Bob Wall, martial arts master who fought with Bruce Lee, dies at 82

Bob Wall, a martial arts master who, with quick entrepreneurship and even lighter fists, helped propel disciplines like karate, aikido and Brazilian jiu-jitsu into the American mainstream, in making friends and sharing the screen with Bruce Lee and Chuck. Norris, died Jan. 30 in Los Angeles. He was 82 years old.

His wife, Lillian Wall, confirmed the death but did not provide a cause.

To the millions of devoted fans of 1970s martial arts films, Mr. Wall was best known for his role in the 1973 film “Enter the Dragon,” in which, as rogue O’Hara, he torments a vengeful undercover agent named Lee, played by Mr. Lee.

At 6ft 1in, with a tuft of hair and a messy beard, Mr. Wall towered over the lean, tiny Mr. Lee, who in the film nonetheless overpowers his opponent by knocking him to the ground and crushing his chest. It’s an indelible macabre moment and a stark contrast to the close bond the two men shared in real life.

They met in 1963 at a kung fu demonstration in Los Angeles’ Chinatown, where Mr Wall had withstood the instructor’s blows without dropping his beer.

“At that point, reality made me realize that I missed that guy’s demo, so I started walking towards the door.” Mr. Wall recalled in a 2011 interview. “I saw this tough-looking guy walking towards me, so I said, ‘This guy, I’m going to time it,’ and he came up to me and said, ‘Hey, that was funny . I’m Bruce Lee!”

They ended up talking in the parking lot for three hours.

Mr. Lee was still an unknown martial arts instructor in Oakland and, like Mr. Wall, was drawn to the budding Los Angeles combat sports scene. Mr. Wall was a student of another instructor, Mr. Norris, an Air Force veteran and martial arts champion.

The three became fast friends, and in 1967 Mr. Wall and Mr. Norris went into business together, running a series of studios in the San Fernando Valley, a part of Los Angeles that, two decades later, would serve as the setting for “The Karate Kid”. .”

Martial arts was a male-only field at the time, fought without padding and produced more than a few broken noses and cracked teeth. But entrepreneurs like Mr. Wall saw an opportunity to make studios more professional and user-friendly. Through manuals and seminars he held across the country, he taught thousands of aspiring senseis how to run a dojo.

“There were a lot of people who would open a school and start teaching, and everything would fall into place or not,” said Roy Kurban, a taekwondo champion who was inspired by Mr Wall to open his own studio in Fort Worth. in a telephone interview. “He built a business system.”

Mr. Lee, meanwhile, had begun his rise to global stardom. An appearance at the 1964 International Karate Championships in Long Beach, where he demonstrated signature moves like two-finger push-up and the one inch punchled to his casting as Kato, the sidekick of 1960s TV show “The Green Hornet” and later a series of movie offers.

Martial arts films were huge in Asia but still largely unknown in the United States. Mr. Lee decided to change that, in part by incorporating roles for black and white actors, including Mr. Wall, who won a role alongside Mr. Norris in the first of Mr. Lee’s major films to be released. in America, “The Way”. of the Dragon” (1972).

Mr. Wall could take a hit, which put him in a good position with Mr. Lee, who insisted on doing his own stunts and refused to pull punches during fight scenes. Mr. Wall recalled that before he started filming “Enter the Dragon”, Mr. Lee said to him, “Bob, I want to hit you, and I want to hit you hard.”

Even the broken bottles that character O’Hara brandishes at character Lee were real – which posed a problem when Mr. Lee, a perfectionist, insisted on shooting this part of the scene nine times, with Mr. Wall falling back several times. repeated on fragments. of glass. At another point, Mr. Lee kicked Mr. Wall so hard he flew into a row of extras, breaking a man’s arm.

“It’s one thing to get hit that hard once or twice, but try it eight times in a row,” Wall said. “Let me tell you, about the fourth time, you know what’s coming, you’re going to get busted really hard, and you just have to say, ‘Hey, I’m here to make a job. Make it real.'”

This commitment to fighting the truth has paid off. “Enter the Dragon,” made for just $850,000 (about $5.3 million today), grossed $350 million worldwide (about $2.2 billion today), this which makes it one of the highest-grossing films of all time. It helped make martial arts an indelible part of American pop culture.

But Mr. Lee could not enjoy the success. He died, aged 32, just before the start of the film, from an undiagnosed swelling in his brain. By then he had started filming “Game of Death”, starring a famous fight scene with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. (The movie, in which Mr. Wall also played a rolewas released in 1978.) And he was planning even more movies, including at least one with a lead role for Mr. Wall, who was to play a sidekick to Mr. Lee’s hero, a CIA agent.

“Hey Bob,” Mr. Wall recalled saying it a few weeks before his death, “you’ll be a good guy in the next one!”

Robert Alan Wall was born on August 22, 1939 in San Jose, California. His father, Ray Wall, worked in construction; his mother, Reva (Wingo) Wall, was a nurse.

He was drawn to the martial arts as a young teenager who had suffered beatings from his abusive, alcoholic father. He wrestled in high school and at what is now San José State University, from where he left without graduating to join the military. After his release, he moved to Los Angeles to begin his martial arts training under Mr. Norris.

Mr. Wall held an advanced black belt in several disciplines and regularly placed first or second in competitions across the country in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

After Mr. Lee’s death, he worked as a fight coordinator on several martial arts films, including “Black Belt Jones” (1974), featuring one of his proteges, Jim Kelly, one of first black karate champions. He has also given private lessons to celebrities, including Steve McQueen and Elvis Presley.

By the mid-1970s, Mr. Norris had decided to pursue acting full-time, and he and Mr. Wall sold their business in 1975. Mr. Wall turned to real estate, launching a second career as a residential and commercial developer.

He did not, however, leave the world of martial arts. Besides writing books and teaching seminars, he had a long, very public fight with Steven Seagal, another martial arts expert turned action star.

In a series of interviews in the mid-1980s, Mr. Seagal, who had taught aikido in Japan, insulted American martial arts, and Mr. Norris in particular. In response, Mr. Wall challenged him to a fight, though they never came to blows, and eventually they succeeded. But Mr. Wall refused to watch Mr. Seagal’s films.

Mr. Wall also remained a close friend of Mr. Norris. He had small roles in several of his films and in the television series “Walker, Texas Ranger”, which starred Mr. Norris and ran from 1993 to 2001.

It was just the right amount of fame for Mr. Wall.

“I’m famous enough that people who know martial arts or Bruce Lee movies know me,” he said. “But I’m not so famous that I can’t walk down the street. I can walk in and out of a restaurant. I don’t lose my privacy.

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