ONE GROUP OF ABC EXECUTIVES WILL never forget their first meeting six years ago with martial-arts whiz Ernie Reyes Jr., then all of 13 years old. In the middle of a calm discussion about Reyes’s possible casting as a tough street orphan in their new TV series Sidekicks, a group of hulking intruders burst into the Hollywood office and began attacking the boy. Reyes leaped into a breathtaking display of kicks and punches, flooring the bad guys in a matter of seconds. “I’d set it up so that I could demonstrate what I could do,” says the soft-spoken actor, smiling wistfully at the memory. “I didn’t want to have another boring old pitch meeting. But I’m beyond that now.”
If cardiac-arrest theatrics are behind him, it may be because the 5’3″, 119-lb. Reyes, 19, is getting his kicks these days in the movies—as Keno, the pizza deliverer—cum—tae kwan do king, in the smash hit Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze.
If kids are mobbing theaters to see their heroes on the half shell (the movie grossed $61.5 million in its first four weeks), Reyes’s stardom is something else again: While shopping at one West Hollywood mall, he was actually rushed by a gang of preschoolers crying, “Keno, Keno!”
Little could they know that Reyes’s preparation for ninjahood began with his genes. His father, Ernie Reyes Sr., a three-time national tae kwan do champion and black-belt Hall of Earner, began showing moves to his son when the boy was 5. Two years later, Ernie, who had lived with his mom, Sue Asinas, ever since his parents’ amicable divorce, moved in with Dad in San Jose, Calif., to train full-time.
At 8, Ernie became the youngest kid ever to be ranked among the country’s top adult martial-arts competitors. And by 12, already an old hand on the national martial-arts demonstration circuit, he felt ready for showbiz. “Even as a 4-year-old, Ernie would mimic funny lines from movies, repeating them maybe 100 times,” says his mother, an interior designer who now lives in Carmel, Calif.
In 1984 Ernie moved to L.A. with his father to break into acting. “We lived in a tiny one-room cottage,” says the elder Reyes, a gentle man who dotes on his son. “We lived, cooked, slept and prepared there. The conditions were rough, but the moments were golden. I wouldn’t trade them for anything.”
Just two years later, after landing a small part in the action flick The Last Dragon and a costarring role in 1985’s Red Sonja, Ernie nailed the Sidekicks lead—and made a sudden impact. “The first day, they were shooting a fight scene between Ernie and five or six other kids, all bigger than him,” recalls actor Gil Gerard, who played Ernie’s foster father. “He proceeded to throw them all over the playground. I said, ‘Whatever that kid wants, give it to him.”
When Ernie Sr. began commuting to northern California in 1988 to tend the growing chain of Ernie Reyes’s West Coast Tae Kwan Do Schools, his son proved remarkably self-reliant. Though often home alone, he graduated from Hollywood’s Excelsior School with a 4.0 average, not long after winning the part as Donatello’s stunt double in the first Turtles film. “We were wearing these heavy latex suits that everybody hated, in North Carolina, in the middle of summer, doing fights all day long,” says Ernie. “I sweated out four pounds a day and drank it back in water at night.”
These days Ernie watches his waistline with a strict vegetarian diet (“not even fish, eggs or dairy”), practices martial arts and fends off criticism from some psychologists and education professionals that Turtles promotes violence among grade-schoolers. “Violence compared to what?” he says. “Compared to Wile E. Coyote in Road Runner, who was always getting rocks smacked on his head? Or to Home Alone, where a hot iron drops straight on somebody’s face? Or to Bambi?”
In fact, Reyes sees himself as a positive role model for aspiring tae kwon doers. “In the movie, Splinter [the Turtles’ mentor rat] tries to teach me that the idea isn’t to go out and fight. Martial arts isn’t just kicking and punching. It’s discipline and respect.”
Reyes, whose parents are of Philippine descent, also hopes that his role will lead to more representation for Asians in movies and TV. “There’s no Asian sitcom like The Cosby Show or A Different World, no Asian who comes close to the superstardom of Eddie Murphy or Sidney Poilier. That’s why I want to get into producing and directing,” says Reyes. “Then I’ll be the decision maker, and Til say what is acceptable and what’s not.” That’s fair warning, Hollywood: Ernie Reyes will return.
MARIE MONEYSMITH in Los Angeles