It’s hard to believe but there was a time in the mid to late 1980’s when probably the best known and most prolific cinematic Ninja in the world was an American actor named Richard Harrison, who’d previously plowed his trade in everything from Sword & Sandal epics, Spaghetti Westerns, Euro Crime & Euro-spy thrillers and Vietnam men on a mission movies.
They call him the Great White Ninja!
By Mike Leeder
Born in Utah’s Salt Lake City in 1936, Harrison made the movie to Los Angeles aged 17 finding work as a personal trainer at the Vic Tanny & Bert Goodrich gyms, where many people from both in front and behind the camera used to train, his many encounters with them lead Harrison to begin studying acting himself. And in 1961, he married Loretta Nicholson, daughter of American International Pictures Co-Chief James H Nicolson.
Among his early appearances as a bit-player for 20th Century Fox, saw him make an appearance in the opening sequences of the musical South Pacific, alongside another man who would become known as a martial arts hero , Billy Jack himself Tom Laughlin, and Ron Ely who would become internationally known for playing Tarzan in a series of movies in the 1960’s. But it was signing a contract for AIP, which lead him to Italy, where he stayed for nearly 30 years appearing in various Sword & Sandal movies alongside Brad Harris & Steve Reeves, Euro-Spy thrillers and Spaghetti Westerns.
Among his best known films from this period are Alberto De Martino’s The Invincible Gladiator, and the western Gunfight at Red Sands, directed by Ricardo Blasco in 1963. This was the first Italian Western to feature a score by Ennio Morricone, and it was shortly after this was released that Harrison made what he himself has joked about being his ‘greatest contribution to cinema’ when he turned down Director Sergio Leone’s offer to star in a little movie called A Fistful of Dollars, and recommended a certain Clint Eastwood for the role.
Antonio Margheriti’s Vengeance/Joko Invoca Dio I Muori is another favourite among Spaghetti Western fans, while Harrison’s first real Euro-Spy thriller Secret Agent Fireball, and its sequel Killers are Challenged, are probably two of the best in the genre and most certainly rank amongst Harrison’s most notable works. Harrison was a popular and highly prolific leading man during this period, and Italian actor Bruno Piergentili was given the screen name of Dan Harrison, to cash in on Richard’s success.
As the 70’s began, Harrison began showing up in more and more films of varying qualities shot around the world, from Egypt where he shot the memorably titled You Can Do A Lot with 7 Women! To Hong Kong where he worked for the legendary Shaw Brothers on both Marco Polo/The Four Assassins and The Boxer Rebellion, and where he first made acquaintance of a soon to be director named Godfrey Ho. During this period he made a classic Spaghetti Western comedy Due Fratelli/Two brothers in Trinity, which saw him and another veteran of Italian B-films Donald O’Brien trying to walk in the footsteps of Bud Spencer & Terrence Hill and emulate the success of My Name is Trinity.
But some of his output in this period started to become increasingly dubious, such as Joe D’Amato’s Acthung! The Desert Tiger which cut and paste scenes from various WW2 movies and freshly shot prison camp and torture scenes. As well as Black Gold Dossier which was sold on Harrison & Gordon Mitchell’s presence and the fact the female lead Florence Cayrol spends most of the film without much of her clothing. There was also Voodoo Baby, a sexploitation thriller that then had hardcore scenes added to the film before release
While Harrison would team with Bruce Lee clone Bruce Le (Huang Kin-lung) for the highly entertaining if utterly bonkers Gymkata Killer aka Challenge of the Tiger, which sees Harrison & Le, battle bad guys including Bolo Yeung & Hwang Jan-lee around the world, while Harrison romances pretty much every female character he encounters. Harrison is introduced in a has to be seen to be believed sequence, where he plays tennis in slow motion against several topless women…a scene Harrison would later admit to having thought of and directed in one of his interviews for the book Gods in Spandex: A B-Movie Survivor’s Guide.
The early 80’s saw Harrison in the Philippines making a number of movies for Producer K.Y.Lim, and directors Teddy Page and John Gale. The 5 films have become cult favourites for many viewers, Fireback, Hunter’s Crossing and Blood Debts directed by Page, and John Gale’s Intrusion Cambodia and Rescue Team. Shot on at times quite obviously painfully low budgets, the films are a mad mix of Vietnam war action, some very brutal violence and some seemingly Ed Wood inspired moments when it comes to some of the dramatic scenes. What’s interesting is that in both books Gods in Spandex and Gods in Polyester, Harrison expresses his extreme distaste for the majority of these projects, complaining about how bad the scripts were, while then in a subsequent interview stating that he in-fact wrote some of the screenplays. (Harrison’s recollections in both books are well worth reading as it would appear that very few of the films he made or his film-making experience seemed to measure up to his level of professionalism, while commenting on every female he encounters seemingly wanting to spend the night with him).
Now the mid 1980’s star in the movies that made his name with martial arts and cult movie fans, while at the same time these are the movies that Harrison claims destroyed his career. He was contacted by his former Shaw Brothers interpreter and colleague Godfrey Ho, now working as a Director for Producer Joseph Lai’s IFD Films and Arts, to appear in shall we say a series of movies? Now if one is to believe Mr. Harrison, he thought he was in making only one or two movies and was unaware that the seemingly random scenes and sequences he shot which didn’t connect with the other sequences he had shot, and in which his appearance can change quite considerably and were shot over a somewhat more extended time than perhaps he likes to remember. These sequences would be cut into over 25 movies produced by Godfrey Ho & Joseph Lai, including such classics as Majestic Thunderbolt, Scorpion Thunderbolt, Ninja Thunderbolt, Ninja Terminator, Hitman the Cobra, Diamond Ninja Force, and so much more.
Now according to Joseph Lai, Godfrey Ho, and various crew members and supporting cast from these movies, Harrison was in Hong Kong for several extended periods of time over close to two years perhaps longer, accompanied by his second wife Maria Francesca who would appear in several of the IFD movies including Ninja Terminator, and would work for a few hours a day for 3 days a week shooting various sequences for various movies. These scenes would serve as material for everything from action movies like Majestic Thunderbolt through the countless Ninja movies, and just by watching these movies you can see Harrison’s appearance and hairstyles etc change considerably, which confirms that it wasn’t a single shooting period.
Now perhaps Harrison wasn’t fully aware of just how many films he was making or going to be spliced into, but he was being paid quite handsomely, with both he and his wife being flown in, their living and daily expenses also being taken care of, and treated as the stars of the show. But there was a falling out between Harrison & IFD Films, when it was revealed that while in Hong Kong on an IFD paid shoot, he was also making a movie for their former partner turned rival Producer Thomas Tang and his Filmark Company. (The original trio of Joseph Lai, Thomas Tang & Godfrey Ho may have split, but they continued to have their offices in the Garley Building on Nathan Road some floors apart, until the fire that claimed Tang’s life in the mid 90’s.) This according to rumors lead to IFD reporting Harrison’s earnings to the Hong Kong Inland Revenue and it was after this that Harrison left Hong Kong, and began to claim he had been exploited. In various interviews, Harrison speaks of not realizing how many films he was headlining (this I can kind of believe, although other claims that he thought all of the unrelated scenes which were shot over such an extended period were in his mind destined for only one or two movies seems a little unbelievable), that he didn’t think any of these films were going to be released (hmm just like the Filipino movies he was happy to get paid for with such terrible scripts, that he often wrote?), and that he was confronted by various distributors who felt he had betrayed them by misleading them with his appearances as the supposed star of all these movies.
Now I’ve spoken to various IFD cast and crew over the years including Joseph Lai and Godfrey Ho who have been quite open about the way things were handled, and that Harrison was in Hong Kong for several extended periods shooting his various scenes, and there is a part of me that wonders if its the fact that Harrison fell out with them and then later realized just how well distributed these movies were, and that perhaps he felt entitled to a larger slice of the pie?
We are not trying to claim that all the IFD movies are high art although I do think that Ninja Terminator could be held up against Citizen Kane, if only Orson Welles had added Ninjas, steamed crabs, toy robots and more ninjas – instead of a damn sledge! BUT these films are some of the most entertaining and highly enjoyable, and they introduced Richard Harrison to several generations of film fans who have since been able to explore your career after being introduced to you in these Hong Kong movies.
Mr. Richard Harrison, this is an open invitation: The Neon Grindhouse team would love to interview you and hear your side of the story, your thoughts on the numerous Hong Kong films you starred in, your memories of the Bruce Le project and IFD films – there are fans all around the globe who want to know more about you and your thoughts on this fascinating period in film history. Click here to get in touch!
Mike Leeder has been based out of Hong Kong since 1990, working both infront and behind the camera working on various local and international projects including Jet Li’s Fearless, Jackie Chan’s Rsh Hour 3 & Kung Fu Yoga, The Raid 2, Man of Tai Chi, Helios, Ultimate Justice and many more.