Now based in Dallas, where he runs his own gymnastic academy, we reached out to the former action star to ask how he came to be cast in the film, the infamous pommel horse scene and what he’s up to now.
Q: So, how did you come to be cast in Gymkata? I know you were almost a dead-cert to go to the Moscow Olympics before the US boycotted it, so was starring in movies you seeking out an alternative or did Hollywood come to you?
A: I was actually contacted by the producer of Enter The Dragon, which, of course, starred Bruce Lee. He apparently saw me in a commercial and that’s how I ended up in the film business.
Q: So, did you have a background in martial arts at all?
A: Not at all!
Q: GYMKATA was directed by Robert Clouse, who directed Enter The Dragon, which is arguably one of the best martial arts films ever made. What was it like working with him during the shoot?
A: When we were filming, Robert Clouse, as a director, honestly seemed to be a bit past his prime [Editorial – Robert Clouse made China O’Brien five years later, so he still had some game!]. However, it was a low budget film, so as a result, there were very few retakes!
Q: As it was so low budget, was it also quite dangerous? It looks like they made you do all your own stunts…
A: I actually did every stunt, except for one – the tumble in the ally in Karabal. It’s because the surface was so wet, so a stuntman ended up doing it. I had a stuntman for the entire shoot, but we ended up only using him the one time.
Q: The fight scenes were naturally based around your impressive gymnastic abilities, but there are several scenes that appeared to be included just to underline that fact – for example, the ‘backflipping while talking to the Princess’ scene – how did those come about?
A: Yeah, from time to time, the producers would just ask me what I could do physically that would look good on film – and they simply ended up incorporating most of them into the movie.
Q: Your character John Cabot seems aware of ‘anti-American sentiment’ in Karabal, but insists on wearing red, white and blue – whose idea was this?
A: That was very random! That was a sweater that I had bought in Italy while I was there, and the producers simply said “just wear that.”
It wasn’t thought out at all!
Q: Please tell us what you remember about the infamous pommel horse scene
A: That actually took a long time to shoot. We tried doing it without pommels and it just killed my wrists! So, we then had to go get some actual pommels to get it done.
Also, the ‘town of crazies’ were actually crazy people from a local insane asylum in Yugoslavia. We provided them with alcohol and a buffet for their time! Although the people I ended up kicking were definitely stuntmen!
Q: What are you up to these days and are you aware of Gymkata’s cult following?
A: I am very aware of the film’s cult following and love it! I now live in Dallas, where I own a gymnastics training center.
Q: When was the last time you watched Gymkata and are your pupils aware of your Hollywood past?
A: I watch it whenever it comes on at 3 or 4 in the morning, but I haven’t sat down and watched it properly for about 10 years.
Kurt Thomas, thank you very much!