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Don The Dragon Wilson. A name synonymous with legit badass action films for more than 35 years. A kickboxing champion before he even starred in his first film (and during his film run as well), he’s been kicking, punching and shooting bad guys, the stoic hero with some one liners thrown in, depending on who directed or wrote the film.
We sit down with the 11 time kickboxing champion with 47 knockouts and star of over 60 films to discuss his career from his early days in kickboxing up until his most recent film credits.
TNC: Thanks for joining us, Don. I appreciate the time. For any of our readers who don’t realize, you are one of the most prolific kickboxing champions in the history of the sport. Just dominant and helping with the legitimacy of the sport. Before we get into film questions, I wanted to ask who your toughest opponents were in your career?
Wilson: Jean Yves Theriault, Branko Cikatic, Demetrius “Oaktree” Edwards, Marek Piotrowski, Maurice “Mo” Smith, James “the WidowMaker” Waring, Panya Sornoi -“Che Le”, Atta Pong Fanta, Samart, Dennis “The Terminator” Alexio, and Ferdinand Mack are a few of the other world champions I fought during my 28 year career as a Professional kickboxer.
TNC: I’ve always gravitated toward legitimate fighters who make the transition into action films. In your kickboxing career, did you see any other fighters who would have been natural as action stars like yourself?
Wilson: Stan “the Man” Longinitus was a natural actor and had a real screen presence. We worked together in three of my films and he did a fantastic job with the acting as well as the fight action. Maurice Smith also did a great job in Bloodfist 2 and I’ve used MANY great martial artists and kickboxers in my films. I love using all my friends from the kickboxing and martial arts world in my films. It adds a realism that I think audiences appreciate.
TNC: How did you make the jump into the action film world? What prompted the change? Because I know you were still fighting while getting into the acting game.
Wilson: Chuck Norris and I met at one of my fights in West Palm Beach, Florida in 1978. He was making movies for a company called CANNON Films and he was the first person in the entertainment industry that suggested I try acting as a “second career”. Chuck told me that, when I retired, I should move to LA and attempt becoming an “action star” as he had after he quit competing. I have retired three times now and the first one was in 1985 when I moved to LA. But, I needed the money to maintain my attempt at becoming an actor so I continued to fight until I realized I could not take the time off from acting to stay in “fighting shape” and retired again in 1990. Then I got an offer to come out of retirement from Viewer’s Choice in 1998 and came out of retirement for the second time. I fought until 2002 and then fought my “retirement” fight at the Tropicana Casino in Atlantic City, NJ. I won by KO in the Tenth and final rounds with 4 seconds left on the clock! A lot of people think I was successful as an actor because I was an accomplished kickboxer but that is really not the case. After I starred in Bloodfist in 1988, I had to make many correct decisions as an actor to maintain my career. I became a co-producer on my third film and that allowed me to keep the quality of the films as high as the budgets would allow. Because of that choice, I have not Starred in the types of low quality films that may have “killed” my career. In the beginning I did what ALL beginning actors in Hollywood do when attempting a career as an actor. Enrol in acting class, get an agent, and start auditioning for anything and everything! It took about two and a half years but I auditioned for Roger Corman’s Bloodfist and the rest is, as they say, is history. Roger Starred me in 12 films and, of course, other companies cast me as the lead in another 18 films as well. So far, I have starred in 30 martial arts action films. I do cameos and appearances in other movies but those are more for fun than my career. It’s all about looking for the right project or just being cast in the “right” film.
TNC: I always remember finding a copy of Bloodfist at my local video store and being transfixed to the cover. So much so, I begged my dad to rent it for me. And I wasn’t disappointed. What was it like working on that film? I’m guessing that was the film that put you on the map in the eyes of action film fans.
Wilson: As always with my life, I was, again, very lucky to get Terry Winkless as my first Director. He realized very early that I was very inexperienced as an actor and yet I was in almost every scene. So if I was not, at the very least, believable, the move would fail. He just allowed me to relax and be truthful in every scene so the audience, who understands that Jake Raye is a man on a mission, would accept my character’s reactions. Bloodfist was released by MGM and was a tremendous success for an independently produced film. My life changed after it’s release and suddenly I had “people” – personal manager, publicist, business manager, entertainment attorney, assistants, etc. I was filming up to 5 movies in 13 months and promoting them as well so I was constantly working. I was either in Pre-Production, Post Production, Marketing the films, or on the set filming throughout the ’90s. I made a lot of money but really life seemed very busy in those days. No complaints because you must sacrifice a lot of time to maintain a successful career in Hollywood. That’s probably true for many actors, directors, and producers, etc. in the film business.
TNC: How was it working with the amazing Billy Blanks?
Wilson: Of course, working with my good friend Billy Blanks was fantastic! I got a phone call from one of Corman’s producers in Manila that someone named Billy Blanks wanted to work in the film. I said immediately, “HIRE HIM”! Billy was there as a trainer for Sam Jones and Catherine Bach (I think). Billy and I met on that film and have been friends ever since. We don’t see each other often but it is always wonderful to spend time together.
You followed that up with the sequel the following year? How did it feel to have your very own franchise already? One in which spawned 8 total films, something many action franchises never get to (not counting Fast and the Furious)
It felt great to have starred in 8 films in a Hollywood Franchise. That is the ultimate sign of success when the audience “keeps coming back for more”. I appreciate the support my fans have shown me during my, now, 30 years as an actor. Of course, to Roger Corman, Bloodfist meant Don “the Dragon” Wilson is the star and it’s a martial arts action film. They were not sequels in the traditional sense of the term.
You then entered the Ring of Fire. I love that film, where you take the kickboxing world and throw it into the literal ring of fire. How was it working on that film? Which again became another series of films in your career, which is no small feat.
Wilson: The Ring of Fire Series is a “true” set of sequels where I play the same character in all 3 films, Dr. Johnny Woo. I began working for PM Entertainment with Ring of Fire and eventually made 6 films with the company. They because the Action Powerhouse of the 90’s. The film was a lot of fun because my friend Richard Munchkin directed it and the producers and I also became friends.
One of the biggest perks for me as an actor is that I’ve been lucky enough to work with many friends and became friends with many people through my experiences in “the biz”
TNC: Future Kick is a film I dig a lot and bring up to action fans. It was your first encounter in the sci-fi action world. And you worked with two great genre stars, Meg Foster and Chris Penn. How was it working with them?
Dragon: Chris Penn was my best friend, roommate, and my son’s Godfather so working with him was always great fun. We worked together in 4 films and, of course, always had a great time. I was the last person to speak to him before he passed away in 2006 and Sean asked me to be the lead Pallbearer at his funeral. I will never have a better friend….RIP. Meg Foster was very kind and she is a great actress so working with her was a very enjoyable experience for me in my third Starring Role. I have always found that the better the actor you are working with in a film, the better you look in each scene. They “make” you come alive and react truthfully just by virtue of their talent and performance. There is a term He-She “stole the scene” and when I’ve worked with the better actors, that’s a great thing to happen on a set! Of course, when it’s time for the KICKING, they can just “move over and let Jimmy take over.
TNC: Out For Blood always seemed like a lost Steven Seagal film, where you play a character who has lost his memory but it trying to get to the bottom of your family’s murder. How was it playing that character, where you got to become the vigilante The Karate Man?
Wilson: The original concept for Out For Blood was my idea after thinking about the success of the Charles Bronson’s Death Wish series of films. I thought we would just get rid of the gun and I would get revenge on the “bad guys” with my martial arts. My Personal Manager Paul Maslak hired a writer, Robert Easter and got his Producing partner Neva Friedenn involved to make the film which was one of my four HBO World Premieres. I felt John Decker was a good character for me because he had some “wise cracks” one-liners that he would say just before he would “make his move” or “drop the bomb” on the bad guys. I was just beginning to bring a little humor and “personal” problems into the characters I was playing. His “flashes” of memories etc. gave him an unusual problem to deal with on top of everything else. A more complex character is always more fun.
TNC: Speaking of that film and a few others, you worked with the company PM Entertainment. How was it working with them? Joseph Merhi and Richard Pepin produced a ton of fun action flicks, ones that I tend to go back to more than some of the ‘big’ ones. Any favorite stories while working within their films?
Wilson: Joe and Rick are GREAT guys and the best “bosses” any actor-producer could have in Hollywood. They did everything they could to make me feel “pampered” on the set from big trailers to great food, etc. It never felt like work when we were on a PM set. Everyone was having fun and making the best movies we could at the same time. On the first day of “Cyber-tracker” I was literally running back and forth to 3 different sets to shoot the opening scene. It was still fun but a LOT of work! I was Joe’s “best man” at his wedding and recently watched Hacksaw Ridge at his Beverly Hills home.
TNC: Cyber-Tracker was another sci-fi action film that I love that you did, this time you versus a cybernetic officer called a Tracker. How was it working with the great Richard Norton?
Wilson: Richard Norton is a very respected martial artist and actor. It was an honor to work with him but I do have a story to tell about our final fight scene. He had the “great” idea that we could actually hit each other in the face with our fists instead of faking it. That way it could be shot up close, and in slow motion with no faking! We did hit each other about 4 times each in the head-face and had to take painkillers because we both got minor concussions! IT WAS A BAD IDEA AND NO OTHER ACTORS SHOULD TRY IT!
TNC: Terminal Rush. A film that I discovered much later for some reason but fell in love with instantly. It’s kind of like Die Hard at the Hoover Dam. How was it working on that film? And better yet, how was it working with the one and only Rowdy Roddy Piper?
Wilson: Rowdy Roddy, RIP, was a very kind, humble, and hard working man. As an actor, he was very professional and talented. I last saw him when he interviewed me for his WWE radio program. He had not changed a bit and, as always, was funny and humble. A story on the set though, at the end of our fight scene he hit me on the chin with a plastic pipe and I got cut. We had to hide it with makeup the rest of the shoot. It happens…….
In this point of your career, you’ve transitioned yet again into more family friendly action films. What was the decision to do so? I know you’ve always been a role model to kids around the world, so does it stem from showing a different side of Don ‘The Dragon’ Wilson on the screen?
After 30 years of playing the same types of characters in the same types of films, I am enjoying being an “actor for hire” and portraying all kinds of characters in many different genres. I have been in comedies, family films, Sci-Fi Action, etc. I no longer have to be in just martial arts action films and it’s been a lot of fun traveling to Romania, Germany, Kazakhstan, Canada, Ireland, etc. appearing in films as a “character actor” and not the action lead. I do have some projects where I’ll go back to being the “Action Lead” but, now that I realize I can do these other types of roles, I hope to continue being cast as other types of characters at this stage of my career.
I really liked The Martial Arts Kid and thought that was how you do a family friendly action film with a strong anti-bullying message. How was it working on that film?
Working with Michael Baumgarten is a wonderful experience because although he is a writer-director-producer on his projects, he is still an “actor’s director” in that he let’s us create the character and he will then guide or work with what we feel is truthful. He is still the “Captain of the Ship”, however, he lets us work within our own parameters as actors. It is a wonderful way to create and I think allows actors to give their best performance. Of course, if he feels something is wrong, he will quickly take over and “keep the ship on course”!
You also got to work with the kick ass and radiant Cynthia Rothrock, who you’ve known for years. How was it working with her as your wife in the film?
Cynthia and I have been friends since the mid-’80s. We have the same agent and studied the same style of Kung Fu. The list of strange coincidences is legendary! We lived on the same street in Beverly Hills and then both bought homes in Woodland Hills! I could go on but you get the message: we are VERY good friends. And, of course, after working on five films together, are very comfortable on the set. When you feel comfortable on a set, the audience will sense it and the Directors call it “chemistry”. My word for it is “friendship”…….
Another film I liked a lot was the comedy Paying Mr. McGetty, which you take a more stoic badass in. How was it working with R. Marcos Taylor, who you beat up much faster in The Martial Arts Kid?
I met Marcos on Facebook and we had lunch together in LA. Since we were both Kung Fu Black Belts and kickboxers, it was only natural we would get along on a movie set. I am impressed with his talent as a martial artist and actor and make my Dragon Prediction that he will be an A-List Star one day and, hopefully, he’ll still return my calls!
Here’s a question that might be tough to answer, but in the recent wave of action stars of the last decade or so, who do you like and seek out their films when they come out? Any action stars you hope to do a film with?
I would love to work with Chuck Norris! He gave me the confidence to move to LA and attempt a career as an actor and he supported me when I was a fighter. We were both know for our fighting long before we said our first line of dialogue in a film. I think audiences would enjoy seeing us together in something and I hope Quentin Tarantino will write and direct it for us! Is that just a Dream? Maybe, but if this really is a computer simulation and we are 3-D holographic images, WHY NOT?
Any new films we should know about to keep on the lookout?
Blood Raid is a project I’m working on that is “Expendables vs Vampires” in a From Dusk Till Dawn type of film!
Again, thanks for your time and hope to go more in depth with you about any new projects you have coming out.