Sammo Hung (born in 1952 as Hung Kam-bo) might be a familiar face if you watched CBS in the nineties, but is probably a stranger to most of us. If you like Jackie Chan or Hong Kong kung fu films, you’d better read on, because Sammo was a pivotal part of their rise.
Born in Hong Kong to two film costumers, Sammo entered the world with a film pedigree of some note. His grandmother was Szu-Ying Chien, whom you may recognize from In the Mood For Love and who was a martial artist in her own right. His grandfather was Hung Chung-ho, who directed a number of Cantonese-language films in the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s. Sammo was pegged for martial arts early, and began attending the China Drama Academy (of the Peking Opera Schools) at the age of nine. It was at this school where he developed a friendly rivalry with another student who was known at the time by his student name as Yuen Lo – this Yuen Lo would later be known to most audiences as Jackie Chan.
Sammo worked as a child actor in numerous films during his time in school. He was then selected by a teacher to work as a stuntman on a film at the age of 14. He would share his wages with younger students in his group, who saw him as an older brother. Unfortunately, Sammo was seriously injured right before he graduated school at the age of 16, and was bedridden for some time, which directly led to Sammo gaining a significant amount of weight.
After Hung recovered from his injuries, he went right back to his on-set work, and would have more than thirty wuxia films under his belt by the age of twenty-two. His roles in the film world were numerous, and he would work behind the camera just as frequently as in front of it. He found a particular niche in fight choreography, with the discipline he took in his work being making him attractive to directors. During Sammo’s prolific period of work in the 70’s, he was featured as an actor in the memorable opening sequence of Enter the Dragon, where he goes toe-to-toe with Bruce Lee.
In the late 70’s, trends began to shy away from serious, Mandarin-language martial arts films, and comedic, Cantonese-language martial arts films began to rise in popularity – Hung and his contemporary Jackie Chan were pivotal figures in this new movement. Hung’s directorial debut (in which he also had the starring role) was The Iron Fisted Monk. It featured a comedic tone and unique choreography, and helped launch an entire genre. Hung’s career seemed poised for a meteoric rise.
Sammo would work frequently with Jackie Chan, along with several others of their China Drama Academy classmates. As they moved into the 80’s, their work gained a more recognizably modern flavor. Instead of highly-choreographed and strictly staged fights, fights became more frenetic and surprising, and included a great deal more one-on-one fights than the group fights of the past. It was also in the 80’s when Hung’s career took a somewhat bizarre turn, as he helped create the jiangshi genre of martial arts films. A jiangshi, or “hopping zombie” is a reanimated corpse, typically dressed in the official raiments of the Qing dynasty. These monsters quite literally hop around with outstretched arms, seeking human energy on which to feed. Hung also helped relaunch the female-led martial arts film, and his film Yes, Madam helped introduce Michelle Yeoh to the world.
Though the 70’s and 80’s were gold for Sammo’s career, his star began to fade in the 90’s, as Jackie Chan began to corner the Western market for martial arts movies. Hung’s career stalled in part because of his non-athletic physique – Hung embraced his look, however, and deliberately got unflattering haircuts to solidify a character-actor persona. He worked on a handful of films with Chan in the 90’s, including directing the 1997 film Mr. Nice Guy, and continued to act in a great deal of Hong Kong films. His stature, however, was seemingly diminished.
But not if the good folks at CBS had anything to say about it! In need of a program that appealed to young boys for its Saturday night block, producers reached out to Jackie Chan about a show based on his film Police Story 3. Chan declined, so CBS moved on to his colleague, Sammo Hung. Hung leapt on the opportunity, and filming began immediately of a new, martial arts focused show. Telling the story of a Chinese cop, newly arrived in the United States, Martial Law became a surprise hit, drawing an average of eleven million viewers. Hung had some difficulty with the demands of American-Canadian television, in part because he was not confident in his English-speaking skills.
Although the first season of Martial Law was well-received, the show’s production costs had quickly ballooned out of control, and new producers were brought on for season two. The first season was canonically ignored, with a cliffhanger from the previous season’s final episode waved away with a line or two. Hung was frustrated by a lack of control over the story, and with out-of-control costs, the show was quietly canceled after its second season (but not before a crossover episode with Walker, Texas Ranger).
Sammo has not stopped adding to his exhaustive filmography. He acted as the fight choreographer for Ip Man and Ip Man 2, and was given the Lifetime Achievement Award at the New York Asian Film Festival in 2010.
Sammo’s presence onscreen is engaging and charming, even as he’s kicking ass or receiving an ass-kicking. Check out this fight from The Millionaire’s Express, where he was both star and stunt coordinator.