Know Your Role: Professor Toru Tanaka
Before it was cool to be a professional wrestler-turned movie star, Professor Toru Tanaka (born Charles Kalani) had already starred in heart-racing action movies with the likes of Chuck Norris, Jeff Speakman, Michael Douglas, and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Spending an entire career, both inside the squared circle and also on the sets of low-budget and big-budget films, Tanaka thrived as the quiet, yet monstrously frightening villain. It’s a role that the good Professor’s near-300 lb. frame was born to play. Although Tanaka was full-blooded Hawaiian, pairing him with future WWE Hall of Famer Mr. Fuji and turning him into a stereotypical Japanese bad guy was just “good for business”. What the world of wrestling probably didn’t know was that the wrestler that resulted from that decision would someday turn into one of the greatest action movie henchmen of all time!
By the time that Professor Toru Tanaka had made it to the world of film and television, he had already had a very nice career in the wrestling business, spent 1o years in the United States Army, and done music videos for David Lee Roth and starred alongside Pat Morita in what has to be the greatest Colgate toothpaste commercial of all time. It’s no surprise that a man as versatile as the good Professor was would end up being such a hot commodity in the world of villainous henchmen. “Massive Asian Dude” has to be among the top choices when a villain is considering who to add to his evil regime, right?
Tanaka’s first onscreen role was in Chuck Norris’ An Eye for an Eye in 1981. It wasn’t exactly the type of role or movie that would set the world on fire but his physical appearance alone was enough to keep Tanaka working and a few years later he would get one of his more memorable roles in Missing in Action 2: The Beginning. He again was given the chance to face off with his nemesis Chuck Norris, and the Cannon Production would open the eyes of a great deal more movie makers and Tanaka would soon find himself dueling the great Arnold Schwarzenegger with a giant hockey stick/scythe in the movie The Running Man.
Between the years 1986-1993, Tanaka appeared in a metric shit-ton of movies as essentially the same character. Yes, you guessed it, the massive Asian henchman! My absolute favorite was in the Jeff Speakman film The Perfect Weapon. Not only does he get a considerable amount of screen time in the movie but he also gets a final showdown with the hero that is both kickass for its use of martial arts, but also fantastic for its use of flaming and exploding bodies!
Tanaka’s final appearance was in the 1995 straight to video picture Hard Justice. Sadly, it starred David Bradley so it was most certainly a waste of Toru’s abilities. One of my greatest memories of watching Tanaka was as the hardass “Rushmore” in the kids movie 3 Ninjas. He wasn’t as fearsome as in his other films but there’s only so much you can do while getting beat up by three kids who have yet to hit puberty.
A life as marvelous as Professor Toru Tanaka’s had to come to an end at some point, and that unsurprisingly came after a massive heart failure in 2000. There is a chance that it was the biggest upset in history as Tanaka’s heart was as big as his personality and he’s an actor and a human being that we will not forget anytime soon.
Bulletproof Action salutes the always amazing Professor Toru Tanaka!