Warrior: Is Ah Sahm Based on a Real Gangster?

Created by Jonathan Tropper, ‘Warrior’ is a Max (formerly on Cinemax) martial arts crime drama series. Set during the 1870s Tong Wars in San Francisco, the plot revolves around Ah Sahm, a martial artist who arrives in the US to look for his older sister and almost inevitably becomes involved in the Tong Wars. Ah Sahm is left with little choice but to serve as a gangster in the Hop Wei tong. He soon discovers that his sister is still alive and now goes by the name Mai Ling (Dianne Doan). Moreover, she is married to the much older leader of Long Zii, the biggest rival tong of Hop Wei in Chinatown.

In the course of the series, Ah Sahm earns the respect of his people as he emerges as their protector from the police, the politicians, and the Irish mob. Given the historical background of the series, many of you might be wondering whether Ah Sahm is based on a real gangster. Here is what we know on the subject.

Is Ah Sahm Based on a Real Gangster?

No, Ah Sahm doesn’t seem to be based on a real gangster. The concept of the series was originally developed by Bruce Lee. In the early 1970s, Lee wrote an eight-page pitch for a television series called ‘Ah Sahm.’ The eponymous character is a Chinese martial artist who comes to San Francisco and becomes a hatchet man during the Tong Wars. The pitch follows Ah Sahm’s journey through the American West. Lee tried to get the show made but struggled to pitch it to Warner Bros. and Paramount. Linda Lee Cadwell, Lee’s widow, has reportedly claimed in her 1975 book, ‘Bruce Lee: The Man Only I Knew,’ that Warner Bros. later developed the show, ‘Kung Fu,’ starring David Carradine, from Lee’s concept after introducing certain changes to it.

However, Warner Bros. refuted this, claiming that they had already started developing the concept of the series. This was later reportedly supported by Fred Weintraub, the producer of ‘Enter the Dragon,’ in his memoir, and Matthew E. Polly in his 2019 biography, ‘Bruce Lee: A Life.’ These sources also apparently mention that Lee didn’t get the role primarily for his accent, but his ethnicity played a part in the rejection as well.

Lee’s only surviving child, Shannon Lee, serves as a producer on the show. Filmmaker Justin Lin approached her and expressed his interest in developing a TV series from her father’s pitch. “Justin said to me, ‘We should make this show but only make it if we can do justice to your father’s legacy,’” Shannon told The Los Angeles Times. “That was just music to my ears.”

Koji, like Lee and Ah Sahm in ‘Warrior,’ is a mixed-race actor. Ah Sahm’s fighting style and certain mannerisms have been inspired by those of Lee. While preparing for the role, Koji knew whose shoes he was stepping into, but not even for a moment he considered imitating or replicating the late actor and martial artist. “Bruce is a legend, and nobody can be Bruce,” Koji told Polygon. “But what I believe that he would have wanted me to have done with it, anyone who took on the role, was to bring it to life themselves.”

Jason Tobin, who plays Young Jun in the show, shares Koji’s sentiments. “I knew that whoever got this role would have a massive responsibility and pressure upon their shoulders,” Tobin told the same outlet. “Because it wasn’t just a fictitious character written on a page. This was Bruce Lee! And I remember our very first conversation, because everyone’s like, You’re Bruce Lee, you’re playing Bruce, and I said to Andrew, ‘No, man. You’re not Bruce Lee. You are Ah Sahm. And if you want to live the Bruce Lee philosophy, you need to express yourself, Andrew Koji, in this role. You’re not mimicking, you’re not copying, you are you.’”

Perhaps the biggest compliment came from Shannon, who stated that they all “felt like he [Koji] was the perfect choice. Because he had this real intelligence and creativity about him that, you know, in an essential way, reminded us of my father, but was very much his own.”

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