing about it?
Vendrell: Love, peace and harmony. That’s how I approach it. And that’s how the show’s gonna be done. My job is to make sure that Caine is always a pacifist and not an aggressor. So all the fights that we do involving David, they’re all from pacifistic point of view. He never throws the first punch, and he does a minimal amount of damage — instead of breaking legs and/or trying to hurt somebody intentionally. Even if his worst enemy was up against him, his objective is not to hurt him. His idea is to avoid violence. That’s what kung-fu is to him.
One of the reasons why I took [the job on] this show is that this is a chance to do, twenty years later, what Kung Fu was. It is not one-hundred percent like the old show because, obviously, Caine lives in the 20th century and he has a son who is a cop. But Caine still remains the passive, nonviolent spiritual guide.
The challenge for me on the show is to make the fights different. I don’t want to see the same moves over and over and over. And I try to show different aspects of kung-fu. Sometimes we’ll do a northern system, sometimes a southern system. I’ll do a lot of China-na, you know, wristlocks and armbars and throws. Most of the kung-fu you see today is Wu Shu, which is dancing and not really fighting. There aren’t that many kung-fu men that fight. So it’s kind of hard to say how a kung-fu man fights.
For years, kung-fu has gotten a bad rap because kung-fu guys are saying they’re not really fighters, but dancers. But good kung-fu men don’t fight; usually, they just dance. And dancing is fighting, if you know what you’re doing. That’s why, when I was [street]fighting, I never got hit in the face. I got stabbed a couple times, but I never got hit. Because the idea is not to fight with your opponent, but to dance with him. Now the [fighting] concept with Caine is that he’s the eye of the hurricane. Everything moves around him. No matter how fast someone’s moving, the key is how fast Kwai Chang Caine is moving, and how little does he have to do to get out of the way. The concept with Caine is that he’s the eye of the hurricane.
Q: Isn’t there a mystique surrounding Caine in this show?
Vendrell: Yeah. The question is, is this really Kwai Chang Caine from the Old West, and he just happens to live this long? Or is he the great-grandson of Kwai Chang Caine? Because he plays the character the same way. You have the sensation that he’s the same guy. He dresses pretty much the same way. His philosophy is the same. The only difference, I think, between the old Caine and the new Caine is that, if anybody was to age twenty years, how would his philosophy change? You know, you take someone who’s thirty-five compared with someone who’s fifty-five, their way of looking at life is different.
This Caine is even more centered than the first Caine. He doesn’t have the threat of the emperor’s nephew after him constantly, like in the first show. He’s a man of mystery now…we don’t know where he came from. We do know he’s a relative of Kwai Chang, but he just wanders into town one day and discovers his son. Caine’s profession is teaching kung-fu. He opens a school. He doesn’t accept any money for his teaching, so we don’t know how he lives. He’s kind of a mythical hero. The show itself is really about the people in his life and how he deals with their problems. How he helps them out.
Q: How did you get involved in films?
Vendrell: In two ways, actually. I started teaching Buddy Ebsen. He had phlebitis [inflammation of a vein] and they were going to amputate his leg. At the time, I was working as a truck driver in the motion picture business. I had a little gym set up in the truck. I was working out and Buddy said, “I’m really sick. I’m gonna have to go to the hospital. They might take my leg off.” I said, “Well, why don’t you train?” So I started teaching him tai-chi. And within six weeks he had a clean bill of health. We became real good friends. He asked me, “Why are you a driver? Why don’t you get into stunts?”
I said, “I don’t know where to go.” So I got into [the TV series] Barnaby Jones. I met David through Jeff Cooper, a mutual friend on Barnaby Jones. Jeff was the star of [the martial arts film] Circle of Iron. David and I became good friends. I trained him on a couple of his films. (Rob Moses is his trainer on this show.) David said, “If we ever do Kung Fu again, I want you to do the choreography and the stunt arranging.” I trained Brandon [Lee] to be a choreographer because I knew I wouldn’t be able to be with him all the time. So when he did Rapid Fire, most of that stuff he did was his, even though Jeff Imada was involved with it. Brandon had spent a lot of time with me with videotapes and things like that to hone them up. What I try to do with my students is teach them that, if I’m not there, they know what looks good and what doesn’t look good.
Q: Is Chris Potter learning kung-fu quickly?
Vendrell: Yeah, he’s a very good athlete. Without giving too much of the show away, he has flashbacks, just like they used in the original show, to him as a kid. It happens throughout the show. David has more martial arts fights and Chris is slowly, as the show progresses, learning martial arts. Each week he progressively gets better. So if the show goes for a few seasons he’ll eventually be a good martial artist. He’s eager to learn. I think he’ll be very good.
Q: When you choreograph shows like this, do you usually end up giving Sunday classes to anyone?
Vendrell: I’m a compulsive teacher. I love teaching. That’s what I was trained to do. Like the actor Peter Strausse … I trained him for a film called Brotherhood of the Rose. I went to New Zealand with him to do the film. Afterwards, we became close friends and I still train him now. All my actors that I train, they stay with me.
Q: Who are some of the other actors you have trained?
Vendrell: Richard Chamberlain, Farrah Faucett, Timothy Dalton, Pat Morita. You know, people ask, “What level [of kung-fu] are you?” I’m a student. I’ve been a student my whole life. And I’m really kind of disgusted by the martial arts right now because of the approach of some people. You see guys on the cover of these magazines in these wild-ass poses and stuff. I’ve been asked to do interviews before and [this is one reason] I don’t usually do them. I’m doing this interview for [the benefit of] Kung Fu. What I try to promote as a martial artist is different. If you’re totally secure with yourself and you’re not afraid of anybody, then everyone’s your friend. So, no matter what opposition I come up against, I always try to make things passive.
For instance, on the show I’m also the second unit director. We were out on location in a kind of rough part of town. It was late, like 1:30 in the morning, and we just finished wrapping. One of my cameramen was walking down an alley and this car came zooming down the alley and he hollered, “Hey, slow down!” and he knocked against the side of the car. The car screeched to a stop. There were four guys inside. The cameraman explained that they had almost run him over. Well, about halfway through the argument another van pulled up with, like, another fifteen guys in it. All these guys started piling out of the cars. I would say that there was probably a total of sixteen or seventeen guys standing around all screaming at this cameraman. It looked like it was a fight with a Chinese gang.
I was standing up at the corner watching the whole thing. I waited until just about the part when I thought they were going to start throwing blows and I stepped in. I pointed out the leader and said, “I want to talk to you.” This guy really wasn’t leading the argument, the guy complaining the most was the guy whose car got hit. Well, within fifteen seconds, he said to me, “Well, have a good night. See you later.” And they all left. The crew was more impressed by the fact that I could passively calm things down as opposed to fighting. I totally just calmed the situation down.
I think that’s really what the arts are about. Not combat. Combat’s easy. When I was streetfighting, I got into a thing called “bloodlust” where I liked hurting people. That was a good part of my life because I realized the destructive power of the human body. What you can and can’t do. I’ll watch a film and know when it is bullshit because the guy [on screen] is cooperating with the guy who’s throwing a punch. When you’re in a streetfight, people don’t throw perfect punches and they don’t always do exactly what you planned.
My teacher always taught from a non-set form. He believes that each person is an individual. Just like a tree grows differently, so does a student. You let the student grow at his own rate and at his own abilities. You nurture it and culture it so it grows perfectly in its own form. Instead of trying to make every tree look exactly alike or every person move exactly alike. Every person moves different. Look at Arnold, look at David. Every one of my students looks like he’s from a completely different form. My goal as a teacher is that I want my students to be individuals, not copycats.
Q: How do you feel about the grading system in the martial arts?
Vendrell: I don’t believe in grading systems.
Q: You believe it has no place at all?
Vendrell: None whatsoever.
Q: You think it’s just promotionalism?
Vendrell: I hear kung-fu guys say, “I have a black belt in kung-fu.” I say that’s a complete contradiction to what kung-fu’s all about. Get down to basic facts: If your system works, good. If you want to say you’re a dancer and you want to do Wu Shu, go ahead. That’s an art form. If you want to fight, fight. The grading system is a way for people to be connected to a club. A long, long time ago, in the early seventies, I had a school, and I realized that a school isn’t a place to learn. The best place to learn is one-on-one. To me, what the art is all about is to be able to express yourself, whether you’re fighting against somebody or fighting against an imaginary opponent. I also believe in fighting; I believe you have to fight to get good.
We get a lot of people coming in now who want to work on the show. And they’re either a European champion, a world champion or a North American champion. There are so many champions [it’s hard to know who is and who isn’t].
I can’t go to tournaments because I get headaches. The energy is so negative there. The feeling of competition isn’t good in the martial arts. It wasn’t set up that way. The martial arts were always taught from a loving family point of view in the Asian countries. It was always a nurturing process that went on. The student and the teacher became father and son. There are a couple of my students who actually call me “father.” They call me for advice and I take care of them. They’re my kids, right?
I charge movie companies for the work I do, but I charge nothing for my lessons. All the students I teach, like Arnold and those guys, they don’t pay a cent. Now I don’t mind sports competition in the martial arts, like kickboxing and shootboxing. I went to Thailand after hearing for years and years how great the Thai boxers were…that they had beaten kung-fu masters..that they’d fight anybody and kill them. Well, I went to Thailand to do a film with Michael Landan. I was teaching Michael at the time. I went to the biggest promoter in Thailand and said, “Find me a fight. I’d like to fight your best Thai boxer with no rules. No gloves, no nothing, let’s just do it.”
I was there for three months and I couldn’t get a fight. They wanted to play their game. I admitted that they’d kill me in Thai boxing, because I’m not a Thai boxer. You put the gloves on me, you take away ten of my weapons. You tell me that I can’t throw you and you take away another weapon. Each thing you take away from me, you’re limiting my art.
And the age-old controversy about a boxer fighting a martial artist is completely ridiculous. We’ve got locks, throws and everything else. I’ve fought boxers before, even with gloves on. I used my feet and throws. But it all gets down to one thing. Sport versus reality. The same with movie fighting. I try to keep it as realistic as possible. They tell me that the [film] fights have to last longer. But in reality, most of my fights have lasted three or four seconds. Any longer than that and it’s a brawl. So we walk that fine line of reality in fiction on the show. But I think what’s different on this show from the first one is that Kwai Chang isn’t traveling; he’s staying in one place.
Q: So you feel the martial arts have lost the family orientation?
Vendrell: I would say yes. There’s too much competition in the arts and not enough cooperation. Like the business of secret teachings. I’ll never support anything that cuts knowledge off from people. For instance, the Gracie brothers saying they are the greatest fighters and they would take on all challengers. This is complete nonsense because I, in front of fifteen guys, have said, “You and me…let’s go do it right now in the parking lot.” And the guy wouldn’t do it.
There’s nothing wrong with promoting things. I understand that’s where magazines make money. But this is one reason why I refuse to do magazine interviews most of the time. I really feel that love, peace and harmony is what we should try to promote through magazines. But to say that someone is the deadliest man in the world… Well, on any given day, there’s a man picking corn in Iowa that could kick every martial artist’s ass, you know. On any day, anyone can get whipped. We’ve seen it with boxers, with wrestlers, and with martial artists. That’s why if we promote the arts with love, peace and harmony, I believe that we’d move ahead. But right now, that’s not happening.
We have an awesome responsibility as martial artists. We’re in a new age of martial arts right now. Martial arts are being taught right now more than at any other time in the history of mankind. Yet, the direction that they’re going is toward sport competition — like in kickboxing and tae kwon do — which is not truly the art.
Q: When David started on the first Kung Fu show, he had no knowledge of kung-fu?
Vendrell: None whatsoever. Since then, he’s studied with Kam Yuen, Rob Moses and myself. He’s had a lot of teachers. One thing great about David is that he’s truly an artist. He’s always free. He learns one thing from one teacher, and something from another. He doesn’t lock himself into one style. That’s what I try to bring out in the show. One week you’ll see him do a double jump kick and the next week he’ll use pressure points. We going to bring out all the systems that David has studied.
Q: How do you explain that love, peace and harmony is the proper way now when, as you came up, you were street fighting?
Vendrell: Because I was taught love, peace and harmony in the beginning, but I didn’t understand what my teacher was teaching me. It was like giving a neutral country a nuclear weapon and saying, “Don’t test it.” I wanted to test myself. And at sixteen years old, I didn’t have a clue.
When I started tasting blood, I knew what fighting was all about. It wasn’t so much me against my opponent. It was me against myself. The guys that I was fighting were men and I was just a kid. That’s why I didn’t do interviews for a long time, because I thought people would find me out. The only guys that knew what I was doing was Gene LeBell and [pro wrestler “Rowdy”] Roddy Piper, who did the same thing. You go undercover. You don’t want people to know who you are. They are angry about the things you did.
Q: Was it like in the Van Damme movie, Lionheart?
Vendrell: Not like the movie, but like the character he played. That happens, still. It has been happening for hundreds of years.
Q: It’s a well-hidden secret if it still goes on.
Vendrell: Well, it’s for big money. And whenever there’s money… Just like pitbull fights, cock fights — how many of those have you been to. They’re out there. Usually, when I was fighting I was one of the final fighters. There’d be a pitbull fight or a cockfight the fight before [mine].
I did it, one, for the money. And I did it because I enjoyed hurting people at the time. I was frustrated and I didn’t know what I was gonna do for a living. At the time, I was illiterate; I couldn’t read. I didn’t learn to read until I was eighteen. It was just a release. And once I realized that I was really hurting people, I made a one-hundred-and-eighty-degree turn and said, “This is completely wrong.” I learned through my mistakes. That’s where I evolved.
Q: Are you glad you went through that stage in your life?
Vendrell: Absolutely. I never regretted a single thing I’ve done in my life. I believe you go on the trail, see what you have to see, and you either learn from it or you die from it. Fortunately, I learned that love is more important than violence.
This article/interview was published in a 1995 edition of Kung Fu magazine. Interview by Dwight Brown. Mike Vendrell died in 2013.