If the revered academy started giving out a Lifetime Achievement Award for Fight Films, Fred Weintraub would be the hands-down winner the first year. His filmography as a producer in the genre is unrivaled: Black Belt Jones (1974), Golden Needles (1974), The Ultimate Warrior (1978), Jaguar Lives! (1979), The Big Brawl (1980), Force: Five (1981), Gymkata (1985), The Best of the Martial Arts Films (1990), China O’Brien (1990), China O’Brien 2 (1991), The Curse of the Dragon (1993), Warrior Angels (2002) and Dream Warrior (2003), among others.
For most martial artists, however, his crowning achievement is 1973’s Enter the Dragon. Fred Weintraub recently finished dusting off his fondest memories of the film, along with his interactions with its legendary star, and committed them to paper in the form of a book titled Bruce Lee, Woodstock and Me. Black Belt conducted this interview shortly before it came out.
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Is this book your autobiography?
That’s right, but it’s not like I began it by writing about the day I was born. It’s about the 40 films I did, plus a little of my background.
How long did it take you to write it?
About 10 years ago is when I started thinking about it and writing things down. For the last two years, I really hunkered down.
Do you spend much time talking about the other martial arts movies you’ve done, or is it mostly Enter the Dragon?
There’s a little bit about Jackie Chan, who I really like. There’s more about Bruce Lee, of course. It’s divided up into a section on Bruce Lee mythology, one on how Enter the Dragon came to be, and one on the TV series Kung Fu — things nobody knows about.
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What’s your connection to Kung Fu?
I had just become an executive at Warner Bros. in their New York office. I was pitched by two young men — Ed Spielman and Howard Friedlander — a project called Kung Fu. I commissioned them $3,500 to write the script for Warner Bros. They wrote the script, and later I moved to Burbank, California. I presented the script to the studio, but Warner Bros. wouldn’t make it into a movie. I walked over to the television division and gave it to a man who later became one of my partners. He liked the idea and gave the order to get started.
At that time, I had a friend named Sy Weintraub. While I was in LA, he was taking private lessons from Bruce — along with Steve McQueen and James Coburn. One day, Sy said, “You ought to meet this Bruce Lee,” and he introduced us.
I found him to be charming, bright and very intellectual. We became good friends. When they were casting Kung Fu, I said, “I have the perfect guy” — or at least I thought he was — and I took Bruce to see Tom Kuhn. Bruce used the nunchaku and just amazed Tom.
Tom called me over and said, “Who is this guy?” I said, “He’s going to be a great action star.” He said, “Let me see what the network thinks.”
Of course, the network turned him down. They felt the time wasn’t right for an international star. Bruce did not get the part.
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What was Bruce Lee’s reaction?
Bruce went to Hong Kong. Meanwhile, I [explained a concept for a new movie] to Ted Ashley at Warner Bros. — he was taking lessons in that group and really liked Bruce — and he flipped. So I had a script written and brought it over to the foreign guys at Warner Bros., and they said they could give us a little bit of money — it wasn’t a lot, but it helped.
With the script in hand, I went to Hong Kong to have Bruce read it and talk to Raymond Chow about getting some money. Raymond was wonderful, cordial, terrific — he showed me around Hong Kong for the few weeks I was there, and we negotiated constantly about distribution rights. Toward the end, Raymond was upset. He thought of Bruce as his kid and wanted to keep him in Hong Kong. I can’t blame the guy, but Bruce wanted a bigger market. He wanted to be a star; he had it in him.
The last night I was there, it looked like the deal was falling through. We went to a Japanese restaurant — at that time, you couldn’t walk the street with Bruce without having 500 people follow you — and sat down. I took my last shot, then looked at Bruce and said, “I’m sorry but you’re not going to be an international star, but I know you’re going to be a great star here.”
Bruce said, “What do you mean?”
I looked at Raymond and said: “We can’t make a deal. Raymond wants too much territory, and I’ve given him three more [territories] than what Warner Bros. has OK’d. You’ll be great here.”
Bruce looked at Raymond and said, “Make the deal.” That night, I made the deal, and Raymond didn’t like it. He ended up putting in a certain amount of money — I think he paid Bruce a hundred grand, also.
So without that final command from Bruce Lee, there wouldn’t have been an Enter the Dragon.
That’s right. By the way, it was called Blood and Steel at that time. It was only later when Bruce started seeing it get put together that he said he wanted it to be called Enter the Dragon. I said, “Bruce, that’s a title for a kids’ movie.” So he called Ted Ashley, and Ted said to give it to him if he wanted it. In this case, Bruce was completely right and I was completely wrong.
Before Bruce Lee and Enter the Dragon came along, every small town in America had a beauty parlor and a church. After Bruce, every small town also had a karate school. What karate school doesn’t have a photo of Bruce on the wall?
I’ve noticed that it’s the same in other countries, too.
Until about five years ago, in countries like India, Enter the Dragon was still one of the most popular pictures. Considering what it cost to make, it’s one of the most profitable pictures of all time. It made so much money the studio even had to pay me. (laughs)
Do you consider Enter the Dragon your best work?
Every film is your best work. Every film you make you think is good when you read the script. You never know how they’re going to turn out, though, because it’s such a collaborative art.
Do you still get questions and requests for interviews about Bruce Lee and Enter the Dragon?
All the time — but I don’t always answer them. Shannon Lee is there to keep the legend alive. She does a good job. But I think he’d be kept alive anyway.
For more information about Fred Weintraub, go here. Bruce Lee, Woodstock and Me is available online and in bookstores.
For information about the Bruce Lee Foundation, visit bruceleefoundation.org.