Robert A. Baker is best remembered for portraying the Russian strong man and Karate expert named “Petrov” in the cult Bruce Lee movie Fist of Fury (1972) (aka “The Chinese Connection” ). Baker was a student of James Lee’s martial art school when Bruce taught in Oakland with James Yimm Lee, and was subsequently recruited by Bruce, to play the role of the sinister Russian due to his height and “tough guy” appearance in Fist of Fury.
Tribute to Bruce Lee’s senior Student in Oakland & Mr Petrov in Fist of Fury
Bob Baker was born on the 18th of May 1940 in California, USA. He came from a fairly hard upbringing in Stockton, California and had dabbled in a few different martial arts which included karate, judo, boxing as well as Aikido and trained under Al Dasascos in Kajukenbo before making the decision to join James Yimm Lee’s around the mid-1960’s in Oakland. He was one of the first students to join the commercial school but he was also one of a few who trained at James Yimm Lee’s home.
Baker became a regular at the school which was renowned for its hard core training attitude. He became a close friend of Bruce and James and was considered the most senior student for several years. Bob trained with James and Bruce for about three years regularly and then on-and-off for about another year or so.
When the school closed he trained a few times a week in the garage. The garage was really the equivalent of Dan Inosanto’s backyard sessions. Baker would play at being the senior student in the Oakland school, as he did not enjoy the spotlight and was a quiet reserved man.
Mr Baker described Bruce as fast & innovative in teaching him at the Oakland school. Jimmy Yimm Lee was just hard and determined. Bob said that together, they were an amazing team. His memories of sparring in the garage in Oakland were painful as it was a common thing for students to end up being launched into training apparatus or ending up sprawled on the floor outside. Passersby would hear loud noises coming from the garage where people were battering dummies for all they were worth, while others were fighting in what might have been an early UFC, except in this instance they didn’t have the luxury of a wire octagon instead they had a solid wall often with metal cylinders and weight benches against it. The thing that they worked on most though was refining the basic skills. A dozen or so techniques repeated time after time after time. How to respond from different angles to different attacks. Bob’s arm reach and boxing skills made him a favourite at Oakland and allowed Bruce to test his developing art.
Making Fist of Fury
In 1971 just after making the Big Boss, Bruce went back to America to pick up his family and take them to Hong Kong as they would be living there from then on. At the same time Bruce asked Bob to come and play one of the main bad guys in his second movie for Golden Harvest Fist of Fury, Bruce wanted someone who understood his way of fighting and show the great martial arts skills Bruce had, Bob fitted the look for this film.
Whilst working on the film in Hong Kong, Baker stayed with the Lee family for several weeks while filming commenced and attended events and interviews with Bruce Lee. Off screen in Hong Kong Bruce used to tell everyone that Bob half-jokingly as his body-guard, which in reality was not true he was more of a companion and friend.
On one of the TV show that he appeared on in Hong Kong, not only was he with Bruce but Brandon Lee his son appeared on the show too. It was Brandon’s first appearance on TV and Bruce got Brandon to side kick a board. Bob reckoned that Bruce was so incredibly proud of his boy that there was a tear in his eye. When Bob ribbed Bruce about this Bruce told him ‘if you tell anyone I’ll kick your ass’. He used to talk of happy times in Hong Kong and the many talks he had with Bruce during those times.
Fist of Fury Fight Scene
For those who have not seen Fist Of Fury the key fight sequence between Lee and Baker is a mixture of punishing action and dry humour, as at one point Lee bites Baker on his leg to escape an arm lock (and then Lee wipes his mouth just like he was simply finishing a meal), plus Lee boxes with Baker, jabbing him repeatedly in the face whilst wearing a cheeky grin! The fight comes to a dramatic conclusion as Lee side kicks Baker in the head, knocking him senseless, and then Lee delivers a lethal karate chop to Baker’s windpipe, terminating his bigger opponent.
Behind the scenes fight challenge
Bob told the story of something that happened off-screen in filming of Fist of Fury. Apparently, one of the extras decided that Bruce wasn’t as good as he portrayed so Bruce obligingly sparred him, the guy was easily beaten after Bruce played with him a little but this time was the end of the matter. A little later at the end of a particularly long filming session, Bruce and Bob were getting ready to leave when this guy again challenged Bruce. Bruce said something to the guy in Chinese and the guy looked at Bob. Something else was said in Chinese and the guy looked at Bob again then at Bruce and then charged at Bob. Bob avoided his charge and looked over at Bruce wondering what the hell was going on to see Bruce standing with his arms folded with a mischievous grin on his face. When the guy charged at Bob again this time with a kick, Bob stepped inside the kick and without thinking landed a lead hand strike as the guy landed. “The guy just catapulted off my fist” was how Bob described the effect. There was no need for any other techniques. The challenger hit the deck and was helped up by two friends and then amazingly went up to Bruce with big smiles shook his hand and said goodbye before darting off into the night. Bob asked the still smiling Bruce what was that all about. Bruce had told the guys that as per Chinese tradition, if you challenge the master, the senior student will usually fight first to make sure the challenger is good enough. Bob immediately asked Bruce “Well, was I?” to which Bruce replied “You missed the first attack”… Bruce then walked off to the car leaving a still startled Bob standing at the door.
Bob didn’t appear in any other of Bruce’s films, because Bruce had told him that his skills were good but his acting wasn’t! Apparently Bob wasn’t hurt by this as he felt more nervous in front of the camera than when he was facing Bruce or James. Baker was devastated by first James Lee’s early death due to cancer and shortly afterwards, Bruce’s death.
After Fist of Fury
He only acted in one other martial arts film called Valley of the Double Dragon (AkA Taekwondo or Kung Fu of Tae Kwon Do) 1974 release in the U.K .with the title “FIST FIGHTER” on DVD by Firefly entertainment on the 21st of February 2005
Where a Taiwanese film company Kai Fa Film Company (who only ever made six films) keen to get a Bruce Lee connection to their film invited Bob to re-invent his evil martial arts mercenary role, only this time instead of being a Russian, he plays a nasty Nazi who becomes obsessed with capturing an America pilot to prove himself in front of his Japanese comrades.
China’s vast landscape is the setting for this Second World War adventure. Where four American pilots are forced to parachute into Japanese Army occupied China. Two pilots are killed immediately; one Thomas Anderson is captured and taken to the Japanese headquarters for interrogation. The captured pilot is interrogated by Lieutenant Kafka (Robert Baker), a Gestapo officer who has been sent by Germany to help their Japanese allies with any military issues. Kafka is a sadistic and brutal soldier and kills the pilot whilst under initial interrogation.
After this movie Baker disappeared from the film industry but appeared as himself in documentaries of Bruce Lee. and he has additionally appeared in several documentaries regarding the life and film career of Bruce Lee.
Mr Baker never opened a commercial school and only trained a handful of people after James Yimm Lee’s death as he felt he didn’t have the skill to pass on something so valuable and make money from it. He was more worried that he would make mistakes and not represent the art the way his instructors would want him to. Over the next 20 years believing what he had been taught wasn’t suitable for commercial style classes. His adherence to JKD principles was paramount. One of his closest friends from the Oakland school was Howard Williams who used to teach small classes of Jeet Kune Do in the Oakland area close to where it was developed.
When one of his students was asked if Bob did trapping, they said that , “Bob could trap and trap very effectively. When he trapped he hurt you and you were off balance almost immediately. The traps were short, sharp & not the complex ones you often see these days.” Did he like trapping, “He considered trapping was something to be done, if you found something stopping your hit,” and, “You didn’t go out to trap you went out to hit. If the guy blocked you and covered your attack line then you lap-ed, pak-ed or gum-ed and struck. You never trap for trapping sake. Trapping was a last resort not a first one. But, when you did trap you did it intensely, concisely and aggressively.”
An aspect of Kicking he always emphasised was to drop on target! Bob insisted that if you kicked you didn’t end up where you started, but instead dropped onto your target (ideally their foot) trapping their movement & hopefully scraping their shin in the process before pounding them.
The kicks were all low line, he never did extension kicks. According to Bobby James didn’t teach it although the Ou-tek was there. Bobby also used to emphasise no telegraphy (as he would call it shadow less kicking) and the need for fast effective footwork. Oakland used different terms for some of the footwork and term commonly known such as ‘sparking the gap’ and ‘blazing step’. Bobby never used an extension kick and yet according to many people it was part of the Oakland/LA period syllabus and a technique used by Bruce.
The extension kick is a hook kick used by Muay Thai fighters which uses the shin as the tool. It’s commonly used against the thigh. The Ou Tek was taught and used. He also used a very powerful back fist w ith great effect. This was part of what he used to call the ‘shadow less’ techniques of JKD.
Bob had only had a few real fights. He was a big guy and could look after himself. He told one of his students of one ‘match’ that happened at James’ garage when three karate guys dropped by to watch. The guys kept on saying that in their school they did this or that and in the end James asked one of them if they would care to spar with Bobby. The match lasted about three seconds. The guy threw a roundhouse or at least tried before Bob jammed him and knocked him heavily into one of the dummies.
Mr Baker knew some grappling, it helped because he had done a little Judo and wrestling in the early sixties but he wasn’t impressed with grappling compared to JKD. He believed that he would knock you down before you got close to taking him down. He was a powerful guy who really hurt when he hit you. He was an intense teacher and if you weren’t interested or got distracted he got frustrated and you knew about it. You had to pay attention all the time. He said, “100% was what Jimmy and Bruce demanded and why should I be different.”
Everybody said Bob was a really nice guy. Very straightforward and his knowledge of what was taught at Oakland was profound. He was naturally gifted, as a big guy he could move with incredible speed and awesome power and he could communicate skills so that anyone could understand. Some of his Knowledge came from time spent with Bruce on a on-on-one basis. He said a keynote of Oakland JKD was, “Getting the job done”. Simplicity was the main thing on Bobby’s mind. “JKD isn’t about trapping” he stated, it’s about “getting the job done and getting out”.
Jun Fan Kickboxing was Bruce attempting to deviate his art from Gung Fu and mak e it more universal. One thing was certain, he had a massive amount of respect for Bruce and Jimmy and they were his Sifu’s even though both had long since died.
Bob Baker travelled to England once with Howard Williams for a Bruce Lee convention organised by Chris Alexis called Tracking the Dragon in 1990. At the event Bob revealed that he had met Bruce Lee through his teacher James Yimm Lee at his house where he went to train.
He remembered that on the set of Fist of Fury he had a hard time knowing how to react on film especially in the scene where he has Bruce in a scissors head lock because he was not an actor so when Bruce bites him he really did bite him and he responded the right way, the only problem with this was he moved so quickly he nearly pulled Bruce’s teeth out and you see Bruce put his hand to his mouth in response to this and check they were all there.
He also revealed that Bruce had asked him to fight in the style of Wang Yu a popular Chinese martial arts actor at that time, when asked if they actually hit each other Bob’s reply was, “Yes! We did” he said most of the time in the film we were sparring except for a few of the camera angles, in which we imitated the fighting moves of Wang Yu.
When asked about the lost screen-test/trailer for Fist of Fury, he said he just remembered doing it and it was just Bruce’s way of showing Jeet Kune Do and how different it was to other martial arts films that were being made in Hong Kong at that time.
Bob did not remember much of appearing on TVB TV show which was a promotion for Fist of Fury but he did remember being Kicked down by Bruce quite a few times especially in the groin, which hurt a little.
He was passionate on stating how close a friend and teacher Bruce was to him and as a martial artist Bruce was the best he had ever seen but he did have a bad temper now and again.
Silent Flute Mirror Scene
One thing Bob did recall was of an idea Bruce had wanted to employ if he ever opened another martial arts school after Oakland, and this was way before Bruce had come up with the idea for the Martial Arts film The Silent Flute, It was that as you entered the school there would be a pair of dark red curtains and above them would be a sign saying beyond these curtains is the secret to your martial arts journey, when you opened them you would be confronted by a full length mirror , which was the same revelation that happed in The Silent Flute when the Book of Enlightenment is made up of mirrors reflecting the image of oneself.
Jeet Kune Do the Iceberg
Bob portrayal of Bruce Lee’s method of fighting was hard and forceful and he was meticulous in what you did. Bob considered JKD to be like an iceberg. The physical aspect of it rose above the water and was clear to see. However there was a hidden side which sank much deeper and it was this that Bob spent his life pursuing. JKD was instilled into every cell in his body. He was rightly proud of his close friendship with Bruce Lee and Jimmy Yimm Lee and certainly took secrets & many memories to his grave. He died on 14 April in 1993, Los Angeles, California, USA
Robert Baker we salute you RIP