Editor's Note: This is part VIII of a series on Thriving in the Martial Arts. Written by Chris Hershberger, he provides a first-person look at how he went from being a "poor punk kid" from Mansfield to an Olympic Taekwondo All-American coach.
It’s been a while since I’ve written about my upstart in the martial arts here in Mansfield. COVID-19, in myriad ways, has had its grip on my writing. I pray my story finds you in good health. Alright, let’s dig in.
It’s 1993. I’m fresh out of high school. The world, with all its opportunities, throws a seemingly once-in-a-lifetime offer my way — Hollywood is in Mansfield, Ohio!
I’m thinking passionately as the possibilities of stardom and celebrity status consume me.
I remember hearing from friends this movie would be a huge hit. My mind raced feverishly with the constant barrage of the words, “This is my shot to show off my martial arts skills to Hollywood. Move over Jean-Claude Van Damme!”
Van Damme was on his own meteoric rise to universal action-star status since starring in the late ‘80s hit Bloodsport.
I didn’t have any clue what this movie was about. What I was sure of however, is the need for a tall white kid who could kick with style and grace. I needed to get the scoop on this movie asap.
Naturally, when I was told over and over again The Shawshank Redemption would be a prison film, my warped sense of logic immediately jumped to chaotic prison yard brawls begging for some kung fu fighting.
I rehearsed in my mind what’d I say, and more importantly, what my in-person martial arts demonstration would be like.
“Hello. My name is Chris Hershberger. I’m a champion martial artist. Imagine seeing this in your film.”
Spin! Jump! Kick! I would land on my feet like a cat falling from a tree. Poised with the confidence of a lion.
For the next few days I looped this scenario in my mind. I visualized like a monk in deep meditation. I knew I would nail this audition.
My fate with Hollywood arrived. I showed up at the Holiday Inn Downtown Mansfield ready to prove my mettle. I waited before I was called up. The casting representative waived me over and she asked me to put both of my arms out wide from my body.
I thought to myself, “What’s this about?”
“Young man, I need measurements for your prison outfit,” she looked at me like I was from another planet. I’m certain it was because I looked at her like she was prepping me for a proctology exam. I was very confused. I asked her pointedly, “I thought this was an audition?”
She looked at me like only a mother would when she first witnesses a kid’s naiveté. “We need extras for prison scenes. You’re young, but you could pass for a young convict.”
“What’s an extra?”
I couldn’t help but think I was bamboozled. When would I get the chance to show off my amazing choreographed air fighting?
She asked me to go sit down. After about an hour of sitting she waived me over again.
“We need a temporary stand-in for Tim Robbins. Your build is pretty accurately matched to his. Are you interested?” She asked me with a tone that screamed, “You better be interested.”
Without even skipping a beat I asked, “Ugh, what’s a stand-in? And who’s Tim Robbins?” She smiled wide and said, “You’ll want this job, trust me.”
I agreed to take the job and she asked me to fill out some paperwork. She told me it would be about a half-hour before returning. I sat there in front of who seemed to be very important people.
I was getting restless. I stretched for at least an hour before arriving for my “audition,” with the expectation of letting my legs fly.
With the supreme knowledge and foresight only an 18 year old could possess, a thought jumped into my head with such mystery even to this day I question the universe.
“I should get up now and just start kicking.”
And I did, unhesitatingly. I was not going to allow any setback to crush my path to Hollywood.
Spin! Jump! Kick!
Pretend for a minute. Humor me if you will.
You’re on a train. It’s quiet and very crowded. There’s that one person who’s talking on his cell phone as loud as he possibly can. You don’t say anything of course, but you’re genuinely embarrassed for him. It makes you a bit squeamish.
Well, you’d be feeling like everyone else in that room with me back in 1993. A middle-aged guy stopped me and asked, “Are you a black belt or something? Trying to get a workout in while you’re waiting?”
I broke from my intense posture and relaxed to reply. As beads of sweat trickled down my forehead, I looked at him and said, “It’s a prison movie. They fight in prisons right?”
The laughter from this man should have broken world records for longest and deepest from the belly. When he eventually caught his breath and wiped the tears from his eyes, he shared with me my very first lesson of true adult ignorance.
“This movie is an adaptation of Stephen King’s Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption. It’s not an action film. The story takes place in the 1950's.”
“So what,” I nervously replied.
He laughed a little again. “I’m pretty sure martial arts didn’t make to America until the 1960's.”
Stay tuned for Part IX.
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