This article, written by guest writer Illmatical, is based on the writer’s 2014 interview with The Last Dragon’s Glen Eaton. It takes us on a journey about the history of martial arts movies in America, Bruce Lee and his clones, Berry Gordy, the story behind Johnny Yu, behind the scenes of The Last Dragon and of course the art of fighting without knowing how to fight…
The Art of Fighting
by Illmatical | @illmatical
In the 80s I was introduced to flying Chinese kung fu men. Mel Maron; genius, took chopsocky out of seedy theaters in Time Square and placed them in homes across America. At 3pm on Saturdays, channel 5, I met superhuman fighters who flew over walls and had skin that was impervious to blades. Fighting scenes were later re-enacted with my cousin, who promised that he would purchase figurines for me: Chinese kung fu men who could fly over the city bus.
This 80s baby still gets flashbacks on films, introduced to me the year the rock dropped. Perhaps traumatized by something on the streets more dangerous than Shonuff’s glow; I revisit scenes, crystallized in my mind. There was an old samurai film, where a blind child practices clasping a falling sword in the rain; still trying to remember the name of that one. There were enough ninja movies, even a weekly television series: The Master, starring Lee Van Cleef. He introduced America to way of the ninja; Ronald Duncan never got over that.
The Master with Lee Van Cleef
The Bruce Lee Imitators
Through rentals on VHS, came my introduction to the clones: A pantheon of Bruce Lee imitators. Truthfully, before I ever watched a Bruce Lee film, I was introduced to his clones. Their names vaguely resembled his, with a slight variation. Despite their bad acting and mediocre fighting ability on camera, collectively they’d help the martial arts community and Bruce’s fans cope with his untimely death; kinda sorta continuing his legacy. Each clone had some dragon in him.
Through the haze of flying Chinese kung fu men, a period of my life when I was running through the alley with Kevin Scott, a title stayed with me: They Call Me Bruce, featuring Korean actor, Johnny Yune. In the satirical film, Yune’s character stuck his chest out, intimating to suckers, punks and gangsters that he had dragon on reserve.
They Call Me Bruce
While America met Yune’s version of Bruce, another clone was birthed in California. His dragon was acquired through hours of imitating the flying Chinese kung men of film and TV. He had mastered the art of fighting; without knowing how to fight. He introduced his dragon to small audiences at home and to thugs in the streets. Performances leaving his audience entertained or befuddled. All of this stylized with: A little move, a little scream and lots of attitude.
Pursuing his dreams, this clone took his dragon to Motown, making his debut in the 1985, martial arts entertainment classic: The Last Dragon.
I study Glen Eaton‘s face momentarily, he says he is fifty three; looks a decade younger, radiating an aura of contentment. While speaking of flying Chinese kung fu men, without any coercion on my end, he’d periodically re-enact fight scenes from movies, complemented with sound effects and a barrage of punches to invisible opponents. Glen got that dragon yo.
He explained that when he was still honing his dragon, he’d prefer to be on the receiving end of a vicious play fighting beating, this provided him with more creative expression and freedom to perform. Play fighting allowed his dragon to fly.
“As a kid, my brother was my inspiration, he was four years older than me. He’s very imaginative, he was always very playful. After watching Kung Fu with David Carradine on TV, after we watch it, that night or the next day, we’d get bored and he’d say ‘Hey let’s play Kung Fu! You play Caine and I play the cowboys.’ We’d do the whole thing, the fake fighting. Fake fighting was my favorite thing. We’d do that for hours” said Glen.
Kung Fu the series, featured Caine the wandering Chinese monk, set in mid 19th century America. Caine laid down railroad tracks with his brethren; every episode introducing his fists to a newer Wyatt Earp or William H. Bonney. Glen followed Caine through the desert, until the arrival of the most pivotal martial arts film in America.
“At the time, Kung Fu was on TV and that was the only place you could see martial arts. You had about two fight scenes, Five Fingers of Death comes out and there is fighting through the whole picture… We weren’t use to that and it felt like fighting from beginning to the end” said Glen.
Five Fingers of Death introduced America to a film narrative perpetually emulated by the martial arts entertainment genre: A young protagonist who struggles with his confidence, mastery of a secret fighting style, redemption, rescue of a female love interest and menacing villains. It was Five Fingers of Death that introduced The Last Dragon to The Glow; a visual effect at the climax of the film, when the protagonist has realized his power.
Five Fingers of Death was word on the street; until Bruce Lee arrived.
“And then Bruce Lee came out with Fists of Fury. After I saw that, I saw Five Fingers of Death again and it bored the heck out of me” said Glen.
Think of martial arts entertainment from an evolutionary standpoint, envision the scale: Kung Fu the series as the primate; Five Fingers of Death as the more evolved caveman with a spear in his hand, but still hunched over; Bruce Lee was man standing upright: Walking, strutting and jiving.
“He was the first good guy hero I had ever seen who was so scary when he started fighting, you were afraid for the bad guys, they were the victims” explained Glen. “Bruce Lee inspired: Fight fire with fire! If you’re faced with death, if someone is going to hurt you or your family, you can’t play the Gandhi role. He was the first guy that looked like death itself when you’re fighting this guy.”
How Glen Eaton Landed the Role of Johnny Yu
After hours of play fighting and imitation, Glen was ready to deliver his performance to the world.
The year was 1983, Berry Gordy had a vision; Glen Eaton had a dream. Gordy envisioned a martial arts musical masterpiece, fusing fantasy with a pop music soundtrack as he did with The Wiz. The Last Dragon would be grander, as epic as the Star Wars franchise.
Before the streets took him, I built with Leo O’brien in Harlem. He recalled first meeting Gordy. “He’s got this young Japanese chick with hair past her ass, she has her leg on him…”
The woman with hair past her ass, was Glen’s sister; according to him, she didn’t know who Gordy was when she met him.
“She told me this guy she’s going out with is Berry Gordy, she found out he was the creator of Motown… She was determined to set up a meeting with me and him… She believed in my talent. ‘I think you guys would hit it off. Tell him the stories, when you almost get into fights and fake your way out of it by pretending you know martial arts.'”
Glen told one such story, that went like this:
“I went to a Low Rider dance, it was a block away from my house and this little kid was pushing these big guys around. They were being cool about it, and I thought ‘If that kid pushes me, I’m gonna push him back!’ I don’t know what’s wrong with these guys. After the dance, I’m walking out and he shoves me in the back and I turned around… I shoved him as hard as I could. He flew and he got up and he looked surprised, he just ran back in the place. I said ‘You see, that’s how you deal with it!’ I started walking down the street. All of the sudden, I hear these footsteps coming, I turn around and it is him and these three other guys.”
Thinking to himself he said “Oh that’s why they didn’t bother him when he was pushing them, he’s got a gang with him… Shit, I gotta get out of this one.”
Glen practiced his kicks on a nearby tree, combining each strike with an emphatic sound effect. As he was surrounded, he spoke with a voice, best described as a deep superhero tone, saying “Alright! It will be one at a time.”
“You know martial arts man? You know karate?” they asked.
“I’ve learned a little” Glen replied.
“Oh we don’t want no problems man!”
The gang left. His dragon had them shook. He had mastered the art of fighting, without knowing how to fight.
After sharing his stories with Gordy, who was amused; that or Glen’s sister had bomb ass pussy, he told Glen to write a story based on his experiences and create a character. After a week of trying to formulate a story for his dragon, Glen was stumped. Gordy then created the Johnny Yu name and backstory of him being a student of Bruce Leroy, the protagonist in The Last Dragon. He was no doubt influenced by Glen’s stories, but more likely liberating from Johnny Yune, in name and his character in They Call Me Bruce.
The Last Dragon Behind the Scenes
A year later, Glen found himself auditioning at Berry Gordy’s home. Producer Suzanne de Passe, a fight choreographer and Mr. Motown looked on.
“They were all sitting there… I sparred with this girl, we came up with a routine, she kicked me and I flied. I was doing the whole Johnny Yu act… At one point, halfway through the audition, Berry stopped me and said ‘What are you doing? Where are the kicks?’ I started kicking and I was happy he said that, anything to improve the audition.”
Glen’s dragon was raw, the production team realized this during his performance. However, they were impressed by his attitude and humility; without question, he accepted the critique of this performance. “That shows a lesson, when ever someone touches your buttons, pushes your ego, it is not a time to be embarrassed or stand up for yourself, it is a time to listen” said Glen.
The right mentality cemented his role in the film; shot in New York City. Glen was on the set for two months, Gordy kept writing in scenes for Glen’s character to appear during different stages of the movie. Had it not been for Gordy’s influence, and his sister’s bomb ass pussy, he would have only appeared in one scene.
Michael Schultz is credited as the director of The Last Dragon; truthfully, it was Gordy’s vision which made the film a success. “Michael Schultz in my opinion, from what I see, he is doing the best he can as a director, but when I watch Berry, he is a director.”
Glen intimated that Michael Schultz kept to himself and he related more to Gordy. I’ll speculate: There may have been some tension between Glen and Schultz on the set. Initially, Schultz didn’t believe in Glen’s dragon. Regardless, Gordy believed in him and this provided the confidence he needed.
Louis Venosta, was the writer who created the original script for The Last Dragon. While on set, Glen remembered Venosta being extremely quiet, “I could tell there was a fire beneath that quietness… as humble as he was and as nice as he seemed, I felt that he’s very convicted to his work, that’s why he’s there, because he wants to see it materialize as he envisioned it.” I’ll speculate: Venosta’s fire was forged by his anger. Gordy wrote a character into the film, that was not included in the original vision. He didn’t want Bruce Leroy’s character to pay homage to Bruce Lee, he wanted a Black clone; serious and intimidating.
Life on the set was monotonous. Glen was more interested in the streets of New York City. After shooting for the day, he’d walk through Time Square, tracing the footsteps of his idol, James Dean.
He shared an apartment with Taimak, the protagonist in the film; a strategic move by Gordy, hoping that the two young men would bond. Unfortunately, they didn’t develop a relationship beyond the set. Glen recalls Taimak’s demeanor “I thought he was too easy going… he seemed pretty confident and happy. I don’t know what was going on inside of him, he covered it well.”
Taimak was cool no doubt, due to the reassurance of Gordy and the fact that he was playing a role he was familiar with. He was a martial artist guy, but the guy playing the main villain in the film wasn’t.
Julius J. Carry III
Julius Carry was soul on ice, with a solid acting foundation. Glen reflected on Carry saying “I could relate to him immediately… He’s like a guy from the streets. Down to earth, just a real person.”
Although he didn’t get to know Julius well, there was a memorable exchange:
“We’re sitting there in the office after rehearsal, he looked exhausted and he looked mad.
He said ‘Man, I’m pretty ticked off.’
I said ‘What’s going on?’
‘I got all these bruises from those sticks, I’m exhausted… man I ain’t no martial artist, I’m an actor!’
‘What are you going to do now?’
‘I’m going to Burger King!”
Following his death in 2008, a Chicago Tribune article noted Carry’s successful career in acting, spanning three decades. Sho’nuff, started out with roles in Hamlet and The West Side Story while in high school.
Denise “Vanity” Matthews
Julius Carey, actor.
Berry Gordy, director.
Taimak, martial artist.
Denise Matthews, star.
According to the October, 1984 People’s Magazine, she had been romantically involved with Prince; he wanted her to be in Purple Rain and purify herself in the waters of Lake Minnetonka; He wanted her to sing in his girl band and call herself “Vagina,” she probably had bomb ass pussy; they settled on “Vanity.” She later obtained a record contract with Motown and starred in several B films. Denise Matthews arrived on the set of The Last Dragon with celebrity swag.
“The first time I met her… I personally wasn’t impressed because of her star like presence. She’s very pretty. The feeling I got, she’s been around some important people. She’s very confident at this level. I wasn’t, I wasn’t admiring her, I was respecting that confidence that she had” said Glen.
Despite the overwhelming talent around him, Glen had his dragon and his wasn’t intimidated; he was read to glow. He recalls his most memorable moment on the set “I was playing chess with my sister, on the big battle at the end, I did those two kicks and that was the end of my shoot for the day, I had nothing else to do. Berry came up to me and said ‘What are you doing?'”
Glen replied “I’m playing chess, and I’m winning!”
Gordy furious responded saying “I don’t care about that, you should be practicing the scene! Working on something, get a stuntman!'”
“I can do that?”
“Of course you can!”
“I grab a couple of stuntmen, we went in the back office, found some nun-chucks; started choreographing the scene you see in the end with the nun-chucks. I broke the first ones… had one more left, I had to save it for the camera, it took me about 15 – 20 minutes. Berry is standing at the end of the corridor.”
“I say ‘Damn, what’s his problem?'”
Gordy asks “What are you doing?”
“You said for me to practice!”
“You should be practicing out here, where for the director to see you!”
It was showtime in front of Gordy, Schultz, cast and crew. Glen’s dragon came through with style.
The art of fighting, without knowing how to fight: In full effect.
“The whole place roared. I looked at Berry and he said ‘That’s the last time I ask you anything!”
In 1985, the Last Dragon made its premier. It was a success within the African American community, taking several years for the film to develop a cult following; surpassing ethnic and racial boundaries.
Glen admits that his early success may have hindered his development as an actor. He took his dragon for granted. “More negative than a positive… Faith Prince, Julius Carey, they had worked their craft, if you work your craft, success is a beautiful thing. I didn’t know my craft.”
It would take more than a role as Johnny Yu, to solidify himself as an actor. He’d have to get serious about his acting; over the years he’s worked on his craft, taking roles in independent films. These days, the art of fighting is more than a clone with a dragon.
“As an actor now, I’m different. I’ve changed a lot” said Glen.
The Next Chapter
In 2015, The Last Dragon is celebrating its 30th anniversary with screenings across the country, Glen didn’t realize the impact the of film and its fan base, until a decade ago. “About ten years ago, I was working at a job, an employee had friends who saw the The Last Dragon…. they said that it is a cult movie… after a while, I started to realize there are a lot of people who like that picture.”
When watching The Last Dragon, you would have never known that Glen was neither a seasoned actor or martial artist. That’s how good his performance was. So what, Johnny Yu was a clone of a clone. Glen’s dragon was an essential ingredient to the films’ success; an energetic performance, laced with glimpses of a generations’ fallen hero.
Word on the street is that there may be a Last Dragon sequel, if there is, Glen has to be in it, play fighting and all. I’m not so sure about born again Denise Matthews. As far as she is concerned, I’ll settle for a Vanity clone; bomb ass pussy and all.
Clarke Illmatical is a writer from Queens, NY. He is the creator, director and writer of the martial arts fantasy fiction story MASTERNEVER AND THE FLOW OF DEATH. In addition to writing for The Last Dragon Tribute; his work has appeared in The Amsterdam News, Norwood News, CLOUT magazine, Kung Fu Cinema and The Streets Are Saying Things. Twitter: @
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- 11 Homages to Bruce Lee in Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon
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