When Black Belt asked me to draw up this list, I decided to do it right. I immediately composed a checklist of the qualities on which the TV series would be judged: creative fight choreography, stunt work and how well the two complemented each other.
To even be considered, a show needed at least one main character who regularly performed martial arts. Furthermore, it must have appeared on nationwide television and have been significant in the martial arts community when it aired.
The 12 finalists, presented here in chronological order, don't necessarily contain the best fights in TV history; it's their overall contribution to the martial arts subculture that matters.
Premise: This spy-fi British series begins with John Steed (Patrick MacNee) serving as the assistant to British agent Dr. David Keel, but Steed eventually becomes the head spy. His most best-known assistants include the stylish Cathy Gale (played by real-life judo black-belt Honor Blackman), Emma Peel (Dianna Rigg) and Tara King (Linda Thorson).
Analysis: The Avengers was the first English-language TV show to feature femme fatales kicking the butts of brutes and bums. Blackman's fights included judo flips, throws and armbars galore. Rigg, sporting a tight leather jumpsuit, attracted the attention of adolescents even though her fights were more about strange body postures than they were about pugilism. Thorson's action was the most athletic and energetic — she'd run around the sets with dramatized movements, crash through windows and wooden doors, and drop bad guys with neck chops and finger thrusts.
Trivia: The Avengers didn't employ a fight choreographer, and the series used a stunt coordinator only for a short time.
The Wild Wild West
Premise: Secret Service agents James T. West (Robert Conrad) and Artemus Gordon (Ross Martin) battle psychotic criminals who are planning to take over America — and sometimes the world.
Analysis: In one episode, Conrad would do stylized kung fu combat, and in the next, he'd do karate. After that, he might use savate, judo or boxing. In between, he could be seen wielding Hawaiian, Chinese, Japanese and medieval European weapons. His opponents spanned the spectrum, from a 400-pound gorilla and a giant pneumatic puppet to a killer with prosthetic appendages and an invisible man. Nothing was out of bounds. And if the hero had to fight four or five adversaries, the baddies attacked together, not one at a time like they do in most movies and TV shows.
The Wild Wild West was filmed during a time when most stars refused to take a punch or fall — that's why they had doubles. Yet Conrad, who was not a trained stuntman, insisted on doing everything himself, as did his fight crew: Whitey Hughes (stunt coordinator), Jimmy George, Jerry Laveroni and Dick Cangey.
Trivia: The stunts and fight scenes were mostly shot in one unedited wide-angle take. That permitted viewers to see everything and to know it was Conrad doing it all.
The Green Hornet
Premise: Six years before Bruce Lee would become the biggest name in martial arts, he wows audiences as Kato, a kung fu expert who fights crime alongside Britt Reid, aka the Green Hornet (Van Williams).
Analysis: The simple fact that the series co-starred Lee makes it worthy of inclusion here. Unfortunately, America wasn't quite ready for an Asian lead — or at least Hollywood didn't think so.
The Green Hornet gave audiences an actor who could expertly deliver punches and kicks with superhuman speed, and it all happened without fancy editing, stunt doubles or special effects. Lee delivered extended uncut fight sequences that were enhanced by adlibbed moves. At the end of a combination, he'd often effect a signature strike — usually a leaping elbow drop.
Trivia: Not only was Lee the first Asian-American to hold an American TV show together but he was also the first Asian-American actor to make the cover of TV Guide. It was the October 29 to November 4, 1966 issue.
Premise: In the 1870s, a half-Chinese/half-American Shaolin priest named Kwai Chang Caine (David Carradine) wanders the American West while fleeing agents of the Chinese emperor, who believes he's responsible for a murder. While on the lam, Caine searches for his half brother as he combats racists, bounty hunters and assassins.
Analysis: Although at times the actors looked awkward while executing their techniques, the series set new standards in fight choreography by using creative camera angles, unique audio effects and, prudently, slow motion. Flashbacks to Caine's childhood, in which he was learning kung fu at Shaolin Temple, proved a novel storytelling device.
On a philosophical level, Caine epitomized Shaolin philosophy, perhaps more so than any other character in the history of entertainment. Only as a last resort would he use his fighting skills, and even then it was to defend the downtrodden or himself. Because he wasn't about killing, audiences learned that kung fu focused on training not to fight, on healing rather than hurting.
Trivia: Kung Fu had as guest stars many actors who were or would become famous. They included Harrison Ford; William Shatner; Jodie Foster; Don Johnson; Sondra Locke; Leslie Nielsen; and John, Keith and Robert Carradine.
Premise: It's Kung Fu … ninja style! After becoming the first Occidental ninja master ever, Korean War vet John McAllister (Lee Van Cleef) breaks ninja law and returns to America to find his lost daughter (Demi Moore). That causes a fellow ninja (Sho Kosugi) to vow to kill McAllister for having abandoned the sect.
Analysis: Tapping into the 1980s ninja craze, the series featured Kosugi, who is still the most recognized name in ninja filmdom. It also took full advantage of the most familiar ninja weapons. Although most of the sword fights involved way too much flailing — like kids playing with sticks — the use of sound effects and rapid technique exchanges created the illusion of pace and power.
Trivia: The Master was the first ninja-based TV series in America.
Highlander: The Series
Premise: Four-hundred-year-old Duncan MacLeod (Adrian Paul) of the Clan MacLeod lives in modern society, but he uses an ancient katana to slice, dice and behead ne'er-do-well immortals out to become "the one."
Analysis: Six years after the success of the film Highlander, this series ran for 119 episodes. It was most notable for its sword fights, which are always challenging to choreograph because of the dangers of swinging steel, the inherently short production schedules of television and the limited talent pool from which producers can draw. Yet sword master Bob Anderson did a marvelous job of keeping the blade battles interesting and fresh.
Although much of the talent relied on low-level sword skills — at least, on camera — and slow movements, the smoothness of the techniques, the continuity of the action, the clanging of the weapons and the spray of sparks that ensued whenever steel met steel served to enthrall audiences.
Trivia: Christopher Lambert, who headlined the 1986 feature film, appeared in the pilot for the Highlander series.
Walker, Texas RangerChuck Norris In 'Walker, Texas Ranger'
Premise: A foot-slinging Texas Ranger named Cordell Walker (Chuck Norris) battles crime in the Southern United States.
Analysis: Inspired by the movie Lone Wolf McQuade (1983), Walker wound up being the most baffling TV series in U.S. history. It lasted longer than any other martial arts-based show — 196 episodes. It was panned by critics, who took potshots at Norris' acting ability. Although it featured fights that some martial arts film pundits deemed slow and repetitive, audiences loved it, as did CBS.
Week in and week out, Norris executed spinning backfists, elbow strikes, hooks, crescent kicks and back kicks. The magic didn't revolve around variety; it was about creating the next John Wayne, a tough-guy lawman who kicks from the hip.
Trivia: The fight scenes looked the way they did because they were shot one or two techniques at a time, then edited in quick succession with a sprinkling of sound effects to give the illusion of speed.
Mighty Morphin Power Rangers
Premise: Six teenagers are recruited by the alien Zordon to fight monsters sent to conquer Earth. Zordon transforms the teenagers into space-suited warriors called Power Rangers, who can conjure up huge, metallic, alter-ego animal/dinosaurs known as zords. If the zords fail to accomplish their mission, the Rangers can unite to form a giant humanoid robot called Megazord.
Analysis: Although various seasons of Mighty Morphin Power Rangers had scenes with English-speaking actors, it got its source material, rubber-costumed monsters, props and most martial arts footage from three Japanese TV series. The Japanese fights scenes were influenced by Hong Kong's high-flying "fant-Asia" action, as well as Jackie Chan's choreography from Police Story. It was an instant hit in America, where it ran for 155 episodes.
Trivia: The series launched the career of Jason David Frank, who appeared on the cover of the September 2004 issue of Black Belt and later became an MMA fighter.
Xena: Warrior Princess
Premise: Set in mythological Greece, the series follows Xena (Lucy Lawless) as she searches for her father. Using steel-slashing bewitchment and memories of her sinful past, she battles the dregs of the earth to free the innocent from the claws of injustice and tyranny.
Analysis: This Hercules: The Legendary Journeys spinoff lasted 134 episodes. It borrowed elements from the fant-Asia genre, as well as Hong Kong horror flicks, and combined them with mind-numbing, eye-popping martial arts fights. Specific influences have been traced to the movies Once Upon a Time in China, Swordsman II andBride With White Hair.
Trivia: None of Xena's stars, including Lawless, practiced the martial arts outside of what was required for the fight scenes. Stunt coordinator Peter Bell was likewise a nonpractitioner.
Premise: A secret agent named Lorne Cash (Linden Ashby) tries to thwart post-Cold War evildoers.
Analysis: The creators of Xena and Hercules injected their brand of fight choreography into this contemporary series by tapping into the spirit of old secret-agent shows like The Avengers, I-Spy and Mission: Impossible. In fact, the pilot featured cameos with stars from each of those series. Spy Game's style of combat was influenced by Jackie Chan, who's renowned for creating fights in which seemingly innocuous objects can become weapons. The stylized form of fighting seen in Spy Game has been aped by other martial arts-inspired programs, including Chaos (2000), Bionic Woman (2007) and Chuck (2007-2012).
Trivia: Spy Game served as the springboard for some of today's top talent, including Mike Gunther, who works as a stunt coordinator, writer and producer; and Chad Stahelski, who taught jeet kune do at the Inosanto Academy before becoming a stuntman, actor and director.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Premise: Exemplifying girl power, Buffy Summers (Sara Michelle Geller) takes on a variety of supernatural opponents in a high-school setting.
Analysis: Based on the horror film Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992), the series took a comedic turn and banked on the rising popularity of fant-Asia films and Jackie Chan's new fighting style as exemplified in Rumble in the Bronx. The series' 144 episodes intelligently combined the fight sensibilities of these two Hong Kong genres, and in large part it worked because of Buffy's stunt double, action-film veteran Sophia Crawford. Crawford's derring-do made Geller's character a crowd-pleaser, even in groups fights.
Trivia: The combative side of Buffy's character was inspired by the essence of Hong Kong's top female film fighters, including Michelle Khan, Cynthia Khan, Moon Lee and Oshima Yukari.
Photo Courtesy of CBS
Premise: Sammo Law (Sammo Hung), a top Shanghai cop, relocates to Los Angeles to search for a female undercover officer who's gone missing. He gets help — and comedic relief — from a partner played by Arsenio Hall.
Analysis: Executive-produced by Stanley Tong, Martial Law featured Andy Cheng (Jackie Chan's former stunt double) and showcased the fight-directing talents of Yuen Tak, Yuen Bun and Dion Lam, which pretty much says it all. It had over-the-top Hong Kong action to the max. Top-rated martial arts actors and stunt performers in Hollywood clamored to get a chance to work with Hung because they knew it was winning the ratings war for its time slot, at least during season one.
Trivia: Martial Law lasted just 44 episodes — apparently, the star and the second-season producers didn't see eye to eye. Many regard the series as the last American TV show to capture the essence of martial arts choreography.
About the author: Dr. Craig D. Reid is the author of The Ultimate Guide to Martial Arts Movies of the 1970s, which covers more than 500 fight films in its 300 pages.
The Ultimate Guide to Martial Arts Movies
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