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Profile | UNLIKELIEST LEADING MAN

Wham! Bam! Sammo!

September 20, 1998|JUDITH MICHAELSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Consider Sammo Hung.

At a glance, he is the unlikeliest of television leading men: short and squat, standing 5 feet 7, weighing 220 pounds, and with a waistline that is somewhere in the neighborhood of his age, which is 46.

Catch him on the set of CBS' "Martial Law" as he intently watches an assistant director choreograph moves at a Los Angeles boxing club and, with hands across his stomach, Hung presents the image of a contemplative Buddha.

Oh, and his primary language is not English. While Hung understands English far better than he can yet express without benefit of a script, he speaks the Cantonese of his native Hong Kong, where he spent the bulk of his professional life as movie actor, director, producer and world-renowned martial-arts artist. He's also fluent in Mandarin, which he acquired during a harsh boyhood and adolescence at a Beijing Opera School in Hong Kong, where he learned acrobatics, gymnastics, mime and acting.

And yet there is something about Hung, as he makes this transition from Asian superstar to American TV actor that is, as a police officer says of his character Sammo Law, "pretty damn impressive." Hung has charisma.

On "Martial Law," billed as a "comedy action-drama," Law (a common Chinese surname), who is from from Shanghai, joins forces with the Los Angeles Police Dept. to catch the leader of an international car-theft ring and find Law's young protege, Chen Pei Pei (Kelly Hu), who had gone undercover. To his new partners (played by Tammy Lauren and Louis Mandylor), Law is described as "the top cop in a country of 1.2 billion people [and] senior training officer for all of China in hand-to-hand combat and martial arts."

With a wide array of jumps, kicks, somersaults and dives through car windows, plus the ability and acuity to use handy objects such as a chalk-filled eraser, a garbage can or a hospital gurney to overcome opponents, Hung certainly grabs attention. He also can do it while stark still. In an early scene in the first episode, he's sitting on his suitcase at LAX, waiting to be picked up, then realizes no one is showing up. The emotions on his face tell all.

"I like Sammo, the character, because he is very strict Chinese, the best policeman in China," Hung says during a break. "He's a little bit like me. Whatever I do, when I'm working, I'm very serious. But after, I will play, I am funny."

While he talks, either a translator or his half-Anglo wife Mina, a former Hong Kong actress who is his dialogue coach, sits in. Hung says he likes the conflict between "two different cultures. In America, there are so many human rights, right? In China, not really. Whenever I want to get you, I think, 'I am going to get you.' Sammo is not really over-democratic."

But his character is not mean. Law possesses a strong sense of justice, and when he does something a bit over the line, like slapping the soles of a suspect's feet with a shoe, it's only for a moment, and he winks.

As for being an unlikely leading man, Hung smiles: "I never think about my face. I actually just care about what I'm doing--my voice and my character. I don't care about, 'Am I fat? Am I ugly?' . . . Whatever I do--action, acting--I do my best."

His face bears a deep scar, running from the side of his nose to the top of his lip, the result of being slashed with a cracked soda bottle in a street fight with what he said were "gangsters" when he was 16. "Everything open, my nose and my mouth." He points to his eye, then his neck, and shakes his head. "Lucky," he says.

In the 30 years since, Hung made his own mark with 140 movies, going "one step, one step, one step" from stuntman to stunt choreographer, actor, leading man, director. He fought opposite Bruce Lee at the start of "Enter the Dragon" (1973). "Close Encounters of the Spooky Kind" (1981), which Hung directed and starred in, established his reputation as a master of horror kung-fu comedy. His latest film was last year's "Mr. Nice Guy," done in English, directing Jackie Chan.

Bi-continental, with homes in Hong Kong, New Jersey and Los Angeles, Hung had intended to focus on directing--until "Martial Law" beckoned.

The series arose about as fast as a good karate chop. In March, with other networks making pilots on martial arts themes--none got picked up--CBS Television President Les Moonves met with director Stanley Tong, who made three hit movies with Chan. "He liked the tone," said Tong, one of the series' three executive producers. "The humor was in the fights. It's not about violence."

Within 24 hours, executive producer Carlton Cuse, creator of "Nash Bridges," said he was asked to write a pilot script. But Hung was not the lead they had in mind. Tong revealed that Chan was first choice, but he declined because he felt he couldn't work as quickly on executing martial-arts moves as TV production demands.

So Cuse had to do "a crash 36-hour rewrite to tailor it to Sammo," who "didn't exactly look like Tom Selleck." Still, there was "something very appealing in the idea of someone who looked more like the common man [and] possessed all these incredible skills."

"This is a team job," Hung says of his colleagues on "Martial Law." "Actually the one thing I really hope is that the audience--they like it. Just like with my movies. I sit in the cinema, and the audience, they clap their hands--oh, my heart is very happy."

While jokes are made in "Martial Law" of Law's girth, the likelihood is that you won't laugh at him but rather root for him. Indeed, it was Hung who suggested that when his partners first meet him and ask what he wants to drink--coffee, tea?--he replies emphatically: "Diet Coke."

"Martial Law" will air Saturdays at 9 p.m. on CBS, beginning this week.

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