With its paper-strewn desks, drab interrogation room, and skanky coffee station, everything looks predictably by-the-book on the squad-room set of CBS’ Martial Law — until you spot the fat guy on the sidelines, stuffing a monstrous sandwich down his throat. That’s when things start to get weird, as you realize you’re looking at America’s next action hero — and CBS’ secret weapon in its fall ’98 offensive — Sammo Hung. Not only is he that rarest of prime-time commodities, an Asian lead (the only other being Margaret Cho in her short-lived ABC sitcom, All-American Girl), but the comedic action series is one of the diciest of TV concepts (for every Xena: Warrior Princess there have been umpteen Spy Games) and this guy barely speaks English.
And then there’s that sandwich. At 5′ 7” and 230 pounds, the 44-year-old Hung is hardly chiseled in the Van Damme/Schwarzenegger/Willis ass-kicking mold that Americans have come to expect. But when asked to reflect upon the incongruity of his pudgy physique, he says, in typical soft-spoken understatement, ”Well, it’s the right body for me.” And with 140 films to his credit in his native Hong Kong, one Hong Kong Film Award (the Chinese equivalent of an Oscar), and a former Miss Hong Kong (Mina) for a wife, who’s gonna argue?
Besides, his oddball appearance is a refreshing — even titillating — detour from the norm. ”He’s a chick magnet,” says costar Tammy Lauren of Hung. ”Frankly,” adds fellow Law regular Tom Wright (late of Seinfeld), ”I think the American audience is burned out on watching the next testosterone kid — wide shoulders, perfect teeth, suave. That’s such a distant image for most people to connect to.” Law executive producer Carlton Cuse (Nash Bridges) sums Hung up with a prime-time parallel: ”He looks like Dennis Franz, but he can kick ass like Bruce Lee!”
And does he ever. As Sammo Law, a crack Shanghai detective who goes West to rescue his imperiled protegee (Nash’s Kelly Hu), Hung wows his Yankee counterparts (Louis Mandylor and Lauren) and lays out L.A.’s scum of the earth with gravity-defying agility, scary-quick hand-to-hand skills, and an ability to turn any object into a weapon (as he demonstrated with a blackboard eraser and a shoe in Law’s Sept. 26, 1998 debut).
That prowess didn’t come easy, though. Enrolled in the famed Peking Opera School at age 7, Hung endured its spartan regimen of physical conditioning and its time-honored dramatic curriculum for nine years. While there, he took fellow student Jackie Chan under his wing. (A poignant dramatization of those years is the theme of the 1988 film Painted Faces, which stars Hung as his and Chan’s former teacher.) As the demand for traditional Chinese opera waned, Hung took his considerable skills to the movie biz, where he earned his chopsocky chops as a stuntman (including a Bruce Lee face-off in Enter the Dragon) before taking on acting and directing for Hong Kong’s Golden Harvest studio.
To some extent, Chan’s and Hung’s success has been symbiotic, as Hung has directed and costarred with Chan in a number of films (most recently Mr. Nice Guy). ”Sometime I help him, sometime he help me,” says Hung. ”We just want each other to be successful.” In fact, in the process of pioneering a comic tweak on the martial-arts genre (as in Hung’s Enter the Fat Dragon) the two friends have become international superstars.