Everyone that grew up on the action movies of the 80s and 90s knows who Al Leong is. Even the normies that aren’t cinephiles like all of us at least recognize him as one of those guys they’ve seen in that one movie. He might not be a household name, but he’s been able to leave his mark in movies.

He’s arguably one of the most infamous henchmen that action heroes had to fight. That also means, although menacing, he’s died many times too.

“I think I am hired to die because they’ve seen me on another show and said, ‘We wanna bring this guy in. I like the way this guy dies'”

Al Leong was born Albert Leong on September 30, 1952 in St. Louis, Missouri. He’s also known as Al “Ka Bong” Leong and Mahomey Bruce (both pretty badass nicknames). He was the youngest of three children. Both of his parents were Chinese-American and owned a Chinese laundry. His father worked all the time and Leong spent his formative years in the back of the laundry.

In 1962, his family packed up and moved the family and business to Los Angeles. As well as spending time at the family laundry, Leong wanted to stay out of trouble. He wanted to stay away from the same problems that many youths got into. So Leong made the decision to keep himself active and busy. One of those activities was learning martial arts.

Leong was quickly hooked on learning and practising the arts in junior high and continued as he attended Hollywood High School. His martial arts training started at Ark Yuey Wong’s dojo. He studied under kung fu pioneer Grandmaster Ark Yuey Wong, hence the dojo name. They referred to him as “Old Man.” From across the room, he would yell at Leong if his movies were not right and correct him.

“And when I thought [Master Wong] wasn’t watching, he would yell across the floor, ‘No!’ Then from behind, he’d pull my shoulders in line, shove a knee in my back to straighten it, hook his instep around my ankle to correct my foot position, then pivot around in front of me to adjust my hands.”

Al Leong, Master Ark Yuey Wong, and Doug Wong

Leong got too obsessed with learning the craft and perfecting it, he would sometimes train six or seven days a week. He wouldn’t change to a new move until he perfected the one he was working on. Soon he was going from learning one move at a time to as many as possible. Finally, the student had become the master. Leong would start teaching at the very dojo that he had learned his craft at.

After high school, Leong took classes at LA Trade Tech (LATTC) learning about another passion of his, motorcycles. It was another way for him to hone his eye and hand coordination as well and help him keep fit and in shape. He wanted to learn everything about motorcycles, from putting them together and pulling them apart, to riding them.

Because of that passion, Leong opened up his own body shop. His detailed work of custom paintings of cars and motorcycles was highly sought after. He kept this going, working all the time until he had to eventually close up shop, about a year’s time. The toxic chemicals that Leong dealt with on a constant basis took a toll on him and this was before OSHA got a say of what was dangerously toxic to people.

Although Leong then moved away from running his body shop, a door was opened for him from the work at the shop that he did for others. His custom work on motorcycles was one thing, but he also did work on stunt equipment. He got to know people that worked in the entertainment business. After a friend of a friend told him to come to check out the set of a movie he was working on, Leong looked into making a switch in his career.

He went to Warner Bros. Studio and put in an application to basically do anything as a job on the lot. The studio was hot at the time and incredibly busy, so Leong was hired for the job of a grip. One of the hardest jobs on the set of movies. Grips are the technicians who build equipment that support the cameras used in movies. This includes tripods, tracks, cranes, dollies and any other camera rig that might be needed for the movie. Basically, they do all the work and never get their due until the end credits that most people don’t read.

Leong’s work ethic was strong and he did work hard at everything that he put his mind to. Being a grip on movies was no different. Being on the set of movies and working behind the cameras was a great learning experience and Leong knew that. He kept his head down, did his job and was excited for the opportunity that he had. However, he didn’t expect to be anything more than a grip, working hard behind the scenes.

One day, on the set of some low-budget movie, Leong was approached by the director and asked for his help. The director was having issues with a fight scene with some actresses. He wanted Leong to help with the choreography between them. He gladly helped with the and then the director asked him to do the actual fight scene. Little did Leong know, this was going to be the start of his film career as Hollywood’s most notorious henchman.

“I started out as a grip. And then the director said, ‘Do you know any martial arts?’, and I said, ‘Yes I do.’ ‘Will you teach these four girls something?’ I said, ‘Yes, I would,’ and when it came to shooting it, he said, ‘Why don’t you get up there with them?’ I had no idea I was going to be in front of a camera. I was just working as a grip and that’s what I thought I was going to be doing for I don’t know how many years.”

He became the guy that producers went to when they needed someone with martial arts moves. He started out getting work on some of the biggest TV shows of the 80s. He worked on some of the best shows of the time, The Greatest American Hero, Knight Rider, Magnum P.I., The A-Team and Simon & Simon.

Although he did start out early in some movies, such as the first segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie titled Time Out (that has issues all on its own), he mostly just worked on shows for a period of time. He did eventually start getting more roles in movies. His first “Henchman” role was in Running Scared, the 1986 buddy cop movie with Billy Crystal and Gregory Hines, I’ve talked about it before.

That same year Leong worked with John Carpenter for the first time in the classic action movie, Big Trouble in Little China. Carpenter saw Leong on the set of the movie and asked him about being in it. This was a big help for Leong as a stuntman and for getting roles. By joining the cast, he not only met the stunt coordinator and the other stunt people but the actors as well. He would continue to work with Carpenter throughout his career in They Live and Escape from L.A. and the two became lifelong friends.

Arguably his first breakout performance came in the form of Endo, who torchers Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon. Interesting enough, he also has a small uncredited part in Lethal Weapon 4, but not as Endo of course, because Gibson broke his neck in the movie. Maybe it’s Endo’s twin brother? That idea is sadly money left on the table.

Lethal Weapon isn’t the only Christmas movie that Leong was in. He was also in Die Hard, where he played a candy bar stealing henchman working for Hans Gruber. One could argue that his role in these two movies are Leong’s most notable because we love to watch them every year during the Christmas season and he’s pretty iconic with that Fu Manchu.

Endo

He also gave life to Genghis Khan in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. I would say it seems underrated these days, but I don’t think it’s a great movie. It’s good and all (the sequel is better), but it holds no nostalgic value to me. For the time, I’d argue this was probably the most mainstream movie that Leong was in and he does a great job. How was a sitcom never made of that? Oh, wait… there was.

One of Leong’s greatest regrets in his career was not being able to work with action hero Sylvester Stallone. In fact, Leong was supposed to have a big part in the 80s action movie Cobra. Unfortunately, an Asian group didn’t like the idea of an Asian villain and so they protested the movie. This caused Leong to be removed from the movie. Once again progressivism rears its ugly head. Leong had another chance to work with Stallone on Rambo III, but he was already working on Die Hard, so he wasn’t able to. Maybe we can talk Stallone into working something out with Leong in Expendables 4 or something.

“I am very angry about that. I’ve always wanted to work with Stallone and I was supposed to work on Rambo III, I think it was. I was doing Die Hard and they were paying me very good money. And they could only use us for two weeks and since they were paying us, they said, ‘No you can’t go’, cause I had to fly to England. So I got stopped twice. But that movie with Stallone, I would have loved that, to have a fight with him somewhere.”

Making his way in Hollywood was a challenge, but Leong made it look easy with his talents. However, his biggest challenges in life were yet to come. Leong had started getting headaches often, something that he wasn’t used to happening. Soon after, he started to get blurred vision. He went to his doctor to see what the problem was and his doctor immediately had him see an oncology specialist, Dr. Solomon Hamburg.

The doctors discovered that Leong had stage-3 brain cancer, the tumor was at the base of Al’s brain. Stage-3 cancer is also known as “locally advanced cancer.” It’s at this stage that the tumor can grow in size, consist of multiple tumors and/or the cancer may have spread to adjacent lymph nodes, organs or tissue. Basically, it’s the stage not long before the end.

In this case, Leong’s tumor was inoperable and he was given a 50/50 chance of surviving. Chemotherapy and radiation treatment were the only chance that Leong had at surviving. It’s a combination that is rarely used, except on these extreme occasions. Leong was often at Cedars Sinai Hospital in Beverly Hills for over a year working on the treatments.

He suffered debilitating effects from the chemo, constantly nauseous, losing weight and his hair that he was known for. When it came to the radiation therapy, Leong had to lay on a bed with his head in a custom hood, to keep it from moving. This way, the radiation was shot directly in the same spot into his skull, at the tumor continuously. The doctors told him that had he not been in peak physical shape, he wouldn’t have survived either the cancer or the treatments.

Although the treatments saved Leong’s life, on the other side of the coin, they caused other serious health problems for the henchman. He ended having his right eardrum taken out and a salivary gland. On top of this, he suffered from shingles and infections in his throat and stomach.

It was during this time that Leong had many dark thoughts, about death and why it was him that this happened to. He was always healthy and in shape. He never smoked, drank or did drugs in his life. He thought about if he had done something wrong that caused this to happen or was it just random chance.

He lived his life clean, so it hardly seems like it was any fault of his own. I believe God never gives us more than we can handle and Leong is such a badass that not even cancer or the treatments to fight it could kill him.

After the gruelling treatments at the hospital, Leong worked hard to build himself back up. Finally, he was able to do just about everything he could do beforehand. It was all thanks to his dedication and martial arts training. It wasn’t long before he was back working in the industry that he loved, as a performer and choreographer. Handing out punches and kicks just as before.

Leong was lucky enough to work with the late Brandon Lee, the son of Bruce Lee. The two went toe to toe in a showdown of Rapid Fire (Now that is an underrated action movie). This was Leong’s return and triumph over cancer. He worked with Jeff Imada, the stunt coordinator and Lee for the movie.

Rapid Fire

As if Leong hadn’t achieved enough by this point, he also write, produced and directed his own movie, titled Daddy, Tell Me a Story. However, he ran into a few production issues and later recut the movie, retitling it as Scarecrow’s Dream. This was mostly due to an actor dropping out and without him, the movie couldn’t be finished as it was going to be. Once again this shows the drive that Leong has. He never gave up, after all, cancer couldn’t defeat him, an unfinished movie wasn’t going to either.

Despite his hard work and dedication to his craft, life wasn’t yet done throwing punches at the master of martial arts. In September 2005, after finishing his daily workout and doing some work on the computer, Leong went to get up and couldn’t move. He sat there until his wife came home and found him, just sitting there, basically frozen in place. An ambulance came and took him to the hospital. On the way, the EMTs told Leong he suffered a major stroke.

The stroke caused Leong to lose the use of his right arm. He also limps on his right side now, which is his dominant side. His mental capacity was lowered, which means he thinks slower now than most people. His lungs fill up with fluid sometimes and once a year when he has to go in and have the right artery in his neck drained of congestion. Of course, this didn’t stop him. He had to learn to walk and talk again. He also learned how to write left-handed.

Leong has dealt with a lot, especially in his later years and again, as if he hadn’t achieved enough, in 2008 he wrote a book titled The Eight Lives of Al ‘Ka-Bong’ Leong. I was hoping to read it before writing this, but I couldn’t find it for sale anywhere on the internet. I checked my local library, but they said no library in the state has it.

Al Leong and Timon Singh

Although he’s not acting like he once was, in 2015 he was in Awesome Asian Bad Guys. A tribute to the Asian bad guys from the 80s and 90s. There’s also Henchman: The Al Leong Story that was made in 2018 and released semi-recently on Amazon Prime Video. I haven’t watched it yet, but I would like to.

Al Leong has had a storied career in the film industry. He was never a lead actor, but I also don’t think he cared to be, as he’s said himself, he’s not an actor, he’s a stuntman. Better yet, he’s a henchman, arguably the most well-known one in film history. He has fought some of the greatest action heroes of our time and has made a name for himself doing so.

Leong is a badass, plain and simple. He leads his life as all of us should and has overcome many obstacles in doing so. I must say, we have to chalk this one up to the henchmen in Hollywood.

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