Gene LeBell, the colorful judo champion, wrestler and stuntman who trained Bruce Lee, fought Elvis Presley and John Wayne in the movies and was an inspiration for Brad Pitt’s character in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, has died. He was 89.
LeBell died in his sleep early Tuesday morning at his home in Sherman Oaks, his trustee and business manager, Kellie Cunningham, told The Hollywood Reporter.
Affectionately known as the “Godfather of Grappling” and “Judo” Gene LeBell, he was a two-time AAU national judo champion early in his career. Later, he taught his masterful submission techniques to Lee, Chuck Norris, pro wrestler “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, MMA fighter Ronda Rousey and many, many others.
With his legendary strong handshake, red hair, weathered face and battered nose, LeBell was universally admired by fighters and wrestlers around the world.
By his own admission, “every star in Hollywood beat me up” when he was a stuntman and actor. Wayne punched him square in the face in Big Jim McLain (1952), Presley karate-kicked him between the eyes in Blue Hawaii (1961), Gene Hackman went toe-to-toe with him in Loose Cannon (1990), and Burt Reynolds kicked him where it hurts in Hard Time (1998).
Even Steve Martin roughed him up and threw him into a swimming pool in The Jerk (1979).
“The more you get hit in the nose, the richer you are,” LeBell liked to say.
On ABC’s The Green Hornet, he met Lee for the first time and forged a friendship with the Hong Kong martial arts star despite a rocky introduction.
During taping, it was reported that Lee was beating up on the stuntmen, prompting stunt coordinator Bennie Dobbins to bring in LeBell to help set the actor straight by “putting him in a headlock or something.”
In his 2005 autobiography The Godfather of Grappling, LeBell remembered grabbing Lee, who then “started making all those noises that he became famous for … but he didn’t try to counter me, so I think he was more surprised than anything else.”
He then hoisted Lee over his shoulder in a fireman’s carry and ran around the set as Lee shouted, “Put me down or I’ll kill you.”
To LeBell, the altercation revealed that Lee’s repertoire was without submission maneuvers, armbars and takedowns. “He came to my school and worked out for over a year, privately,” LeBell said, “and I went and worked out with him at his school.
“I taught him judo and wrestling and … finishing holds that he later worked into some movies. And he showed me a lot of his kicks and striking.”
In The Way of the Dragon (1972), Lee polished off Norris with a chokehold, and in Enter the Dragon (1973), he employed an armbar finish to submit Sammo Hung.
When Quentin Tarantino made Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019), he used LeBell as an influence for the character of stunt double Cliff Booth (Oscar winner Pitt) and adapted the LeBell/Lee confrontation into a much-debated fight scene between Booth and Lee (Mike Moh in the movie).
Booth also had an accusation of murder hovering over his head, which might have been a veiled reference to LeBell being charged in the murder of private investigator Robert Duke Hall in 1976. LeBell was acquitted of that charge, and his conviction as an accessory to the crime was later overturned.
Ivan Gene LeBell was born in Los Angeles on Oct. 9, 1932. His mother, Aileen Eaton, promoted fights at the Olympic Auditorium and was the first woman inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.
LeBell moved to Japan to study judo and won U.S. titles in the 1950s before segueing to pro wrestling, learning the art of catch wrestling (a grappling style) from Ed “Strangler” Lewis, Lou Thesz and Karl Gotch.
From 1962-82, he ran the Los Angeles territory of the National Wrestling Alliance with his brother Mike.
The combat sport pioneer participated in what some credit as the first televised sanctioned mixed martial arts match on Dec. 2, 1963, in Salt Lake City when he took on light heavyweight boxer Milo Savage.
The impetus for the bout came from an article written in Rogue magazine by Jim Beck.
Under the headline “The Judo Bums,” Beck wrote that “judo … is a complete fraud … Every judo man I’ve ever met was a braggart and a show-off … Any boxer can beat a judo man.” Beck put up $1,000 to prove it.
LeBell said he was chosen by his peers because “you’re the most sadistic bastard we know,” and was put up against Beck’s choice of opponent — Savage.At a TV interview the day before the bout, LeBell choked out the interviewer, then screamed into the camera, “Come to the arena tomorrow night and watch me annihilate, mutilate and assassinate your local hero because one martial artist can beat any 10 boxers.”
The bout lasted four rounds and ended when LeBell submitted Savage to a rear naked chokehold. The crowd threw debris and chairs into the ring, and Savage had to be revived by LeBell’s cornermen.
“It sounds like I’m blowing my own horn, and I don’t mean to — I represented all the martial arts. I never said I was doing only judo or karate or kenpo,” he said. “I never said one art is better than the others. They’re all good. You should learn everything. You’re not a complete martial artist unless you do everything.”
He was rewarded when he fought Elvis in Blue Hawaii. The King was so happy with his work, he gave him a $100 bill. “I didn’t have any money then,” he said. “I used to eat every other day. So, I went out and I had the biggest fillet mignon and even tipped the waiter.”
He also did stunts for Presley’s Paradise, Hawaiian Style five years later.
While serving as the stunt coordinator on The Munsters, he appeared on a 1964 episode as grappler Tarzan McGirk in a bout against “The Masked Marvel” (Fred Gwynne’s Herman Munster in disguise).
As a stuntman across five decades on the small screen, LeBell popped up in everything from Gomer Pyle: USMC, Mission: Impossible, Ironside, Batman and The Beverly Hillbillies in the 1960s to The Six Million Dollar Man and Starsky & Hutch in the 1970s, Taxi, The Fall Guy and Married … With Children in the 1980s and even Reno 911! in the 2000s.
On the big screen, he did stunts, often uncredited, for the original Planet of the Apes movies, the 1974 disaster films Earthquake and The Towering Inferno and the Naked Gun flicks, plus King Kong (1976), Airplane! (1980), Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins (1985), RoboCop (1987), Total Recall (1990), Independence Day (1996), Bruce Almighty (2003) and Smoking Aces (2006).
In Raging Bull (1980), he had a speaking role as the ring announcer for one of Jake LaMotta’s (Robert De Niro) fights. Four years earlier, he was in another ring, as the referee in the wacky Muhammad Ali vs. wrestler Antonio Inoki match in Tokyo.
Legend has it that as stunt coordinator on Steven Seagal’s Out of Justice (1991), LeBell was involved in an on-set altercation with the actor and allegedly choked him out.
LeBell never denied the incident, though Seagal did.
In Bloodfist IV: Die Trying (1992), he attempted to stop legendary kickboxer Don Wilson from hot-wiring his car and, naturally, finished up battered and bruised in a pile of garbage cans.
He trained mixed martial artist and WWE wrestler Rousey and her mother, judo champion AnnMaria De Mars.
“Ronda is the best woman I have ever been associated with, as far as fighting goes,” he said in 2018. “So, when you see Ronda, tell her Gene sent you, that Uncle Gene sent you. But don’t get her mad. Don’t get her mad.”
He authored more than 12 books, including Gene LeBell’s Grappling World — The Encyclopaedia of Finishing Holds, Gene LeBell’s Handbook of Judo, Pro-Wrestling Finishing Holds and The Grappling Club Master, and filmed his techniques for instructional videos.
Survivors include his wife, Midge; stepchildren Danny and Stacey; grandson Daniel; and two estranged children.
As for his work as a stunt double, LeBell revealed he loved that work because “they don’t even look at you, talk to you, but then you go and turn a car over, set yourself on fire and all of a sudden, the star comes up and says, ‘Hey, that’s great,’ and then you’re buds.”