ONE OF THE WORLD'S MOST POPULAR movie stars is sipping jasmine tea in a restaurant in Park City, Utah, site of the recent Sundance Film Festival—but getting the waiter's attention could be a problem. Around the globe, Jackie Chan's 43 action comedies have earned hundreds of millions—a testament to the Hong Kong native's martial arts wizardry, a slapstick sense that has been compared to Buster Keaton's, and some bravura stunt work. For art's sake, the 5'9" Chan has roller-skated beneath a speeding truck, jumped from a plane to a hot-air balloon, and dangled from helicopters and Hovercrafts. But there's one feat he hasn't pulled off: a big hit in the U.S. "Everywhere else, Jackie Chan gets mobbed," says Chan, 41. "But in America, I am a very small potato."

The next few months should put some starch in Chan's Stateside reputation. Backed by a major Hollywood distributor—New Line Cinema—a Chan-produced movie is finally in wide U.S. release. Rumble in The Bronx opened to enthusiastic reviews last month and grossed $10 million in its weekend debut. Later this year, Miramax will reissue two of Chan's earlier films, Crime Story and Drunken Master II. To young, hip film buffs, such exposure is long overdue. Popular for his dynamic, video-game-character-like moves, Chan has become an art house favorite and last June won lifetime achievement honors at the MTV Movie Awards. "He is one of the greatest physical comedians since sound came into films," Quentin Tarantino said when presenting the award. "If I could be any actor, I would have the life Jackie Chan has."

Tarantino might think again if he saw Chan's X rays. In his career the actor has broken his jaw, shoulder, three fingers, and his nose three times. In 1986, while filming The Armour of God, he leaped from a castle to a tree, missed a branch and fell 40 feet, fracturing his skull on a rock. He nearly died but now delights in showing off the scar-covered divot in his scalp. "As long as the camera is rolling, I'll just do it," he says.

Chan was toughened by a painful childhood. The son of Charles and Lee-Lee Chan, an embassy cook and maid, Chan was left behind at age 7 to study at the Chinese Opera Institute when his parents moved to Australia for new jobs. To Western ears "opera" spells music, but to the Chinese it's a militaristic discipline. Chan rose at 5 a.m. and practiced martial arts and singing until midnight. Those who did not do well were thrashed. "I was beaten every day," he recalls. "I was very angry."

By the time Chan graduated at 17 in 1971, Bruce Lee's success had sparked a moviemaking boom in Hong Kong. Chan found work as a stuntman, but his expertise in kung fu quickly led to starring roles. It was in 1978, in Drunken Master, that he found his style—with comedy. "When Bruce Lee punched someone, he kept going like it didn't hurt," says Chan. "I shake my hand and go, 'Ow!' "

Success in Asia was immediate. On a foray into Hollywood in the early '80s, a minor spot opposite Burt Reynolds in Cannonball Run and the humorless kick-'em-up The Big Brawl won Chan little notice. But in Hong Kong, he earns $4 million per film and has full control over each movie, down to the title songs he performs. Says Chan: "Every movie I treat like my son—more important than my real son."

That would be J.C., 13, Chan's child with his wife of 15 years, Taiwanese actress Lin Feng-Chiao. The two now live apart, and Chan, who sees J.C. only three or four times a year, stays alone in a penthouse in Hong Kong's tony Repulse Bay area. In contrast to his raucous movies, Chan's life is both tame—"If you ask him to go bungee-jumping for fun, he won't do it," says Rumble director Stanley Tong—and quiet. "I cannot drink, smoke or go to the karaoke," he says. "I must present a good image. I want to be like John Wayne—a film person that people admire and respect."

And recognize. Back in Park City, an L.A. scriptwriter stops at his table. "Jackie Chan! We love you!" he says. Chan punches the air and grins. "This is what I want!" he cries. "I want everyone in America to do that!"

GREGORY CERIO
CATHY FREE in Park City, TODD GOLD in Los Angeles and ANDREA PAWLYNA in Hong Kong

  • Contributors:
  • Cathy Free,
  • Todd Gold,
  • Andrea Pawlyna.