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Gene LeBell, 89, Judo Champion, Wrestler and Star Stuntman, Dies


Sooner or later in 1966, the stuntman Gene LeBell was called to the set of the tv series “The Green Hornet” to take care of Bruce Lee, the long run martial arts superstar, who played Kato, the crime-fighting Hornet’s sidekick. Mr. Lee, it seems, was hurting the opposite stuntmen.

The stunt coordinator asked Mr. LeBell — a former national judo champion and skilled wrestler — to show Mr. Lee a lesson, perhaps with a headlock.

Mr. LeBell would later recall in lots of interviews that he went further: He picked Mr. Lee up, slung him over his back and ran across the set as Mr. Lee shouted, “Put me down or I’ll kill you!” When Mr. LeBell relented, he was surprised that Mr. Lee didn’t attack him. As a substitute they got here to understand their different skill sets, and Mr. LeBell became considered one of Mr. Lee’s favorite stuntmen.

Additionally they trained together, with Mr. LeBell’s expertise as a grappler meeting Mr. Lee’s fist-flashing kung fu brilliance.

Mr. LeBell never became as famous as Mr. Lee, who died in 1973, but into his early 80s — when he played, amongst other roles, a corpse falling from a coffin in an episode of the TV series “Castle” — he remained busy as considered one of Hollywood’s most sought-after stuntmen.

At 20, he was walloped by John Wayne in “Big Jim McLain” (1952).

Nine years later, he was kicked by Elvis Presley in “Blue Hawaii.”

And he was knocked around a couple of times by James Caan.

“Every star in Hollywood has beaten me up,” Mr. LeBell told AARP magazine in 2015. “The more you get hit within the nose, the richer you’re. The person who enjoys his work never goes to work. So I’ve had quite a lot of fun doing stunts.”

Mr. LeBell died on Aug. 9 at his home within the Sherman Oaks neighborhood of Los Angeles. He was 89. His death was announced by Kellie Cunningham, his trustee and business manager, who didn’t specify the cause.

Ivan Gene LeBell was born on Oct. 9, 1932, in Los Angeles. His mother, Aileen (Goldstein) LeBell, promoted boxing and wrestling matches on the Olympic Auditorium in downtown Los Angeles; his father, Maurice, was an osteopath and weight loss program doctor who died after being paralyzed in a swimming accident in 1941. His mother later married Cal Eaton, with whom she promoted fights.

Gene began to learn to fight at 7, when his mother sent him to the Los Angeles Athletic Club.

“I went as much as Ed ‘Strangler’ Lewis and said, ‘I need to be a wrestler,’” Mr. LeBell was quoted as saying by the Slam Wrestling website in 2005. Mr. Lewis, he recalled, asked him: “Do you should roll? Do you should do Greco-Roman? Do you should do freestyle? Or do you should grapple?”

“What’s grappling?” Gene asked.

“That’s a mixture of the whole lot,” Mr. Lewis said. “You possibly can hit ’em, eye-gouge ’em.”

He was sold.

He began learning judo at 12 (although his mother told The Los Angeles Times in 1955 that he had been inspired just a little later, in highschool, when he was beaten up by a smaller teenager who knew judo), and by 1954 his proficiency had grown to an elite level: He won each the heavyweight class and the general title in that yr’s national American Amateur Union championships. He successfully defended his title the following yr on the Olympic Auditorium, in front of his mother.

During considered one of the bouts, he said, he heard his mother’s voice above the din of the group shouting: “Gene! Be careful! Choke him!”

“The announcer observed, ‘I believe Gene LeBell’s mother is prejudiced,’” Mr. LeBell recalled to The Los Angeles Times. “Was I embarrassed!”

His mother’s connections to Hollywood brought Mr. LeBell early stunt work with John Wayne and a friendship with George Reeves, the star of the tv show “Adventures of Superman.”

Realizing that judo was no method to make a living, he shifted to skilled wrestling later in 1955.

Mr. LeBell never became a giant name within the ring and even a fantastic wrestler, either under his own name or in a mask as “the Hangman.” But he gained notice in his role as an enforcer, through which he compelled other wrestlers to persist with the script, even once they didn’t need to.

“Gene would choke me out for saying wrestling was a performative art,” Bob Calhoun, who collaborated with Mr. LeBell on his autobiography, “The Godfather of Grappling” (2005), said in a phone interview. “But he was old fashioned — he wouldn’t say wrestling wasn’t on the up and up.”

While not a star, Mr. LeBell was nonetheless honored in 1995 by a fraternal organization of wrestlers, the Cauliflower Alley Club, with its Iron Mike Mazurki Award, for achieving success in a field beyond wrestling, because the award’s wrestler-turned-actor namesake did. Mr. LeBell was inducted into the National Wrestling Alliance’s Hall of Fame in 2011.

His work as a stuntman began in earnest within the Sixties and continued on TV series like “Route 66,” “I Spy,” “The Incredible Hulk” and “The Fall Guy,” through which Lee Majors starred as a movie stuntman. He also appeared in movies like “Planet of the Apes” (1968), “The Towering Inferno” (1974) and the Steven Seagal crime drama “Out for Justice” (1991).

Mr. LeBell had a protracted list of acting credits as well, mostly in bit parts. He often played referees and sometimes a thug, a henchman, a bartender or, as in “Raging Bull” (1990), a hoop announcer.

Outside of his film and tv work, in 1963 he took part in a preview of today’s mixed martial arts fights when he faced a middleweight boxer, Milo Savage, and defeated him within the fourth round with a choke hold that rendered Savage unconscious. It took time to wake him up, and as the group grew indignant, a spectator tried to stab Mr. LeBell.

“It was a troublesome night, but ‘Judo’ Gene had defended the honour of his sport against the boxer,” Jonathan Snowden wrote in “Shooters: The Hardest Men in Skilled Wrestling” (2012).

In 1976, Mr. LeBell refereed a match in Tokyo between Muhammad Ali, then the heavyweight boxing champion, and the wrestler Antonio Inoki. In what was billed a “world martial arts championship,” the 2 ended up kicking one another for 15 rounds — Ali landed only two punches — and the fight was ruled a draw.

Mr. LeBell said Mr. Inoki would have won the bout had he not been penalized one point for a karate kick to Ali’s groin.

Later that yr, Mr. LeBell was arrested and charged with murder, together with a pornographer, Jack Ginsburgs, within the killing of a non-public detective. Mr. LeBell was acquitted of the murder charge but convicted of being an adjunct, for driving Mr. Ginsburgs to and from the murder scene. His conviction was overturned by the California Court of Appeals.

Mr. LeBell also worked over time with many wrestlers, including Rowdy Roddy Piper and Ronda Rousey, and trained with Chuck Norris, the martial artist and actor.

More recently the director Quentin Tarantino used Mr. LeBell’s initial encounter with Mr. Lee on the set of “The Green Hornet” as the premise for a scene in his 2019 film, “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood,” through which Brad Pitt, as a stuntman, threw the Lee character right into a automobile.

Mr. LeBell is survived by his wife, Eleanor (Martindale) LeBell, who’s often known as Midge and whom he married twice and divorced once; his son, David; his daughter, Monica Pandis; his stepson, Danny Martindale; his stepdaughter, Stacey Martindale; and 4 grandchildren. His brother, Mike, a wrestling promoter, died in 2009. His first marriage ended together with his wife’s death; he also married and divorced two other women.

Although Mr. Calhoun said that “in any situation, with Bruce Lee or anyone else, Gene was the hardest guy within the room,” Mr. LeBell offered a realistic view of his status.

“People saying you’re the hardest guy is great,” he told Sports Illustrated in 1995, “however it still doesn’t add up to at least one automobile payment. Now I get beat up by every wimp in Hollywood and make 1000’s of dollars. You tell me which is best.”

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