Like Father Like Son
A father’s martial arts training that began at Eleele helps lead to his son’s career in Hollywood
Actor Mark Dacascos, who has appeared in more than 50 films and television shows, stars as “The Chairman” of the Food Network’s hit TV series Iron Chef America and competed in Dancing with the Stars last fall, lives in Los Angeles but says Hawaii is where his heart is and the place he calls home.
“I’m very happy and proud to be a local boy,” says Dacascos, who was born and raised on Oahu before moving to the Mainland at age 6 and then to Germany as a teenager. Married to actress Julie Condra and a father of three beautiful children – Makoa, Kapono and Noelani – Dacascos loves Hawaii so much he not only gave his keiki Hawaiian names, but even convinced his wife to give birth to each of them in Hawaii.
“We came back four weeks prior to their birth and stayed four weeks after their birth,” he says. “I just believe everything you do has an effect on your life – and where you are born is a huge part of it – and I wanted to give them Hawaii for their birthplace.
“I’ve traveled and worked all over the world and, when people ask where you are from and you say Hawaii, it brings an instant smile to everyone, and I love that. I wanted that for them, and my wife, who is very proud of her Texas roots, also loves Hawaii and wanted the kids to have that as well.”
Dacascos returns to Hawaii about twice a year, and looks forward to surfing and being with family, including time with dad Al Dacascos, who resides in Kaneohe with wife Melveen Leed – yes, that Melveen Leed.
Currently, Mark is working on his first live-action 3-D martial arts film directed by Steve Wang, who also directed him in the movie Drive, in which he starred with the late Brittany Murphy.
“It’s going to be hard-core, live action,” says Dacascos, who has the lead role. “It should be interesting. Last time I worked with Steve I would come off the set with cuts, scratches, tons of bruises, and I even went to the hospital once. So I’ve been just getting my body prepared for the beating I’m going to take.”
Then there’s Iron Chef America, of which Dacascos has been “The Chairman” since 2005. He’s scheduled to shoot 30 to 40 new episodes this year for the show, which is in New York. Most recently he filmed The Lost Medallion: The Adventures of Billy Stone, which is scheduled to be released this year, and hosted a two-hour program for The History Channel titled Samurai,which premiered in March and documented the history of the samurai with a focus on Miyamoto Musashi, the warrior who wrote The Book of Five Rings.
Dacascos, who is Japanese, Irish, Filipino, Spanish and Chinese, may have made his way to a successful acting career, but being an actor was not in his original plan.
“I have to credit (my acting career) to my good friend Chris Lee (a film producer also from Hawaii),” he says. “When I was younger, there were a couple of different things I wanted to do, and acting was not one of them. I wanted to be a writer and a Buddhist monk. So, at 17, I left Germany and went to Taipei, Taiwan, for six months to study Chinese and martial arts because I wanted to enter a monastery. But after six months I ended up going back to Germany and then back in Hawaii and eventually back in San Francisco.
“I was then almost 19 years old and walking through Chinatown having just taught a martial arts class for my mom, who had a school there, and two men approached me, one of them being Chris (the other was director Wayne Wang). He asked me if I was an actor and if I wanted to audition for this movie he was doing and I said no, I’m not an actor and I have no interest in auditioning. But he gave me his card and said think about it.
“I told my mom about it and she said, ‘You know what, just try it, you might like it.’So, I took her advice and I went to the audition, and I guess I did all right because a couple of days later they called me and said I have this part.”
The film was Dim Sum: A Little Bit of Heart, and Dacascos’ role included a make-out session on top of a car with actress Joan Chen (The Last Emperor). Unfortunately, his scenes were edited out, but the outtakes were edited for an outtake reel that was entered in a competition and took second place. More importantly, the experience was enough to spark Dacascos’interest in acting.
“I did my line, we kissed, it was fun, I kept on going, the director said cut, I didn’t want to stop, and I thought if this is acting this is for me, I like it,” recalls Dacascos. “After that movie, I started to take acting classes and I realized it was a way for me to utilize my language skills, my martial arts skills. And it’s kind of cool because you can touch a lot of people’s hearts if you do a good job and make a good movie.”
With his martial arts background and trademark lean, muscular physique, Dacascos, 46, has landed roles in many action-packed films, including Cradle 2 The Grave, in which he squared off against Jet Li, Only the Strong, and in TV shows The Crow: Stairway to Heaven and The Legend of Bruce Lee. He also is known for his best supporting role in Brotherhood of the Wolf, a box office success, and lends his voice and acting in numerous video games, as well as in the video game-turned-film Double Dragon co-starring Scott Wolf.
Dacascos says he stays in shape by practicing muay thai on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and cross-training exercises along with some yoga on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. He also continues to take improv, acting and voice classes. As for his martial arts expertise, that can be credited to his parents, who were both martial arts champions.
“They were my first teachers,” he explains. “My mom Malia, who raised me from 6 years old on, was the No. 1 fighter and forms competitor in the U.S. for around five years, and the first woman on the cover of Black Belt magazine.”
Then there’s dad Al, who founded the martial art known as wun hop kuen do. Al was born in Hilo and raised in Eleele, Kauai, before moving to Oahu, where he attended Farrington High School.
“My first introduction into martial arts started at about 6 or 7 years old watching my granddad practice the Filipino martial art escrima on the island of Kauai,” recalls Al. “He would practice his art early in the morning before he went into the sugar cane fields and it was interesting for me to see.
“Eventually, when I moved to Honolulu, we lived in the Palama area and I went to St. Theresa School, and going from my house to school, many times the public school kids would beat me up. So my dad said, ‘You’re not going to get beat up anymore, we’re putting you in judo,’ so I learned judo and I stayed with that for awhile.”
From there, Al went on to study many other types of martial arts, including jiujitsu, western boxing, kung fu, karate, kenpo and escrima. He then became one of five black belt instructors in Hawaii in kajukenbo, and then took all of this training and evolved it into what he calls wun hop kuen do.
In the mid-1960s, Al moved to the Mainland, where he opened a martial arts school, first as a small club out of his garage in Hayward, Calif., and then from a space on East 14th Street in San Leandro, Calif.
He then moved to Colorado, where he opened six more schools before moving to Hamburg, Germany where he lived for 10 years. He eventually moved back to the U.S., settling in Portland, Ore., for 18 years.
Then in 2002, his mother passed away and Al decided it was time to move back to Hawaii. Shortly after, he went through a divorce and then reunited with Leed, his high school sweetheart. The two married in 2006.
Now, 67, Al has close to 100 schools around the world, including more than 60 in Europe (run by his students). He also has a small club in Pearl City, teaches a few students privately and recently opened a club in Houston.
“I’m primarily teaching people to become teachers and my goal is to develop and expand our system,” says Al.
“Also, in March I released a DVD series of reality-based martial arts, Dacascos Tactical Systems, which is designed for police and law enforcement agencies.
“And I hope to one day work with Mark. I have 22 different screenplays that have to be developed and Mark is trying to get into directing.”
Fittingly, Mark shares a similar goal: “For the first show I direct, I would love for my father to be a part of it and help with the choreography.”
Like father, like son, and now grandchildren, Mark says martial arts is a family tradition that is already being passed on to his children.
“I want to really instill the work ethic and discipline in them,” says Mark. “What martial arts showed me is that you have to be dedicated, focused and you have to work hard. I don’t allow them to watch TV Monday through Friday. I’m not saying people shouldn’t watch TV, because obviously that’s my profession so I want them to watch some.
But they have school, homework and I want them to go outside to play, so they don’t play any computer games or watch TV except on Saturdays and Sundays.”
As Mark continues to share his many talents with the world, he also can count on continued support from fans and family, including dad.
“Let’s put it this way” says Al. “Mark is living my dream because when I had my opportunity and turned Hollywood down, I regretted it. So when it was Mark’s turn, I said go for it.”