Like most martial artists of my generation, I dreamt of being the next Bruce Lee–or in my case, the “white Bruce Lee.” The difference is I went out and did something about it. As a result, I’ve actually performed in a dozen or so films (yes, I use that term loosely).
The first chop-socky flick I ever did was called “Low Blow” and featured none other than a pre-Tae Bo Billy Blanks. He and I went out to Stockton, California, together to work on a project with a lunch budget that rarely went above the peanut butter and jelly sandwich level. Regardless, I did have fun with Billy. We worked out, gave a local seminar and I even ended up lending him some cash when he ran out. Today, as I watch him prevaricate about both his age and commitment to family values while playing the devout Christian card in the name of exploiting foolhardy consumers and celebrities alike, I have only one thing to say: Billy Blanks owes me $150.
Over the ensuing years, I did manage to move, well, laterally, I guess. All the movies I worked on were filmed in the metropolitan area so at least I got to sleep at home after toiling all day as a muscular, celluloid ghoul or drug dealer or security guard. One oppressively warm New York City summer day in 1987, I got the call to “act” in yet another super-low-budget classic, “Robot Holocaust.”
I had worked with the producers before: squished by a monster in “Breeders” and buried under two hours of special effects make-up as a zombie in “Necropolis: City of the Dead.” For “Robot Holocaust,” I got to work with my buddy, Fast Eddie Mallia.
Eddie and I lived in the same neighborhood and worked together as trainers at the Vertical Club. Our commutes back and forth to that bastion of 80s hedonism provided for some good memories. I remember riding the train with Fast Eddie…him busting my balls in front of the pretty girl sitting across from him. I’m in the small love-seat-looking bench, about ten feet from him. The lights go out for a second–like they do on the subway-and this gives me an idea. Eddie makes another funny comment at my expense, just as the lights go out again. I jump up move right next to him. The lights come back on and there I am, staring in his face. Eddie nearly faints and now, the pretty girl is laughing at him.
He got even on another commute home. I’m driving this time…bumper to bumper over the 59th St. Bridge. Eddie keeps pulling out my tape from the cassette player and putting in one of his own. Already moody from the traffic, I warn him: “You do it again and I’m throwing your fuckin’ tape out the fuckin’ window.”
You know he did it again, calling my bluff, I figure. Without as much as one second of hesitation, I grab the tape and toss it out the window into oncoming traffic where it’s instantly smashed under the tires of a passing car. Fast Eddie is hysterical and now I’m getting worried. It turns out he had put my tape in the player and that’s the one I just tossed to an untimely death. Fast Eddie wins…
Anyway, on the set of “Robot Holocaust,” he and I had dual roles. We played “air slaves” and robots. As air slaves, we fought to the death and that’s precisely why we were hired: we could fight and we looked good doing it in skimpy outfits. As robots, we were so thoroughly ensconced in rubber costumes, there was zero chance that any of the five people who actually ended up seeing “Robot Holocaust” would identify us as the loin-clothed gladiators who had just gotten zapped by a ray gun in the previous scene.
The air slave fight scene was filmed inside the squalid Brooklyn Navy Yard with minimal crash padding. By the time we finished the scene (garnering a long round of applause, thank you), we were covered in both dirt and bruises. After considerable complaining, we gained access to the showers, unaware that the drains were clogged and the cats kept in the building to keep rats away appropriated those same showers as their kitty pan. Within minutes, Eddie and I were in ankle-deep water with cat droppings floating by. I sensed instinctively this wasn’t how Brad Pitt got his start.
Back at the Navy Yard the next day, it was even hotter. The slightest motion initiated a gradual process of sweat drenching my frame. We donned the aforementioned rubber ensemble and there were problems: a) The costumes allowed no air inside to get inside; b) We had zero peripheral vision; c) We had to scurry up and down stairs for several takes; and d) Eddie was required to wield a real sword.
The director, who I’m sure has since found a new vocation, bellowed at us to proceed faster and look “more imposing” as we negotiated the steps, a pool of perspiration trailing behind us. This provoked more grumbling and, when our scenes were wrapped, a very odd thing transpired: the producers of “Robot Holocaust” cut us a check on the set. This was unusual as both Fast Eddie and I ordinarily pestered producers to pay us for work we did ages ago.
At that juncture, we ascertained we would not become part of their celluloid repertory company. So we headed back to Queens for a (feline-free) shower and set out to meet friends at a Van Halen concert. You can be certain our movie set anecdotes omitted any allusion to cat feces or our incessant whining (I still get queasy if someone mentions “kitty litter” and “shower” in the same sentence).
Although I did appear in one more flick afterwards, my thespian career was essentially over with “Robot Holocaust.” I made the sensible (?) choice to focus on writing. As for Fast Eddie, well, brace yourself: he became a New York City cop, posed for Playgirl (both in and out of uniform), was pressured to resign from the force, opened a bar (Fast Eddie’s-what else?), closed a bar, moved to California (twice), moved back (twice), and started his own line of athletic wear.
He was also the one of the very few friends who braved the teeming rain to hear me give a talk in Manhattan when my book, “Saving Private Power: The Hidden History of ‘The Good War,'” came out 13 years after “Robot Holocaust” was filmed. (The book is available at stores everywhere.)
As for “Robot Holocaust,” well, you can try asking for it at your local video store. Last time I checked, both Eddie and I were still pictured on the box.
Eat your heart out, Billy Blanks.