Posted on Tuesday, April 5th, 2016 by Blake Harris
Shortly after running our last piece, How Did This Get Made: A Conversation with Frank Dux, the Real-Life Inspiration for Bloodsport, I was put in touch with Sheldon Lettich. This was significant not only because he wrote the screenplay for Bloodsport, but also because Dux had said some unflattering things about the writer.
So when I finally connected with Lettich, I worried that there might be some not-so-flattering words headed my way. But to my pleasant surprise, Lettich was a complete gentleman. And when I told about him the purpose of this How Did This Get Made series—to investigate how movies got made, and the careers of those involved—he was happy to clear up any misconceptions and provide additional insights into the making of Bloodsport, his two decades of collaboration with Jean-Claude Van Damme and what it takes to write a badass, blow-em-up action film.
How Did This Get Made is a companion to the podcast How Did This Get Made with Paul Scheer, Jason Mantzoukas and June Diane Raphael which focuses on movies. This regular feature is written by Blake J. Harris, who you might know as the writer of the book Console Wars, soon to be a motion picture produced by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. You can listen to the Bloodsport edition of the HDTGM podcast here. What follows is a conversation with Sheldon Lettich, who was the screenwriter of the movie Bloodsport. Please note as always our subject’s opinions, recollections and claims are his own, and do not reflect the views of the author or this publication.
Bloodsport Oral History Part Two
Synopsis: U.S. Army Captain Frank Dux (Jean-Claude Van Damme), who had been trained as a boy by the legendary Ninjutsu master Senzo Tanaka, decides to honor his mentor by taking the place of Tanaka’s dead son in an illegal, no-holds-barred martial arts tournament called the “Kumite.”
Tagline: The True Story of an American Ninja
“All I request,” Lettich started off by saying, “is that we try to keep discussion about Frank Dux to a minimum. I don’t really want to give this guy a platform for more publicity because that’s what he’s always looking for.”
Not looking to find myself embroiled in the middle of a he-said, she-said war of words, I happily agreed to this request.
“But I will say this,” Lettich continued. “The fact that Frank hasn’t been involved with any movie since 1994 says something doesn’t it? I think Jean-Claude and I have done just fine without ‘riding his coattails,’ haven’t we?”
What follows is the rest of our conversation…
Part 1: Vietnam Veterans & Vetting out the Phonies
Blake Harris: Given that you were mentioned several times in my interview with Frank, I can’t help but start off by asking how surprised and/or frustrated you were to see the things he said?
Sheldon Lettich: Frustrated? A little bit. Surprised? Sadly not at all. He’s been carrying on like that for years and years. But what’s crazy is almost everything he says in that interview is an outright lie or a distortion.
Blake Harris: I’ve interviewed a lot of people in my time—including a lot of people I believe were trying to sell me on lies—but I never got the sense from Frank that he was trying to put one over on me. I genuinely believed that he believes everything he told me.
Sheldon Lettich: I’d tend to agree with you on that. Because I think he’s got a Walter Mitty syndrome. He basically makes up these stories, casts himself as the leading character and somehow convinces himself that he really did this stuff. It’s a psychological issue that, believe it or not, happens more than you would think. Especially when it comes to the military. You know, where people go around wearing medals and talking about their fictional war exploits.
Blake Harris: That actually makes for a good, non-Frank-related jumping off point. You spent almost four years in the U.S. Marine Corps, is that correct?
Sheldon Lettich: Yeah, I served as a radio operator in South Vietnam and then later with 1st Force Reconnaissance Company based at Camp Pendleton, California.
Blake Harris: So how did you go about making that enormous transition from wartime soldier to Hollywood writer?
Sheldon Lettich: Well, surprisingly enough, my first success came in the theater. I’d been writing screenplays and thinking about films, but what happened was an actor friend mine was reading Drama-Logue and saw an ad from this guy John Di Fusco looking for actors who were also Vietnam veterans. This is like 1979 and he wanted to put together some kind of theatrical piece about Vietnam veterans. I wasn’t an actor, but I was a writer, so I got in touch with John and we hit it off. Showed him a few screenplays that I had written and we decided to work together on this. I was not an actor, so it was decided that I would be the writer member of this group. And I actually helped John do the casting. In fact we did the casting at my apartment. This was all very, very low budget. So we had a number of people come to my apartment; John would test them out for their acting abilities and we would also try to determine if they were for real.
Blake Harris: In what sense?
Sheldon Lettich: Oh, I just meant we’d try to determine if they were really Vietnam veterans. If they’d actually served. We encountered a few phonies, but eventually we put together a core group. Then we started meeting on a regular basis over at the VA hospital in Westwood. John had convinced somebody there that doing this play was a good idea for veterans. That it would be helpful and therapeutic.
Blake Harris: And was it? For you, I mean.
Sheldon Lettich: Oh yeah, oh absolutely. It was definitely a therapeutic experience for everyone involved with the play. In fact, we explored Post Traumatic Stress in the play, but the term PTSD had not even been coined yet. We were calling it “Delayed Stress.” I wasn’t going through anything like that myself, but it’s therapeutic if you’re able to recreate something that was an important part of your life and find a way to transmit it to other people. You allow other people just a little glimpse into what that experience was like and to feel it themselves. So the play was groundbreaking in some ways. There had been a few other plays dealing with the military and Vietnam at the time, but they weren’t written by those who had actually been there. And this felt very personal because the guys that were up on stage for those initial performances were pretty much playing themselves in many respects.
Tracers, as the play would later be titled, was first presented as a work-in-progress performance piece on July 4, 1980. Three months later, it formally opened at the Odyssey Theatre in Los Angeles to rave reviews. It was awarded the Drama-Logue Critics’ Award for Direction and the Los Angeles Drama Critics’ Award for Ensemble Performance.
Sheldon Lettich: We got some amazing reviews and it just turned into a little bit of a mini-phenomenon. Joseph Papp heard about it, so he brought the show to the Public Theatre in New York. And then Gary Sinese saw the play in New York and he wanted to put it on in Chicago. So he brought Tracers to the Steppenwolf Theatre and he directed it. This thing, it had legs, and started traveling around the world (London, Australia, etc.).
Blake Harris: That’s great. And so how did you swivel from that experience into something in the film world?
Sheldon Lettich: This will sound like it’s coming completely out of left field, but the first time I actually got paid to write a script was a horror film that involved voodoo.
Blake Harris: Yeah, I think that qualifies as “left field” status.
Sheldon Lettich: [laughing] What happened was I had met [Blaxploitation star] Leon Isaac Kennedy, who wanted to option a script of mine. Nothing happened with that, but then he started paying me a little bit to write some scripts for him.
Blake Harris: Did any of those get made?
Sheldon Lettich: We got really close with one. A college football comedy, of all things, that took place at a black college in Texas during the 60s.
Blake Harris: I think that also earns “left field” status.
Sheldon Lettich: [laughing] Maybe. A lot of it was based on the recollections of my friend Kurt Taylor, who I wrote the script with. Kurt had played football at Prairie View College in the 60’s. And Leon was going to star in the movie, which we called The White House All Stars with the “White House” being a frat house at this college where all the football players lived. So it was lot of college hijinks, trying to get girls and all that stuff. And we actually got hired by Motown to write this script! That was really my very first entry into the Writer’s Guild.
Blake Harris: Moving up the ranks…
Sheldon Lettich: Yeah, and around this time I wrote a Vietnam screenplay that got me my first agent. It was called Firebase and was basically Zulu in Vietnam; about a small disparate group forced together on a Firebase that gets attacked by an overwhelming number of North Vietnamese. Took me a long, long time to write that script. And, like I said, it got me my first agent, a guy named Harold Moskowitz…[starts laughing] who, a little while later, was looking for help with another one of his clients. “He’s written this Vietnam novel,” my agent said, “that the novel’s way too long and overwritten. But if we can cut it down, I think we can sell this novel.”
Blake Harris: Can I guess that the novel was The Last Rainbow [by Frank Dux]?
Sheldon Lettich: Yup. That’s how Frank and I met.
Blake Harris: Do you remember what your first meeting was like?
Sheldon Lettich: We hit it off right away. I don’t remember in detail what our first interaction was like, but we just kind of hit it off.
Blake Harris: Was it weird for you at all, as a Vietnam veteran, to be working on a book about the war that was written by someone who hadn’t been there?
Sheldon Lettich: Well, I didn’t know that at the time. Look, I take people at face value because I’m not a bullshitter. And if somebody tells me they were in Vietnam, and in the Marine Corps, I’ll believe them. He knew enough buzzwords to make me think he’s the real deal, he’s probably been over there. And that relationship led to other things down the road, as you know, but meanwhile my script Firebase was going around. There were a number of people who really liked it. And one of those people was Sylvester Stallone, who had put the word out that he was looking for someone to help him write Rambo III. So my agent sent him Firebase and he responded very enthusiastically. He liked the authenticity in it and he’d heard about Tracers also. And that’s how I ended up co-writing Rambo III with him. You gotta admire the fact that he wanted to get a real Vietnam vet working on the script with him.