“Uh Oh, Chongo!”: “Danger Island” and the daredevil life & career of Kim Kahana

By on October 8, 2015

On September 7, 1968, an hour-long Saturday morning variety show debuted on NBC called “The Banana Splits Adventure hour,” and interspersed during the hour, along with three ongoing cartoon series which were all quite good (“The Arabian Knights,” “The Three Muskateers,” and “The Micro Ventures”), was a live-action serialized drama, “Danger Island.” 

Of all the characters on the serial, Kim Kahana’s Chongo — who spoke only in a series of monkey-like chatters and bird calls — was one of the more remarkable, but the actor portraying him onscreen had already lived a life that was probably even more interesting than his TV persona was.

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“Danger Island” was actually edited down from more than three hours of live-action adventure into 36 short little episodes, roughly ten minutes long, each one ending in a suspenseful cliffhanger which was quickly resolved at the beginning of the next episode (though we’re sure we likely didn’t know the meaning of “cliffhanger” at the time).

“Danger Island” was shot over a seven-week period in locations in and around Acapulco, Mexico, and directed by Richard Donner, who would later direct popular feature films like Superman and Superman II, The Goonies, and Lethal Weapon. It was actually intended to be sort of a live-action version of another Hanna-Barbera series we liked very much at the time, a cartoon that aired in prime-time for awhile: “Jonny Quest.” The characters were similar, in fact: like “Jonny Quest,” “Danger Island” concerned a trio of explorers (some of them related to each other) who had found themselves in danger.

There was a professor and archaeologist, named Prof. Irwin Hayden, played by actor Frank Aletter. He was accompanied by his cute blonde daughter and frequent damsel-in-distress Leslie Hayden, played by actress Ronne Troup (the actual daughter of actor and singer Bobby Troup and step-daughter of actress/singer Julie London, both of whom we’re sure you remember from TV’s “Emergency” show). She is probably better known, however, as “Polly Williams Douglas” on the long-running TV sitcom “My Three Sons,” appearing on the show from 1970-1972. Rounding out the trio was the professor’s assistant, Lincoln “Link” Simmons, played by actor Jan-Michael Vincent, before his career took off.

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They’ve come to this beautiful island setting, a group of South Pacific islands, in order to look for the professor’s brother, who was also an archaeologist and had disappeared five years earlier while he was searching for the mythical lost city of Tobonya.

Somewhere along the way they’re joined by a shipwrecked merchant marine named Elihu Morgan (Rockne Tarkington) and Morgan’s young mute sidekick Chongo, our favorite character on the show, played by actor-stuntman Kim Kahana. The mischevious Chongo frequently finds himself in trouble on the island, which is what led to the repetition of the series catchphrase, “Uh oh, Chongo!”

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(Left to right): Kim Kahana, Ronne Troup, Rockne Tarkington, Frank Aletter, and Jan-Michael Vincent.

These “good guys” are pursued by a group of bumbling but heavily-armed modern-day pirates, the “bad guys,” led by the murderous Captain Mu-Tan (Victor Eberg), and they’re searching for Tobanya too because because of the rumored lost treasure they’re hoping to find on the island.

Both sides have to deal with a group of not one, not two, but THREE tribes of cannibalistic natives known individually as “the Headhunters,” “the Skeleton Men” and “the Ash Men.”

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The series jammed a lot of violent action into each ten-minute episode, whether it meant diving off boats into shark-infested waters and then wrestling with sharks as they swam to shore, or fighting off island prey like cheetahs once they’ve made it ashore, and then, of course, a many of the episodes dealt with escaping from one of the three headhunting island native groups, or fighting Mu-Tan’s pirates.

Pretty heavy stuff for a Saturday morning cartoon show — one minute you’re watching grown men in Banana Split costumes monkeying around at an amusement park, or a cartoon based on a popular old adventure book like The Three Muskateers, and the next minute — “Uh Oh, Chongo!” -- there’s cannibals tying up a pretty young blonde girl and sharpening their knives, hoping she’s going to be rescued before lunch. (Before she becomes lunch).

By the time he appeared on “Danger Island,” Kahana had already packed a lot of life into his thirty-eight years. Born in the Hawaiian Islands on October 16, 1929 (some sources say 1930) of both Hawaiian and Japanese descent, Kahana dropped out of school in the third grade, unable to read and write.

His father was in the U.S. Coast Guard — he transferred around from Sand Island to Osaka, Japan, and back to Hawaii during Kahana’s early childhood — was also a judo and aikido instructor, and befor the age of five Kim Kahana was already studying martial arts, including karate, but became interested in the art of the Samoan knife and fire dancing.

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He was a restless boy, and he wanted to go to the mainland, so, at age nine (after already earning his first black belt in judo), he stowed away on a ship bound for San Francisco, but he was discovered when they were out at sea and brought back to Hawaii.

Then, in December 1941, he witnessed the bombing of Pearl Harbor. He stowed away again at age thirteen, and this time made it all the way to San Francisco, and from there hitchhiked and hopped trains across the country, stealing food to survive, and he ended up living with his uncle in New York, who was working in Xavier Cugat’s band. His uncle taught Kahana to play the drums, and soon he was performing as a knife and fire dancer in a stage show called Samoan Warriors.

He enlisted in the U.S. Army during the Korean War, and became a member of the Airborne Ranger Unit, where he became a paratrooper. He was captured by the enemy during the war and even faced a firing squad, who shot him, but he didn’t die — Kahana pretended to have been killed, though, and his body tossed into a mass grave, but he says he later crawled out of the pile of his dead comrades and returned to the battlefront. Kahana claims that it was a single penny in his pocket that stopped a bullet from killing him.

Kahana also reports that during the war a hand grenade exploded so close to his head that he was left sightless for two years before he eventually regained some of his eyesight in his right eye. He remained permanently blind in his left eye, however, for the rest of his life. For his bravery, Kahana was awarded the Silver Star and two Bronze Star Medals, as well as two Purple Hearts.

After the war, he began working as an extra in the movie business. Some of his first roles include parts as a “native,” or a “fire dancer,” but another one of his first roles was as a motorcycle rider in 1953’s The Wild One, starring Marlon Brando. A few years later, in 1955, he was in a plane crash, and survived — 32 others, everyone else on board, were killed.

At some point in the early 1960s, he decided that since stuntmen were making more than the bit-part actors were making, that he’d rather focus on that. He played a convict in the 1967 film Cool Hand Luke, starring Paul Newman (he was uncredited, but was hired to do stunts on the film), training with legendary Hollywood stunt people like Yakima Canutt and John Eppers.

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Kahana (left) in Cool Hand Luke (1967)

Kahana soon became of the legendary stuntmen in the business, working as a stunt coordinator on fight scenes and stunts (often uncredited) for a career that included more than 300 movies and television programs, highlighted by appearing in 28 episodes of “Kung Fu,” as well as appearing on some of our favorites, like “Mission: Impossible,” “The Six Million Dollar Man,” “Vega$,” “Magnum P.I.,” “Charlie’s Angels,” “Quincy,” “Fantasy Island,” and “The Brady Bunch.” He often also did the stunts for TV actresses — including Stephanie Powers in “The Girl from U.N.C.L.E.,” and Sally Field on “The Flying Nun” — because of his small stature (Kahana stood just 5 foot, 7-inches tall).

Kahana also doubled for Charles Bronson in his films for over twenty years, and he became one of the highest-paid stunt people in the business. He also broke his bones more than 60 times over his first three decades of work as a stunt performer. He studied martial arts in Japan, where he earned six black belts, and also studied (and no doubt became a master of) both aikido and jujutsu.

Kahana continued acting in films too, most of these small roles coming after he made his memorable appearance as Chongo on “Danger Island” — if you look closely, you’ll see him in Planet of the Apes, Che! (with Marlon Brando), Patton, The Omega Man, Joe Kidd, Soylent Green, The Dirty Dozen, The Magnificent 7, The Mechanic, Death Wish, and he appeared in the Burt Reynolds’ Smokey and the Bandit movie franchise, and in some of Irwin Allen’s disaster films, among many others.

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Since the early 1970’s, Kahana moved away from doing “life-threatening” stunts (he was once paid $52,000 to drop, suspended from cable, from a jet helicopter to a hole in the side of a 747) while continuing to coordinate action sequences and do less-dangerous stunt work. He then became very involved in on-set stunt safety, serving as a member of the Stuntmen’s Association of Motion Pictures and then for eight years on the Screen Actors Guild Safety Investigative Team and the Stunt Safety Committee.

He also began running companies of his own, more recently including a production company called Stunt Action & Safety Coordinator, Inc. that runs second unit production for major motion pictures, and a bodyguard agency, employing as many as 30 people at once.

It all began, however, in 1972, when he opened the Kahana Stunt School, first located in Chatsworth, California, on the southwest corner of Devonshire and Owensmouth, and then relocated to Groveland, Florida, where it continues to exist to this day.

Kahana has said that he “noticed that the profession was being overrun with young daredevils who were killing themselves and injuring others. These daredevils who encouraged daring feats by those with more guts than common sense. I didn’t want to stop the newcomers from coming, but I did want to make sure they knew how to do their jobs without killing themselves or someone else.”

Kahana’s school was first created for those who were already in the stunt business, training performers who were already doing stunt work and concerned about safety, as well as how to navigate the motion picture and TV industries, but two years later, he opened enrollment to include members of the public, and it was at that point that the movie industry veteran stunt performers began to bristle at the idea that Kahana was essentially giving away (for a price) what they considered trade secrets, so Kahana resigned from the Stuntman’s Association of Motion Picture.

He continued teaching at the stunt school, which is also operated as a martial arts dojo/school (Kahana is known as both a martial arts and hand-to-hand combat instructor and weapons expert).

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Since 1972, many young men and women (more than 15,000 in total) who have attended his stunt school have gone on to establish themselves as respectable stunt-people and stunt coordinators. Kahana’s three sons (Tony, Rick, and Kim Jr.) and one daughter (Debbie), all teach at Kahana’s school, and hold black belts in karate and they have also performed in numerous blockbuster films.

Kahana’s wife Sandra also works as the lead administrator for the stunt school, now a part of his many-faceted $5-million corporation, located on a 100-acre ranch in Central Florida, which has become world renown for movie companies to use for their productions as well as teaching actors and stunt people to learn their craft.

About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.
  • Jeff Baker

    Wow! What an incredible story! There should be a movie about him!