Gene LeBell, a renowned stuntman who trained Bruce Lee and inspired the likes of Quentin Tarantino, died in his sleep Tuesday morning at his home in Sherman Oaks, California, according to The Hollywood Reporter.
He was known by many as the “Godfather of Grappling,” and influenced fighters around the world. LeBell was 89 years old.
“It is with a heavy heart that we recognize our past member and friend, Mr. Gene LeBell, has passed on. There’s way too much to say to even begin to scratch the surface of the career and life Gene lived,” wrote the Stuntman’s Association of Motion Pictures in a statement to Variety.
“His talent in his field was known worldwide and those that got to know him knew he had a heart that matched that talent,” the group’s statement added. “I won’t say rest easy… because we just don’t see that happening with Gene. So may you rest in power, Gene.”
LeBell established himself as a martial artist long before he moved to Hollywood. He won the Amateur Athletic Union National Judo Championships in 1954 and 1955 when he was 22, according to Black Belt Magazine. LeBell later mentored world-class athletes and silver screen legends.
As a stuntman, LeBell reportedly endured a punch from John Wayne for the 1952 film “Big Jim McLain” and a kick in the face from Elvis Presley for “Blue Hawaii” in 1961. He taught fighters like “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, Chuck Norris, and Ronda Rousey how to grapple — and regularly trained Bruce Lee.
LeBell (right) referees the Muhammad Ali vs. Antonio Inoki fight on June 26, 1976.
LeBell recalled in his 2005 autobiography, “The Godfather of Grappling” meeting Lee on the set of “The Green Hornet” TV series. Stunt coordinator Bennie Dobbins begged LeBell to humble Lee, who allegedly beat up on his stuntmen throughout the show’s production.
LeBell recalled throwing Lee over his shoulder and running around set as Lee screamed, “Put me down or I’ll kill you.” The pair became friends, and LeBell taught Lee judo and wrestling moves, many of which Lee used in his movies, “The Way of The Dragon” and “Enter the Dragon.”
“He was the best martial artist of his time,” LeBell recalled in Black Belt Magazine. “Bruce and I had a bond with the martial arts, and we would get together frequently. We worked out about 10 to 12 times at his place in Los Angeles’ Chinatown and at my place.”
Tarantino, whose portrayal of an overconfident Lee by actor Mike Moh in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” spurred backlash drew heavily from LeBell when he crafted Brad Pitt’s character in the film as stuntman Cliff Booth, as LeBell had trained in Japan and studied judo years before Lee became a master.
LeBell, who spent much of his later years overseeing the National Wrestling Alliance in Los Angeles, was even charged with murder when private investigator Robert Duke Hall was killed in 1976. He was acquitted and continued performing stunts for the big and small screen, alike.
From TV shows like “Mission: Impossible,” “Batman,” and “Reno 911!” to movies including, “The Towering Inferno,” “RoboCop,” “Total Recall” and “Independence Day,” LeBell was a go-to stunt coordinator for decades.
LeBell, who also authored more than 12 books on martial arts that simultaneously chronicled his storied career, is survived by his wife Eleanor, children Monica and David, stepchildren Danny and Stacy, and grandchildren Daniel, Tyler and Nicholas.
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