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Al Martinez

He is a tiger dozing in the sun now, a predator at peace with the jungle. : A Smile on the Face of a Tiger

January 14, 1985|Al Martinez

Kim Kahana smiles more these days. He is less inclined than he once was to view the world with hair-trigger rage or, should the trigger be pulled, to bounce a head off the ceiling with a karate kick. He is a tiger dozing in the sun now, a predator at peace with the jungle. Kim Kahana, you will be pleased to know, has found happiness. That's what $5 million can do for a man.

I broached the tiger in the headquarters of his new empire on Devonshire Street, which is the Chatsworth equivalent of the Champs Elysees .

A third-grade dropout who had to steal to eat, he now presides with the ease of a Rockefeller over a corporation built from a local stunt school into a worldwide production company.

He flies regularly to the great cities of the world and dines with celebrities we only read about. The angry urchin has got it made.

Having known this oddly compelling man for years, and remembering the nature of his fury, I approached with caution. Kahana has killed twice while guarding others and once demonstrated his capacity for rage over pain by smashing against a wall until a body cast healing a broken back lay shattered in pieces on the floor.

But one could sense that something had calmed the spirit of the beast. This was a new Kahana behind his desk, a Kahana given to self-deprecating whimsy and to a personna bursting with good will. This was a prowling, snarling street kid come home at last.

Why? "Because," he replied with uncharacteristic gentleness, "I'm just having a hell of a good time."

I can't help but wonder what the new serenity will do for him. It has been rage, not joy, that has saved Kahana during some terrifying moments in his life. Rage kept him alive in the Korean War, clawing his way out of a mass grave where an enemy firing squad had buried him for dead.

And it kept him remembering the daylight, and wanting it back, when an exploding grenade blinded him for two years and left him permanently sightless in his left eye.

Rage found him routinely taunting death during 300 movies as a stunt man and honed his 5 feet 7 inches into a cobra-swift weapon of retaliation as a black belt karate expert and a bodyguard for hire.

His bones have been broken 60 times and there were those who would have given odds he would never live to know his grandchildren. "I'm a little crazy," he said to me once, and I could not disagree.

I met Kahana three years ago on the edge of a 65-foot cliff in the Santa Susana Mountains. He was teaching four students in his stunt school to rappel down the face of the cliff.

"Be afraid!" he was shouting at them. "When you stop being afraid, you're dead!"

The school, now a part of his many-faceted $5-million corporation, was the only one of its kind in the country and Kahana ran it with the precision of a drill instructor, blind in one eye and angry in the other. They called him the General.

Kahana guaranteed them no jobs, tolerated no disrespect and threw them out if he felt they were incapable of learning what he had to teach. "I can teach any dummy to jump off a building," he said to them, "but once you jump, you're on your own."

Part Hawaiian and part Japanese, he was squinty-eyed and somber that day on the edge of the cliff, full attention riveted to the safety of his students. He learned the stunt business himself "because there's not a hell of a lot else you can do when you can't read or write."

I was drawn to Kahana not only by his anger but by what seemed an effort to control the rage and to understand himself. He kept thinking back to a 1955 plane crash when he had been the only one of 33 passengers to live. He kept wondering why.

It wasn't clear the other day in Chatsworth whether Kahana either understands himself any better now or knows yet what his grand destiny might be. One could only see that the fiery rage had been damped and a new composure had taken its place.

"I don't do stunts anymore," he said in a room filled with the mementos of his daring. "Oh, I'll still roll a truck maybe or smash a hang glider into a wall, but nothing life-threatening." It wasn't meant as a joke.

Mostly he travels the world on behalf of his company, producing and directing television commercials, industrial films and educational movies. He is a respected member of the Screen Actors Guild Safety Investigating Team and is quoted often on matters regarding the industry's safety standards. The television show "60 Minutes" featured him once and so did "Good Morning America."

I asked Kahana what he had learned from success. "I don't know," he said, "but it ought to tell a lot of kids that if an illiterate like me can make it, they can, too." For a moment, the jungle cat returned, full of tension and ferocity.

"They've got to want it," he said tightly. "They've got to want it like nothing else in the world, like nothing they have ever wanted before, like nothing they will ever want again."

The moment passed. The new Kahana relaxed. "I'm having a ball," he said with a sigh, "an absolute ball." The smile on the face of the tiger seemed to say it all.

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