Raymond Chow, the Hong Kong producer who brought Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan to the masses as producer of such films as Enter the Dragon, The Chinese Connection, Police Story, Rumble in the Bronx and The Cannonball Run, died today. He was 91.
Chow co-founded Golden Harvest in 1970 and was among the first to bring Hong Kong movies to America and other territories outside Asia. He originally worked as a publicist for Shaw Brothers Studios before making the jump to production in the company led by Run Run Shaw that popularized kung fu movies.
After Chow spotted Lee on local HK television, Golden Harvest inked the martial arts master to a three-film deal — one of which was the seminal kung fu actioner Enter the Dragon. The film was the first Hong Kong movie co-produced with a Hollywood studio (Warner Bros.) and it became a staggering success. With a budget reportedly under $850,000, the film would go on to earn $90 million in global box office.
Chow’s gamble on Lee paid off even before Enter the Dragon. Their first film together Big Boss (renamed Fists of Fury for the U.S.) was a smash and cost only $50,000 to make. The movie was hailed widely as the best investment in screen history. The next film, The Chinese Connection (later Way of the Dragon in the U.S.) did even better. Both films replaced The Sound of Music as Hollywood’s biggest success in terms of highest profit-to-cost ratio.
Tragically, Lee, the 32-year-old star creating the entire sensation, didn’t live to see much of that success. The star died just six days before the Hong Kong premiere of Enter The Dragon in 1973.
Enter the Dragon also offered a glimpse of the future. That’s because Chan was a cast member in a minor role as a henchmen. Six years later Chow saw a far greater potential in Chan and he signed the onetime stuntman to a contract. Chow turned the genial martial arts savant into a star across Asia. In 1980, Chan starred in his first English-language movie, The Big Brawl, but it wasn’t a hit here. The actor got a close-up view of Hollywood’s celebrity ranks when he filmed a small role in The Cannonball Run (1980), the American star-laden romp that counted Chow among its executive producers.
Chow was born in British Hong Kong in 1927 and as a youngster he showed entrepreneurial potential by launching a sports publication of his own. He left home for Shanghai to study journalism at St. John’s University, known as the “Harvard of China.” Chow was one of the final graduating classes (the university was shut down in 1952 by the Communist government) and then returned to his birthplace in 1949 to work as a reporter for the Hong Kong Tiger Standard. Chow’s journalistic pursuits then led to a short stint Voice of America, the international public broadcaster, but in 1958 he made the leap to show business.
Shaw Brothers Studios had brought him in for a publicity post but eventually he found his true niche as the head of production. Chow would recount through the year that he got that production job by complaining about the slapdash quality of the studio’s churned-out offerings. it was an audacious opinion considering the Hong Kong film business had been started almost single-handedly by Run Run Shaw.
In 1970, Chow made bitter rivals of his studio employers when he struck out on his own with Golden Harvest, which he co-founded with Leonard Ho Koon-Cheung. Chow told Reuters in 1995 that the Shaw Brothers were his competition for the talents of Lee. Chow had marveled at Lee’s skills when he saw him on a local television broadcast and he was determined to sign the future star. “I phoned him and we worked out a deal on the back of an envelope,” Chow told Reuters. “We signed a one-page letter of intent and the rest is history.”
Chow’s gut instincts were proven by the explosive successes of both Lee and Chan and then again with a property with a quirky name that had caught his ear: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Chow agreed to bankroll a live-action film adaptation of TMNT, a comic book series that began in the 1980s. The pitch had been soundly rejected across Hollywood but Chow rolled the dice.
The 1990 film became a major hit, hauling in more than $200 million in global box office. Chow would say years later that he had been hooked by the eccentric name of the project and the mash-up of concepts and imagery it presented.
“It was funny, it was unique,” Chow said in a mid-1990s interview. “What a contradiction in terms, mutants and healthy teen-agers, slow-moving turtles and swift, deadly ninjas. “I gave it the go-ahead but set a limit of $5 million…It was a bit of a gamble, but only a bit of one,” he said. “In fact it exceeded expectations by many, many times.”