His rise to fame was spectacular but brief; as the lead in Berry Gordy’s deathless, runaway cult hit The Last Dragon, Taimak delivered audiences a character whose slash and burn approach to the martial arts was strangely offset by his quiet, unassuming charm. In Bruce Leroy, Taimak created an anomaly of personalities, housed in an individual who became emblematic of the contradiction to black stereotypes in film presented at the time.
The year of the film’s release, 1985, came and went. And it seemed that Taimak did, too. What should have been a meteoric rise to fame was, in fact, a quickly extinguished flame.
His new memoir is a backtracking through a life under scrutiny and a life eventually left to chance. In it, the actor and martial artist discusses his life leading up to the pivotal moment (his first starring role) which would set him on a drastically different path in life. His tumultuous life in the film’s aftermath is related with sincerity and a sort of detached calm.
“It isn’t just about ‘the business’, it’s about my life before and after The Last Dragon,” Taimak explains. “Many fans ask me so many questions that range from what type of training I do to whether or not I really caught those arrows.”
Taimak refers to one of the film’s most iconic scenes, in which his character catches flying arrows in mid-air with intense feline agility. Not only did The Last Dragon present a positive role model in a black character (unusual for a decade notoriously stereotypical of African-American film roles) but it also allowed Taimak to introduce to the world his skills as a martial arts champion, whom to date has earned black belts in up to seven different varieties of combat practices.
Taimak: The Last Dragon, his autobiography, is interestingly laid out. While it traces a linear movement from the start of his life up to his most current activities, the book is arranged salmagundi-style. There are poems, anecdotes, asides from other actors and performers, and even a recipe shoehorned in. “I thought it wouldn’t only be interesting for me to begin to look at my entire life and write it down, but it would help others from many walks of life to take my experiences and learn from them,” he says. “I’m very candid in the book and show vulnerability.”
A number of bizarre and unexpected episodes are related. Some deal with the heartbreak of show business; Taimak’s experience with signing a contract with Berry Gordy is revealing in how some business transactions in the film industry are motivated by ruthless and self-serving desires. A particularly chilling encounter with one of Gordy’s business affiliates is relayed with eye-opening detail.
Other moments are utterly random; a recipe for sweet potato pie is thrown in (“I’m great with breakfast, healthy smoothies and baking bread—and I’m working on some of my mother’s dinner recipes,” the actor reveals). And whether intentional or not, there are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments. A particularly scary relationship with a difficult and hysterical girlfriend ends many months later with Taimak shipping her off to the airport from where she sends him selfies, distraught and curled up in fetus-position.
Sometimes, the actor’s curious encounters with Hollywood life end on very strange notes, like his first—and last—trip to a Scientology centre he visits one evening. Other times, his own celebrity is misread and he finds himself in the most bizarre predicaments, like wrestling in a makeshift ring with Irish twins working a leprechaun routine.
“Funniest thing I saw was probably the first week I was in LA,” Taimak recalls of his peculiar experiences. “There were young men going out on weekends dressed like Michael Jackson and Prince, exactly like them—that was funny. And Rick James, he used to scream my name out loud when he saw me, it didn’t matter where I was… it was hilarious!”
Though much of his life’s story takes place in LA, where he would continue to pursue other acting roles, Taimak’s upbringing was split between New York and places in Europe (living in England for a spell and travelling to Italy where his father is from). Stories of hanging out with David Bowie, a family friend, and other notable European folk is warmly related with casual candor.
Since The Last Dragon is unequivocally New York in spirit (the dingy Lower East Side and Chinatown of the ‘80s is where much of the story was filmed), and is pretty much where Taimak was discovered as an actor, his memories of the city are what have especially stayed with him throughout his years as an adult.
When I was a kid you could hear music blaring in the streets coming from either people carrying a boombox or from an open window,” he says. “You don’t hear that anymore. You could rent a store in Manhattan at a reasonable cost, so there were many interesting places to shop without the heavy brand name sell; rents aren’t low anywhere in Manhattan anymore. Crime was high in New York, but the nightlife was just taking off; so many hot DJs—dancing was a must when you went out, no standing around! The artists were struggling, but the art was thriving throughout New York. Art, dance, acting, theater etc. New York is still a great place, but it’s lost a lot of its originality.
In the book, Taimak discusses his reluctance to reacquaint himself with The Last Dragon franchise once the idea has been put forth to him by an event promoter. But many of those having grown up during the ‘80s hold a special place in their hearts for a kind of film which couldn’t have been made in any other era. Fanbase demand eventually ruled out and the star agreed to, at first, a few events. Popularity of the film and the actor took off like a runaway train and it seems as though Taimak is now always on tour for special screenings of the film across the US (with notable fans like Elijah Wood turning up). There is an especial poignancy in The Last Dragon’s nostalgic appeal now, ever since the passing of one of the film’s most charismatic stars, singer-actress and Prince protégé, Vanity.
Taimak’s character Bruce Leroy may be frozen within the wistful contraptions of an ‘80s epoch, but his charm and ingenuity are arguably timeless. “I think Bruce would be using the Internet to do research about getting good discounts on flights to China,” Taimak jokes. “But he would definitely be about balance—which means he wouldn’t be a social media junkie.”
For now, the actor is continuing to develop projects and reconnecting with some fellow industry denizens in the hopes of getting some films off the ground. He’s already penned and directed a detective drama, I’ve Seen Things, and he’s looking to resurrect Bruce Leroy in a planned sequel to The Last Dragon. Some of these plans are outlined in his book, in a final chapter devoted to a proposed treatment of a possible sequel.
“In my book there are snippets from two screenplays I wrote: one is a detective story and the other a superhero story,” says the actor. “I’m putting the sequel concept first and have talked to Kerry Gordy (Berry Gordy’s son who owns the rights to The Last Dragon with Sony) about it. It’s going to take some persuading, especially with Sony, but it is possible. I think there’s something missing in martial arts films these days and I’d like to bring the passion back.”
Asked about the drive which unites both he and his onscreen character, Taimak refers to Bruce Leroy’s indomitable power known simply as “The Glow”— a supernatural energy that transforms one into a being of enlightenment and strength. “When you get that anything is possible—even the thing you think is impossible—that’s The Glow,” Taimak assures.
// Notes from the Road
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