Nobody will bother Jhoon Rhee again. If anybody ever did, that is.
Rhee, a leading proponent of martial arts in the U.S. from the 1970s on, has died. The longtime resident of the Washington, D.C. area was 86 years old.
Rhee, a Korean immigrant, taught self-defense to America’s power people, with a client list that included presidents (Lyndon Johnson and George H.W. Bush), speakers of the house (Newt Gingrich and near-miss Bob Livingston), movie icons (Bruce Lee, who Rhee said did not know how to throw a kick before their sessions together) and even a world heavyweight champion: He trained with Muhammad Ali at the fighter’s Deer Park, Pa., camp beginning in 1975, before his bout with Joe Frazier, dubbed the Thrilla in Manila. Ali said Rhee re-worked his jab into a combination of boxing and karate techniques, and dubbed the fusion the “Accu-Punch.” Ali claimed he used his new weapon to incapacitate Richard Dunn, the last knockout victim of his career.
But Rhee was most famous for the television and radio commercials for his chain of self-defense schools, which he produced beginning in 1970. The first TV spots featured his two young children: a son, Chun, then only 3 years old, and 2-year-old daughter, Meme. The spokeskids uttered a catch-phrase their dad came up with, “Nobody bother me!” accompanied by a jingle, written and recorded by budding local artist (and future Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen guitarist) Nils Lofgren. Anybody who spent any time in the D.C. area from the 1970s on knew and likely sang along to the tune. Just try to get it out of your head:
Rhee’s taekwondo schools thrived, in no small part because of the martial-arts boom sparked by Kung Fu, a television series starring David Carradine that aired on the ABC network from 1972 to 1975. And Rhee’s ads and theme song had incredible legs, even getting a nod from The Americans, a period-piece show where writers work overtime to get everything right about D.C. in the 1980s.
Rhee told me in 2000, at the age of 68, that to stay in top shape he did 1,000 pushups a day and would hold one leg over his head whenever he watched television. His goal, he said then, was to “live to be 136.”
Alas, he didn’t make his target age. But to generations of D.C. residents, Rhee seems utterly immortal.