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Always the wicked laowai - mafioso, magnate, spy

TYPECAST actor Jon Benn is always the wicked laowai in many Chinese movies, but he's best known as the mafia boss in Bruce Lee's cult classic "Way of the Dragon." The easy-going nice guy tells Sam Riley about the road to villainy.

Veteran American actor Jon Benn has appeared in more than 45 movies and 12 Chinese TV series, but he is best remembered for just one role.

Benn was the menacing mafia boss in Bruce Lee's 1972 cult classic kung fu movie "Way of the Dragon" and this part-time acting gig seems to be his claim to fame.

"It is amazing that every day someone recognizes me almost 40 years later. Girls will come up and say, 'Weren't you in a movie with Bruce Lee?' I met lots of girls that way," says the 69-year-old bachelor.

The movie is famous for its final fight scene, the so-called "fight of the century," in which a young Chuck Norris and Bruce Lee battle it out in Rome's Colosseum.

Benn's cocktail party conversation with legendry Hong Kong producer Raymond Chow led to the role and a friendship with the kung fu legend. He was paid HK$2,000 (US$258) for a week of filming. Despite being the villainous, cigar-smoking laowai in many films, it is rare for Chinese audiences to have heard his voice: It was dubbed, as he doesn't speak Mandarin.

"I didn't even know who Bruce Lee was at the time. I had just arrived in Hong Kong but he turned out to be a really nice guy and a friend," says Benn. "Bruce and his family used to come to my beach house on Lantau Island to go swimming. He was the strongest guy I ever met, he was only 1.74 meters tall and weighed 67 kilograms, but he did a one-inch punch on me and I flew back 1.5 meters."

Benn has spent more than 38 years in Asia, first in Hong Kong and then in Shanghai for the last eight years. Here he is a semi-retired consultant to the food and beverage industry.

But his life of adventure began in New York where he was born. Two years later the family moved to America's midwest and Benn left home at 17 for San Francisco, went to Mexico to study Spanish. He would later run an English-language program on Mexican radio before the media was nationalized.

The walls of his study in Shanghai are covered with pictures of Benn with international celebrities and Asian stars, including beauties Gong Li and Shu Qi and kung fu star Jackie Chan.

One black-and-white picture, however, stands out. It shows a 21-year-old Benn, decked out in a white tuxedo jacket, with 1950s blond bombshell Jayne Mansfield on his arm.

The Playboy pinup and all-American girl next door actually lived across the road from him in Beverley Hills and came to his first wedding, where the picture was taken. She was just getting started.

"She used our swimming pool with her husband, Mickey Hargitay, who was Mr Universe. He would pick her up in one hand and spin her around. She was a beautiful girl."

Mansfield died in a car crash in 1967. She was just 34.

It was in Mexico that Benn got his first acting role. He was riding with friends through the Sierra Madre Mountains looking for dinosaur bones when they came across a film set.

"We happened upon Yul Brunner when he was making the "Magnificent Seven" and Eli Wallach needed three more horsemen in his posse, so we got the job," he says.

Benn went on to snare a gig as an extra in the John Huston's "Night of the Iguana," starring Ava Gardner and Richard Burton. The film made the Mexican town of Puerto Vallarta famous: Elizabeth Taylor arrived and began a scandalous affair with Burton.

After this early foray into acting, Benn returned to San Francisco and started small businesses, including a chain of 24 kiosks in shopping malls that sold small home wares.

He also began a six-shop franchise, the "World's Wurst Sandwich and Sausage."

In the early 1970s, Benn sold up and moved to Hong Kong, saying he did it because he wanted to see the Orient where all those kiosk products were made.

He traveled throughout Asia, including South Korea, Australia and Borneo.

In Hong Kong he opened three Spanish tapas restaurants, some of the first in Asia, The Rickshaw Club jazz bar and later the Bruce Lee Cafe and Museum. The museum drew hoards of visitors and Benn was made a Goodwill Ambassador for Hong Kong.

He also worked as an assistant to Terence Young, who directed the Bond classics "Dr No," "From Russia with Love" and "Thunderball," all starring Sean Connery. He traveled to Europe with Young to buy films for distribution in Asia.

While we are chatting about his time in Hong Kong, Benn reaches into the draw of his desk and pulls out a little old battered black address book. Yellowed pages fall out as he flips through; a gnarled finger traces the names.

"Charles Bronson, Richard Burton, Yul Brunner, Candice Bergen, Sean Connery; Marcello 3452 is his phone number," Benn says as he rattles off names.

He flicks a few more pages.

"Rex Harrison, Rita Hayworth, Hugh Hefner, I stayed a night in the Playboy Mansion, the grotto was full of girls in their bikinis."

As he thumbs another page, one wonders where the reality stops, and the performance starts for this old stager - still, it is great theater.

Another picture of Benn shows him smoking a cigar, which became his trademark in movies. Underneath it is a list of his interests: "Fine food, fine drink, fine clothes and pretty women." Despite approaching 70, does he still chase the finer things in life?

"There ain't nothing else," he replies with a wink.

Jon Benn

Nationality: American


Profession: Actor/semi-retired food and beverage consultant


Description of self:

Happy go lucky.

Favorite place: Malone's in Thumb Plaza in Pudong because I helped bring together the people behind it.

Strangest sight:

A woman walking down Nanjing Road with a snake around her neck. I didn't ask why, I just stepped aside.

Worse experience:

Riding my bike at six in the morning and getting knocked over by a bus that ran a red light. It missed me by centimeters and scared the hell out of me.

Motto for life: Never give up.

How to improve Shanghai:

Bring on more electric bikes and get those gas-powered scooters off the roads.

Advice to newcomers:

Learn the language.


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