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Fighting spirit

Mark Dacascos brings a lifetime of martial arts training to his "Hawaii Five-0" fight sequences

By Mike Gordon

LAST UPDATED: 2:14 p.m. HST, May 7, 2012

When it comes to expressing himself, actor Mark Dacascos can get the point across with his feet. The martial arts expert has used them with dramatic effect since he was a boy, but never with as large a following as he has now, playing the ruthless terrorist Wo Fat in "Hawaii Five-0."

Wo Fat at his worst is Dacascos at his best.

In this season's most intense fight scene so far, Dacascos delivered some serious hurt on the character played by Terry O'Quinn. The action in the October episode — "Ka Hakaka Maika‘i" ("The Good Fight") — lasted more than a minute as Wo Fat kicked O'Quinn's Lt. Cmdr. Joe White five times, including a roundhouse smack that sent the Navy SEAL crashing through a table.

Then it was almost lights out for White as Wo Fat strangled him with a phone cord. At the last moment, White escaped by hitting the terrorist in the face with a wooden knife block.

» "Hawaii Five-0" airs at 9 p.m. Mondays on KGMB


Crafting believable violence like that takes hard work and planning. But Dacascos, who was born in Hawaii and raised in a martial arts family, is a master of the fight scene. When his Wo Fat gets down and dirty — as he does in tonight's new episode of "Five-0" — rest assured it's Dacascos raining the blows and taking them as well.

"For the most part, when it comes to fighting, I like doing it myself," said Dacascos, sitting at a picnic table in Kapiolani Park. "Kicking, punching and all that stuff, I don't have any problem doing. I don't mind taking punches."

The fight between Dacascos and O'Quinn, which took about four hours to shoot, was not without risk. Typically, the more complicated the fight, the more risk involved, Dacascos said.

"To make a fight look real, you want to come as close as you safely can to each other with your strikes," he said. "So any time you do a fight, every single take, there is more of a chance of getting hit. Terry definitely risked getting hurt himself and definitely risked getting me hurt."

To prepare, every move was choreographed during a two-hour rehearsal as the actors tried to imagine the action from each character's point of view.

"You start playing with moves until things have a certain rhythm and a feel that you are happy with," Dacascos said. "Kicks, punches, knees, elbows. You try everything. What works, what is safe, what looks good. Then when you have everything blocked out, A to Z, you try to figure out if we are going to remember it and will we have enough time to shoot it."

The finished fight was punishing and perfect, said "Five-0" executive producer Peter Lenkov, who was there during filming.

"It was an all-out brawl," he said. "The end result, despite our actors and stunt folks walking away bruised, was an epic, raw and very real fight, one we use as the bar now when planning any upcoming fight sequences."

DESPITE his murderous alter ego, the 48-year-old Dacascos is an easygoing family man. He wears a necklace with photos of his three children, all of whom were born at Wahiawa General Hospital.

He started martial arts when he was 4, taught and inspired by his parents. Dacascos lived in Hawaii until he was 6, attending Ala Wai Elementary School before moving to the mainland.

His first tournament was at age 7. When he was 9, he won the peewee division at an international tournament in Long Beach by using a roundhouse kick to his opponent's ribs. It was a seminal moment for Dacascos.

"He cried because he was hurt," he said. "I cried because I hurt him."

Growing up, Dacascos focused on wun hop kuen do, a style of martial arts developed by his father, Al Dacascos, that incorporates kung fu, aikido, judo, jujitsu and forms of karate. The younger Dacascos would train six days a week, sometimes for as much eight hours at a time.

"For me it wasn't about winning trophies," he said. "I didn't save one martial arts trophy, and I had hundreds. I was just happy to train."

He retired from competition at 18 but never stopped training. Even now he works out three times a week, mostly doing muay Thai routines. It has left Dacascos as flexible as a high school cheerleader, strong as a gymnast and as ripped as a bodybuilder.

"I train not just for my acting, but for myself," he said.

He discovered acting at Portland State University, where he majored in Chinese and drama.

After starting out in 1986 with a part on the daytime soap "General Hospital," Dacascos built his film and TV career with action parts that tapped his martial arts skills: "Only the Strong," "The Crow: Stairway to Heaven," "Brotherhood of the Wolf," "Crying Freeman" and "Cradle 2 the Grave."

But that's changed in recent years. He's become known for TV shows that have nothing to do with martial arts, starring as the Chairman on the Food Network's "Iron Chef America" cooking competition, and as a celebrity contestant on ABC's "Dancing with the Stars," which drew up to 20 million viewers a week.

In fact, at the time "Five-0" sought him for the show's inaugural season, Dacascos had not thrown a punch or kick on camera in several years, he said.

Lenkov, who oversees every facet of "Five-0," had worked with Dacascos when the executive producer wrote scripts for "The Crow: Stairway to Heaven." He never considered anyone else for the part of Wo Fat. He liked everything about Dacascos, even the way he wore a suit.

"He doesn't need to say much to get his point across," Lenkov said. "He is actually a very difficult character to write because you don't want to overwrite his dialogue, but give him just enough to be the most powerful man in the room."

WHEN Dacascos brings his villain to life tonight, he'll square off with Steve McGarrett — played by Alex O'Loughlin — in a battle the show's stunt coordinator, Jeff Cadiente, called "epic." The crew used four cameras to capture the fight.

"It's our biggest yet," Cadiente said.

No one will even hint at the action involved except to note that Wo Fat is taking aim at McGarrett's head.

And that Dacascos asked his stunt double to do the kicking. The moves he was being asked to do reminded him of a scene he had shot a few years ago in China while working on a TV series about the late Bruce Lee.

The director there wanted Dacascos to get closer with his kick and hit harder. So he did. One take and it was over.

Dacascos had knocked the guy unconscious.

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