Throughout the 90’s if you were a fan of martial arts films then you know doubt were a fan of Don “The Dragon” Wilson. Not only was he the mainstay of straight to video martial arts films but also a well-known kickboxing champion to back it up. I had the chance to sit down with this martial arts legend to talk about his career in both the ring and on the screen as well as the in's and out of the industry.
Bobby: Before getting into your film career, I wanted to go a bit further back and talk about how you got started in the martial arts to begin with?
Don: My brother was in martial arts before me. I was 17 years old in the Coast Guard Academy and he was already a black belt in Kung Fu. It was just one of those weekends where I was back in Florida and he had some boxing gloves there and asked if I wanted to spar a little bit. I didn’t really think he could take me in a fight because my brother weighs about 147 and I was about 205 and played football and shot put, so I was an athlete and didn’t think that this martial arts was that effective. He basically kicked my rear end, because if anyone knows that a white belt or a no-belt which is what I was and a black belt, the skill level is night and day. So I immediately started martial arts in the Coast Guard Academy and that was at the end of 72’ beginning of 73’. When I left the Academy I studied Kung Fu from my brother, so he was my original instructor and then he was my manager as a kick boxer and for a while was with me out in LA, he actually funded my move out the LA. He has been very instrumental in my career. He’s my older brother and been a mentor to me throughout my martial arts and movie career.
Bobby: What made you head into kickboxing? Was it just a natural progression with your training?
Don: In 1974 they had the first full contact karate fights here in Los Angeles and established the first western US recognized full contact karate/kickboxing champions and that was Bill Wallace, Joe Lewis, Jeff Smith and Isiasis Duenas. The thing is they had kickboxing in Japan and Thai Boxing in Thailand and Europe had a version of that, but we started kickboxing in 74’. I saw that and TV with my brother and he was a promoter and asked if I would compete in that and I said yes. So I basically fought the first fight in the state of Florida in 1974 and kept fighting until 2002. I fought the first fight on ESPN, the first fight televised in 1979 for the US PKA title and I was the main event and that was the first fight ever to air on ESPN.
Bobby: How did you transition your fight career into a film career? Was it something you planned for or did it just happen?
Don: The first time Chuck Norris met me around 1980 at one of my fights, he suggested it to me. He was the first person in the entertainment business that suggested when I was ready to retire, to move out to LA, because I lived in Florida at the time and you can’t get much further from LA than Florida, but he said move out there, get an agent. He said I was a fighter like you and now I have a career and at that time there was no Walker Texas Ranger, he was a low budget independent film action star like I am now. That’s what Chuck was doing in the 80’s. Basically in 1984 I considered my big fight and was voted by Black Belt Magazine as the best full contact fighter in the world and I fought this guy Jean-Yves Theriault in Canada that I felt I won, so didn’t have anything else to prove as an athlete. So I retired from fighting and moved out to LA in 85. Very soon I figured out how tough the movie business is. I went through all my money taking acting lessons and it’s not a cheap thing out in LA to be an actor. So I was running out of money and I was still physically able to fight, so I just thought I would fight again and I got a $10,000 fight to fight in Montreal so I went back in November of 85’ came out of retirement, knocked the guy out in the third round and then I fought until 1990. Even though I was doing movies starring in them in 1988, I never knew when it was going to end, so thought I should just keep my title and defending it once a year to just stay kickboxing champ. But in 1990 I was making so much money doing the movies, that the fighting was now a hobby. When you lose money doing something that’s not a profession, it’s called a hobby. I would take 2 months off of filming to have a fight and I was making pretty good money because I was what they called a video star in those days. They did an article about this in Entertainment Weekly, but in thirteen months I released five movies on home video. To their knowledge I am the only person to ever do that. I starred in five movies in the same genre for significantly released movies; they were on cable and home video. You know and actor may appear in a movie for 3 or 4 times a year, but not as the star in the same genre. I’ve set some records in Hollywood and not just in martial arts. I have starred in more Hollywood films than any Asian American actor in history. There are plenty of them like Jackie Chan and Jet Li that have done plenty of Asian films, but not in Hollywood films. They have obviously done a lot and starred in some Hollywood films, but that is probably my biggest Hollywood mark. I’m Asian-American, I don’t do the accent and I have been asked by the studios to do the big studio films like that, but I just don’t do it. I don’t do the broken English; speak like David Carradine in Kung Fu. I was asked to be in the movie Rising Sun with Sean Connery and Wesley Snipes and to come in and read for it, but the part required me to talk in the broken English Japanese and I told them no I don’t do that. It’s not that I’ve been spurned by the studio; their idea of an Asian star is someone who speaks broken English. Who are the Asian stars you can think of? Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Chow-Yun Fat, those are the ones you see doing the American films. All those guys have and accent, if anything I have a Southern accent and that doesn’t work for them to look Asian and talk like I’m from Georgia.
Bobby: When you really kicked off in the 90’s there was the Bloodfist and Ring of Fire series. Were any of them ever meant to be multiple films like that or did it just happen? I mean Bloodfist has put out like 8 or 9 in the series.
Don: I get offered stuff all the time. I did 8 Bloodfist’s, but was offered nine, but turned it down because the script wasn’t just right and I think a guy named Matt Mullins ended up doing it. The catch twenty two is this. I have been in the business long enough that I can recognize a good script from a bad script, fortunately. When I know the script is not right, or the story’s not right, or the budget’s going to be low and the director is not experienced I would rather pass. I’m not saying I’m Donald Trump or anything, I need money like everybody else, it’s a profession but I’m not so hard up that I would do it for the cash. Nothing against actors that do that, but I can say in my entire career which spans going on 30 years I only did it once, where I just took the money, had nothing to do with the script and that was this last movie I did last year. I shot it in Bangkok, Thailand. It wasn’t a horrible script, but it needed work. It was the producer’s second film and it was an American film, but she didn’t know anything about the business. The director got fired literally the day before we started filming. It’s me, Cynthia Rothrock, Matt Mullins, Joe Lewis and has a good martial arts cast, some good locations in Bangkok and I had never shot in Thailand before, but that producer made every mistake you can make in the business. Right now they don’t even have the footage in America yet. She is suing the Thai because they kept a few days of footage and refused to send it unless she sends them more money, which is extortion. I don’t do that, normally what I do is they send me a script and I come in as a co-producer which means I can re-write the script; I have creative control with the director, editing, music, etc. So the normal Dragon movies you see, I have input as a producer and not just an actor. Getting back that all started with Chuck Norris, he did the same thing. When it came to his career he didn’t just act. When it came to Walker Texas Ranger he and his brother were producers and I just realized it is him and his brother just like me and my brother.
Bobby: That must be the winning formula.
Don: It’s really all about getting your foot in the door, that’s about 99% of it. Then once you get your foot in the door, you have to fall on your face. Out here it’s easy to be a failure and turn into a jerk or get into drug use, but once you get in the door people will start sending you scripts and once you’re the star of the movie your kind of in the room so to speak. I don’t audition for roles, they get offered to me, so isn’t that an easy way to work as an actor? I’m sure most actors that’s the position they want to get in, where the scripts are sent to them and their not out hustling. People think I got it easy out here now, no it’s not. I’m after the good scripts and I will tell you right now I had two scripts and was even paid money to be attached to one and two actors ended up doing the films that weren’t me. Technically I could have sued, but when was the last time you heard of an actor suing a producer? Once you do that and it gets out, who wants to work with you? Even if you’re in the right, the other producers are going to be on the side of their own kind. If you hear that and you’re the producer, you’ll be like no let’s get that other action star. Sometimes the scripts are not that good or the directors inexperienced and you can’t get the stars you want to star in it because they don’t want to pay the extra money, so it’s still a struggle for every project. I am always juggling two or three things at once and people ask me which one am I going to do or when is it going to happen, but that’s outside the actors control since the actor doesn’t put the money up. Tom Cruise didn’t put up the money to make Mission Impossible. You are still at the mercy of the people that write the checks, even though you may have your name above the title. I kind of followed the Chuck Norris school of film I guess and got into producing and ideas for the films. Chuck told me every time I talked to him while he was working on Walker that he was working on the scripts all the time and casting, editing and I mean he did every job in that series to make it a success like it was. He didn’t just come in as an actor, memorize the lines and just do it. That to me would be a way easier gig as opposed to being a producer.
Bobby: Yeah it seems like it would be a lot easier to just do your thing and then walk away.
Don: Well I kind of did that in this last movie. In a way it is easy, I didn’t have to rewrite the script, or cast it, or worried about the budget those were not my concerns. I was paid to show up on the set with my lines memorized and to do my fight scenes as choreographed. So I did it and it does have some advantages, there isn’t a lot of pressure on me. The film is called White Tiger and the other distributers aren’t going to blame me if this thing doesn’t become a success. My other movies I have to admit, if they flopped I have to take 90% of the blame.
Bobby: Nowadays everyone is into the flipping and MMA style fighting, but you deliver a more unique traditional style in your fight scenes.
Don: There’s a place for that, but not in my films. I love the wire work in Crouching Tiger and the Matrix. Certain movies are designed for that sort of thing, but look at my movies they are more realistic and if I jump 30 feet in the air in every scene, you would laughing thinking it’s a comedy. I like more realism.
Bobby: As a martial artist myself, growing up I was able to use a lot of your films as training tools as opposed to just entertainment. Your style always added more realism to the films and gave it more of the feel of a real martial artist in a real situation.
Don: I appreciate that. People ask what direction would I like to go with my films. I would like to go the direction of Taken or the Bourne Identity. I mean those guys are great actors but with the fight aspect I can do a lot better than them. But their stuff looked more realistic, it looked tough, rugged and real. I would rather go that direction in my career and get scripts that are more intelligent like the Bourne Identity and scripts that are personal like Taken. Any guys that have children and someone takes them, you are going to go through the bad guys like a hot knife through butter.
Bobby: Along with this interview I am re-watching some of the films to do some new reviews and get them out there again. One of the ones I wasn’t even aware you were in was The Last Sentinel.
Don: The Last Sentinel was one we did for the SyFy Channel. There isn’t that much martial arts in it. I wrote the martial arts in, there was none in the script, it was just pure gun action. They just wanted any actor for the lead, so they didn’t want to put any martial arts in it because they didn’t have a stunt double and budget restraints or time to do all the martial arts. But when they cast me as the lead I added all the martial arts in. I didn’t do much, but there was some.
Bobby: What worked for that movie was that it was a different Don Wilson movie. Your character was much more stoic and hardened than what we have seen in your previous films. This is one that some may not really know that you are the star of because it has Katie Sackhoff on the cover as opposed to you.
Don: Well she had the TV show at the time and she was the co-star, so it wasn’t like she was just in for a minute and gone. But for the martial arts and action fans, most of the European versions are of my face with her in the background.
Bobby: Right, when I looked it up online I was irritated because I didn’t recognize the poster with your bloody bandaged eye.
Don: Yeah I poked my own eye out in that thing, not sure if you saw it yet.
Bobby: Yeah I just watched it, but when I found the poster I couldn’t imagine how I missed it, but when I got it, it had the Sackhoff cover which I have seen numerous times at the store, but never knew it was one of your films.
Don: That’s their fault. The thing is this, I starred in it and I co-produced it, but I didn’t distribute it. They had other distributers handle the artwork and all that, I actually don’t that. The marketing part of it is done by the distributors that buy the rights to the movie.
Bobby: Right and that’s something that seems to be happening more and more these days, while not in this case, but they stick someone else on the box to capitalize and then they are only there for a few minutes as opposed to the star. You haven’t had a whole lot come out lately, is there anything else you have been working on?
Don: There’s a reason some films didn’t come out. Remember I told you I had signed for two movies. They were great movies, one of them the director who wrote the script with me and pitched it to one producer and the guy didn’t for for it. The next time I had heard from him I had met a guy who was going up to 5 million on it and we could have made it for 3 million. I thought the story was great, I came up with it with the writer and he went and wrote it. What ended up happening was I called him and had 5 million dollars to make the movie and he was on the set shooting the last week of the movie with Van Damme. That was my movie and I could have sued the guy, but then I become Don “The Dragon” Wilson the guy who sues writers, directors, and producers and no one wants to work with you. The next time what happened was a producer I have worked with many times, Art Camacho had written a script and I loved it. I signed, they paid me the money and then started shopping the script around to get my co-stars and ray Liotta read the script. I’m a big fan, I love the guy and would love to work with him, but he wanted my role to play the hitman, which is what I was going down to Mexico to take care of someone. So basically I am out of the movie then, I could have sued them because they just replaced me with Ray Liotta, with Andy Garcia as the bad guy, Esai Morales and was going to be a really good movie. But they got rid of me and Art Camcacho and we could have sued them, but Art is like me if you start suing producers you are not going to be working. It’s crazy it wasn’t this way in the fight game. There I called the shots. I did have a manager, trainers, a sparring partner, and a team of people with me, but when push came to shove the amount of money I wanted to fight for, the date cause you have to have 2 to 2 ½ months to train those were my decisions. So you might see Don “The Dragon” Wilson starred in this movie, but I didn’t pick that art work like The Last Sentinel that I’m not even on the box and as a martial arts fan you wouldn’t even pick up the movie.
Bobby: Right, while I was a Battlestar Galactica fan, I still wasn’t all that interested in it until I realized you were in it. If I had known that I would have gotten it a long time ago.
Don: You know I do come with a disclaimer for that movie. I have told martial artists that there are movies where I will have ten fights, but with this one there is almost none. There’s a little sword stuff at the end, but it is not a martial arts movie. My agent says this is my first crossover film, like Brandon Lee did with the Crow. That was a horror action and this is a sci-fi action.
Bobby: Now on this other project, which I haven’t seen it but been hearing a lot about it, is The Liberator.
Don: The Liberator isn’t actually a movie. This is the first time I have ever done this, but it’s what’s called a TV Presentation, which what they do is make like a 20 minute movie that shows the characters and tone and they show it to the TV producers and if it gets green lit it gets a pilot. Then they will make the pilot and if it gets good Nielsen Ratings then it will get a series. All the other actors in it were TV actors, you know Peta Wilson was La Femme Nikita, Ed Asner, Michael Dorn from Star Trek, and Lou Ferigno who was the Hulk. So they were all TV people, but I am not. I will probably help sell it for him with my name and I would love it if it got picked up, but I was really just an actor for hire and come in and did what they asked me to do.
Bobby: There has been a lot of buzz about it but didn’t seem like too many people knew what it really was.
Don: They are going to try and make a TV thing, but if it does not work I told them to get me a script and maybe we can get this thing funded and make this into a movie. It’s meant to be PG-13 and not taken too seriously with guys running around in super hero costumes. It’s like the Fantastic Four or Avengers it’s not realistic. I fly all over the place and so does Lou.
Bobby: Well talking about this possible TV series have you ever thought about doing a TV series during your career?
Don: I’ve been offered TV series and turned them down. I was offered a series from Aaron Spelling and now thinking back, what an idiot I was a big mistake, but at the time they offered me the series Chuck Norris had not done Walker and no one had done anything successful with martial arts in TV since the Kung Fu series and I thought they would air a few, it would fail and be my fault and I would be out of the business. I wanted to do the movies so said no to my own TV series. Recently within the last 10 years I have been offered numerous TV series. Some overseas but the dynamics of it just haven’t worked out yet, meaning the money, timing, the role, the character, producer, just has not worked out. But it could happen.
Bobby: That would be awesome. Well you have another venue outside of the movie business with your clothing line now as well correct?
Don: That was actually started by my brother. Traditionz is the answer to, and I don’t mean this in a negative way to Tap Out or Affliction, but they offer a certain kind of product to a certain audience and that product and audience is not the traditional martial artist. There are millions of traditional martial artists that don’t have their own brand that gives honor and respect to the top quality styles and we do. We have Tae Kwon Do, Karate, Kung Fu, we basically have traditional martial arts shirts in an updated version in the highest quality possible and they are made right here in LA. Eventually we may have to go overseas to get them made, but the best quality is still American made and we make ours right here in LA.
Bobby: That’s cool to hear. I enjoy watching MMA, but as a traditional martial artist I feel that MMA has killed a lot of traditional aspects.
Don: You know Bruce Lee used to call traditional stuff Classical garbage. He was an MMA guy and always said to study everything, but what he didn’t do was throw out the honor, discipline, and philosophy of traditional martial arts. He took a lot of the fighting and training habits and said that’s not practical they have to be thrown and move they look like robots out there. Now what’s happening is these guys are showing up in the gym with their nose rings and tattoos and saying teach me to beat people up. There’s no honor, discipline or respect, all of the life lessons that are taught in the traditional martial arts. Traditional martial arts would take a gang member and by the time they got a black belt they would have turned their life around. That’s what Chuck Norris did with his Kick Drugs out of America. I’m not saying I do not respect the fighting arts; you can’t call yourself a martial artist unless you can fight, but don’t throw out all the other valuable aspects of traditional martial arts. We need to be open to mixing the arts and do all the things MMA brings to the table, but you can’t throw out all the other aspects of traditional martial arts. Speaking of the fighting, I have a fight offer in Istanbul; I am going to announce it now. I am flying there later this month to make the announcement if everything goes well. Now this will be a kickboxing match, not MMA. I did to an MMA exhibition in Kazakhstan a year ago, but at my age I don’t know about doing a brand new sport. Kickboxing I got down pretty well and if they don’t give me a killer I will be all right.
Bobby: That will be awesome I can’t wait to check it out. I just want to thank you again for taking the time for this interview, it was a great honor.
Don: It was my pleasure.
If for some crazy reason you have never checked out one of Wilson’s movies then it is high time for you to remedy that mistake. With over 40 movies in his career including the Bloodfist, Ring of Fire, and CyberTracker series there is sure to be something to peak your interest.
For more information on his TraditionZ clothing line head on over to http://traditionz.us/