On June 29, 2013, Jim Kelly — martial artist, tennis enthusiast and action-film star — died of cancer. Kelly, of course, was renowned for his portrayal of Williams in the 1973 Bruce Lee blockbuster Enter the Dragon. It was an association he never grew tired of.
Three years before his passing, Kelly was in San Diego, scouting locations for a tennis center he wanted to open. Through connections at the San Diego Asian Film Foundation, I arranged a meeting. I was surprised when Kelly said he’d heard of me. Perhaps it was because of my martial arts writing, my acting work in Taiwan or my chi healing. In any case, I devoted a few minutes to eliminating a bit of chronic joint pain he said he’d been suffering, then struck up a fascinating conversation about his life in the martial arts.
Jim Kelly appeared on the cover of the October/November 2013 issue of Black Belt.
When I asked him what it had been like as a black man working in the Hong Kong film industry, he flashed a knowing grin. “That is a very good question — I’m surprised more people don’t ask it,” Jim Kelly said. “But I know where you are coming from because you worked over there in the 1970s. You’ve been there and experienced it. Most people don’t know what it was like. The thing is, basically, I never had a problem except one time. There was one actor on the set of The Tattoo Connection (aka Black Belt Jones 2, 1978) who gave me trouble — he didn’t want to be touched by me.
“We were doing a fight scene, and this actor complained to the director that I was blocking too hard. I was just doing routine blocks, but he still complained. I was doing my blocks as light as I could — I couldn’t do them any lighter or it would have made the fight look weak and fake. You need some contact in order to react.
Jim Kelly poses in a scene from Black Belt Jones. (Photo Courtesy of Warner Bros.)
“The main problem from this was that now I couldn’t trust him. He had real good kicks, so I really had to be aware during the fight scenes and be attuned because of course he tried to hit me. The fights were almost real, as I knew he was trying to take me out, but now I was ready for it. But then I was not allowed to touch him. So that was a challenge.”
Succumbing to the temptation that afflicted all who interviewed Jim Kelly, I asked if he could share a few memorable moments from his time with Bruce Lee. After a contemplative stare, he nodded.
“Basically, just sitting down between takes when we’d talk about life, philosophy and the struggles of being black and being Asian in America,” Kelly said.
Jim Kelly performs with Gloria Hendry in Black Belt Jones. (Photo Courtesy of Warner Bros.)
After he elaborated, I directed the interview back to his martial arts interactions with Bruce Lee.
“He asked me once while training, ‘Jim, who taught you that backfist and jab? I mean, man, you do it so fast!’ I told him Gordon Doversola taught me.”
Kelly smirked, then continued. “I found out later that Bruce had also taken classes from him, so he knew and recognized the way I did the backfist. When we did a bit of training together, Bruce said that if he was to train me, none of the fighters going around at the time would ever have beaten me.
“I asked him, ‘You even mean so-and-so and so-and-so?’ And Bruce said, ‘Yes, they would not have been able to touch you.’”
A moment later, Kelly finished his thought: “But he didn’t live long enough. It never came to pass.”
Two years after Jim Kelly’s death, I’m retelling this story of our meeting in an effort to honor the man who inspired so many in the martial arts. Having walked the earth just 67 years, he didn’t live long enough, either.