Stirling Silliphant wrote in detail about their meeting and the events that followed: Bruce had a school in the Chinese center of Los Angeles. It was very low profile, with no exterior signs. You had to know its location in advance and you had to be invited; you couldn’t just walk in off the street. So first I had to track Bruce down. Eventually, I called Bill Dozier, the producer of The Green Hornet, which by that time had already gone off the air. He put me in touch with someone who knew where he was.
I called him and said, ‘I’ve been looking for you for three months; I want to study with you.’
Bruce said, ‘Well, I don’t really teach; I only have one or two private students.’ Aside from Steve McQueen and maybe one or two others, Bruce wasn’t into teaching
privately. In order to discourage Hollywood dilettantes he charged $250 an hour. He wanted to make the cost of lessons prohibitive so that whoever took one would damn well concentrate on the business in hand. He didn’t charge these prices just for the sake of charging, but to place value on his instruction. It was an Asian attitude, a way of showing that the lesson has worth and the fee is merely the token of this, not the point of it.
I recall the moment of my first meeting with Bruce above all others. He arrived at my office at Columbia Pictures on Gower Street like the winds around the outside of a hurricane. At the time I was about fifty, but not flabby; I was in pretty good shape but nothing like the condition I was later to achieve after three years training with him. Bruce asked how old I was. When I told him he was appalled, even though he added, grudgingly, that I didn’t look that old. He said he didn’t know if he wanted to teach anyone that old, it seemed pointless. But then he added that it wasn’t unusual for people in China to begin training in martial arts at the age of sixty and said that it would depend on my speed and reflexes.
So he brought out a catcher’s mitt.
He said, ‘I’m going to hold this out. Hit it as hard as you can.’
So I did. I used all my boxing knowledge, torqued my hips and gave it my best shot. ‘Man, that sure wouldn’t hurt anyone, would it?’ was his response.
So I tried again.
‘I will say that you’ve got speed and your reflexes are good,’ he conceded. ‘But I have to tell you, you could hit someone and they wouldn’t even know it. I can tell we’ve got a lot of work to do with you.’
Even so, he agreed to start instructing me, but I think it was because of my enthusiasm more than anything else.
The first time I went to Bruce’s house in Culver City there were some people from his downtown studio; they were nearly all young Chinese. The entire practice session was devoted to timing. Bruce wanted to determine how long it would take for each of us, from a given instant, to close the gap to a heavy bag and land what he considered an effective kick. He wanted to see what we would have done in a real situation. The difference in timing among us all was amazing. I found, to my ego’s delight, that of everyone there, even though I was twenty or thirty years older than those downtown dudes, I had the fastest time.
I often went to his house in Culver City; at this point we were working out three or four times a week. No matter how hard I worked, how much I exercised, how much I sparred, or how much I ran, I never stopped aching. I mean, there were times when I woke up in the morning and wished I was dead, so overwhelming and total was the pain from every aching muscle. I remember arriving at Bruce’s house one day and being unable to get out of my car. When I started to move my leg to get out, the pain exploded through my whole body. That’s how wracked-up I was from these workouts.
Bruce finally came out and said, ‘What are you sitting there for?’ I said, ‘I can’t move, I ache too much.’
He pulled the car door open and said, ‘Get out!’
Well, when you’re dealing with a master you get out fast, because you know that if you don’t he’s going to pull you out and it’s going to hurt even more. So, painfully, I pulled myself out of the car.
Bruce then said, ‘You know, in ten minutes you’re going to feel great. What you’re doing is like diving into a cold ocean with a wet suit on. There’s that first shock of cold, then everything warms up. The first minute you test all of your muscles, they’re going to hurt. After that you’ll feel better.’
He was right, of course.
I found his training methods fascinating. His methods changed with every lesson he taught. They weren’t structured, always spontaneous and improvisational. The first thing he did with me was concentrate on body movement and ‘bridging the gap’, the relationship between you and your opponent. Then we started on the hand movements. He wanted to introduce me to the historic background on the use of hands, wrists and arms. Bruce always said that the leg is the more powerful weapon, but the one who can punch best will win.
He taught me the wing chun sticking hands technique and we did that blindfold. Joe Hyams and I found it fascinating that when we were blindfolded and followed Bruce’s instructions, we felt the power of this defense. It was almost impossible for anyone to force his way through to the target, into your face or body. The more he forced, the more you reached him. The sticking hands help a weaker person to nullify an attack by a stronger person. If you are really good at it, it’s almost impenetrable, extremely difficult for an opponent to land a blow above the waist, which in turn might force the opponent into a low-line attack, for which you’re prepared.
Bruce taught me to dissect time into infinite degrees. It’s what he called playing between the keys of the piano. It’s the understanding that you actually have worlds of time within seconds to do something unanticipated while your opponent is already committed to his announced [telegraphed] action. Almost to the point where the fist is at the tip of your nose, there’s still time to react. The only thing that can defeat you is lack of understanding and appropriate movement based on this principle. You must do a helluva lot of work to arrive at this stage of cool thinking. But if you can attain it, you won’t be defeated just because an opponent is bigger, stronger or meaner, only if he thinks in the way you do.
Bruce and I were working out in his garage one day. He had a few friends from Hong Kong there who were exponents of sticking hands. Bruce wanted to see what I could do with these guys. So we put on soft gloves, because he wanted us to spar full contact, and he disallowed any kicking. So we went at it. By that time I had been with Bruce for nearly two years and I found it embarrassingly easy to hit these guys, to the point where I did so at will. I was hitting each opponent continually in the face, and I wasn’t being hit myself. Bruce told me later that both of his friends had been disgraced, but he was so proud of having taught me. I won because of the spontaneous reaction [contact reflex] that he’d instilled in me instinctive, spontaneous reaction
without conscious thought.
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