You watched him wield a hatchet in Big Trouble in Little China, steal candy in Die Hard, and torture Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon. And while you probably never knew his name, you knew that whenever Al Leong showed up in an action movie or TV
show in the 1980s and ’90s, some poor bastard was about to meet the wrong end of a fist, foot, or scythe.
“I’ve been very lucky to have had a very fulfilling career and to have had the opportunity to make a lot of stars look very bad,” the 64-year-old admits. “I spent hours and hours training in kung fu, taekwondo, and other styles—sometimes seven days a week. I learned from a true master who never used a phony belt system.”
Leong won multiple martial arts competitions in the early ’70s, catching the eyes of casting directors who saw a new—and nastier-looking—Bruce Lee. The 5’6″ ICU in kung-fu slippers started getting calls to do stunt work and coordinate fight scenes with the top pretty boys at the time: Tom Selleck (Magnum, P.I.) and David Hasselhoff (Knight Rider).
The St. Louis native’s long career of acting, kicking, and training others has culminated in the aptly named documentary, Henchman: The Al Leong Story, out this month.
Despite his memorable on-screen battles, it was those he encountered off-screen that presented his toughest challenges. At the height of his career, Leong was hit with brain cancer. Unsurprisingly, he put a beating on the tumor. A few weeks later he had a bout with shingles. Then his wife left him and took custody of his two kids. Toss in some Rift Valley fever and E. coli, and Leong was on the ropes.
“It was a hard time, but I was far from down and out,” he said.
In 2005, Leong was again dealt a crushing blow after suffering a stroke that paralyzed his right arm. The stroke has taken away his ability to practice martial arts, but Leong sticks to a rigid regimen and remains a lethal weapon by working out and finding ways to overcome the effects of the stroke.
Each day starts with 600 situps on a Swiss ball. “I’ll break [situps] into three sets of 200, and then I work my arms. Using a 10-lb weight, I take the fingers from my paralyzed left hand and use my right hand to wrap them around it, one…by…one.”
After three sets of 50 curls and three sets of 50 knee bends, he finishes with a six-mile bike ride.
“Not bad for a cripple, huh?”