Emil Farkas is 64 years old, 5 feet, 8 inches tall and just 160 pounds. But you wouldn’t want to get on his bad side. Farkas is the founder of Beverly Hills Karate Academy and holds a seventh-degree black belt in karate, a fourth-degree black belt in judo and a fourth-degree black belt in jujitsu. “Not bad for an old man,” he says. Farkas has put his skills to good use, training Hollywood’s biggest names and earning the nickname “Sensei to the Stars.” His life is a world away from his childhood in postwar Hungary, where he was brought up by parents who survived the Holocaust. After the 1956 revolution forced his family to flee to a refugee camp, he eventually landed in Los Angeles, where a gig as the bodyguard for music producer Phil Spector introduced him to show business. He has trained the Beach Boys, Dennis Hopper and other celebrities, as well as some of L.A.’s top businessmen. He’s also the author of numerous books and screenplays – his latest, naturally, is called “Ninja Nanny” – and he recently started a martial arts-themed magic company. Farkas recently sat down barefoot with the Business Journal in his West Hollywood dojo to discuss his childhood, his courtship of Hollywood and why he gravitated to martial arts.
Question: Were you the kind of kid who picked fights?
Answer: No. Absolutely not. I don’t like to fight. I had to work at it. I was not a natural fighter. I was athletic, but I was not a natural fighter.
Really? Then this seems like a funny career choice.
I have a hard time seeing bigger people pick on little people, whether it’s in business or in whatever. People take advantage of other people.
Were you picked on much?
Not an awful lot because the communists really controlled that. I was brought up in Hungary. The only thing is that every once in a while some kid would pick on you because you’re a Jew, but not (often). That was one of the interesting things under communism – everybody behaves themselves.
When was the last time you got into a real fight?
Three years ago.
It’s a funny story. There was a big truck parked out in the back. I happened to have a private lesson, so I go out to the driver and said, “Do me a favor and please pull your truck back so I can leave.” He said, “I’ll be done in about 10 minutes.” I said, “Well, that’s going to make me 10 minutes late, and all you have to do is get in the truck.” He said, “Buddy, don’t bother me.”
I said, “Look, I’m asking you nicely, but I’m going to go in the cab and move your truck.” He said, “Do that.” So I went over there and opened the door and got in the cab, and he grabs me. I took him and put him down, and that was the end of that. But I was nice about it.
Does being such a skilled fighter give you confidence in these everyday situations?
No question. Absolutely. You know that he hasn’t got a chance. I have one client who claims that he can now go to a negotiation and he says, “I’ll stand up to guys that at one time used to intimidate me; now I’ve got a black belt.” He feels that it has empowered him, and it’s true because martial arts empowers you.
If you walked outside right now, what percentage of the people do you think you could beat up?
That’s confidence. But you don’t really come off as aggressive. How would you describe yourself?
Easygoing, romantic, inquisitive – that’s basically my personality. I very rarely get upset. Very few things really get me going because it just doesn’t pay. One of the things martial arts teaches you is that the calmer you are, the more effective you are. I find that if you’re totally calm and relax and flow with things, things go a lot easier.
Were your parents supportive of you getting into martial arts?
It was interesting because I kept it as a secret from my parents at a very young age because they were the last people to believe in violence, despite what happened to them.
They were Holocaust survivors, right?
Yeah. That’s one of the reasons I got into martial arts – the last thing I ever wanted was for somebody to be able to do what the Nazis did to the Jews. But my parents were always pacifists. My attitude was totally the other way. I said, “That’s not going to happen.” I wanted to make sure I knew what I was doing.
Are your parents still alive?
My father is. One of the things I learned from my father is the fact that you can get through anything. He went through the Holocaust. He survived. He raised three kids. He says, “You don’t give in under anything; just keep going.” I give him all the credit in the world. He’s now 91 years old. I respect him enormously.
What kind of a childhood did you have in a communist state?
I had a perfectly decent childhood. The only problem was that in Hungary in those days, you were very restricted. I remember we didn’t have a refrigerator, so every morning you had to get up and go get ice. You had to drag this big piece of ice up three floors and put it in the ice bucket. It was a decent life – there was nothing wrong with it. But it certainly wasn’t the kind of life people have here. It was perfectly good until the revolution.
The Hungarian Revolution of 1956 didn’t last long, but it was bloody. What was it like living through that?
All of a sudden, I see people up on the rooftops, everybody shooting at each other, tanks coming down the street – which is very traumatic as a kid. Friends of mine were up there throwing Molotov cocktails at tanks. You would walk down streets and see people hung up on lampposts. I grew up very quickly.
When did your family decide to escape?
What happened is my father came home one day and said, “You know, pretty soon the tanks are going to come over here and blow the building up.” I remember we had more and more bombardments closer and closer. Originally it was far away, and then every day more bombs, more buildings being blown up closer and closer to the house. One day my father said that’s it, let’s get out of here and see if we can make it.
What did you do?
So (my father) said to pack your stuff. I had a little knapsack. I had a very small brother and sister, and my mother and father just took one little carry-on and that was it. We got on the train. He got himself some sort of passport that allowed him to supposedly work at a city that was right by the border. (From there), we had to do five-mile treks through the borders, making sure we don’t get caught by the Russians. We went to a refugee camp in Vienna.
Was there a culture shock when you came to Los Angeles?
I remember when I first arrived here, somebody gave me a banana, and he said this tastes great. So I bit into it – I had no idea you had to peel it because I’d never seen a banana. So there’s a lot of things you have to get used to.
Did you get a job?
I first started teaching karate at a karate school as a part-time thing. The two guys that owned the karate school were working as bodyguards for Phil Spector. These guys came to me and asked if I’d be interested working for this guy.
What a lucky break.
I was still very European, so I had no idea what Phil Spector and rock and roll was all about. I was under the impression that this was some big, rich inspector that I was working for. It took me about two weeks to figure out what this was all about.
Wow. Spector was one of the top music producers in the world at the time.
Oh, yeah. At that time, Phil was probably the greatest thing walking.
Did you two hit it off right away?
The first day they said, “Go to this address,” and it was a 35-room mansion and this little guy comes out in a fluffy shirt and Benjamin Franklin glasses, and I was like, “OK, whatever.” I figured it was an undercover guy doing God knows what. And we went to a James Brown concert. I’ll never forget that. This thing was the loudest thing I’ve ever heard.
Did you get to meet a lot of famous people?
Oh, yeah, I met all these guys. As I was working for him I started to realize who these people were as the big, famous people come into the house. Bob Dylan, the Beach Boys. You went to all the recording sessions with them and everybody was coming in and listening.
What is Dylan like?
He was nice. A little bit weird, because I couldn’t relate to these guys. But they were all nice guys. They treated me nice. Phil always said, “Show them how you can kick and punch.”
Yeah. I met John, I met – actually, I met all of them.
One day, I’m teaching karate here and somebody sits down and I look over and I’m doing a double take. Elvis Presley was sitting here. It was the weirdest thing. Apparently he was going to the Troubadour. He studied karate, and he saw this karate school. I had just opened it – I think it was 1970. He sat down and we had this hour conversation about martial arts. He was terrific. As a matter of fact, he had just opened up in Vegas at the Hilton and he sent me invitations to the opening.
Have you kept in touch with Spector?
Yeah, on and off.
What is your take on his recent murder conviction?
I think, sadly, he was stupid. Phil is not the kind of guy that’s going to kill somebody – he’s a little weird, and by the time this happened he was a lot weirder – but for him to shoot somebody coldly, no. Unfortunately, he had a lot of guns around, and I could just see it. Had he said, “Hey, it was an accident,” what would have happened? He would have gotten a few years and it would have been ended.
How did you get involved with choreographing fight scenes for television and movies?
Through Phil, because Phil was involved with “Easy Rider,” I met Dennis Hopper. Dennis became one of my students, and through Dennis I got involved with the motion picture end of things.
Where did you get the money to open the Beverly Hills Karate Academy in 1970?
Just saved up money. I was always a saver. And, thank goodness, to open a karate school is not expensive. I’ve got the lease, but the beauty of a karate school is you put in the mats, you put in the mirrors and then it’s (ready). The whole thing probably cost me $20,000.
How was business during the first few years?
It wasn’t that successful, but the advantage that I had was that I had a lot of private celebrity people that I was already teaching. The Beach Boys were students of mine, Buffalo Springfield were students of mine, Herb Alpert was one of my students, a lot of people. Also, I started teaching a lot of women because I was a bodyguard, so I really knew what went on in the street. A lot of what I was teaching was what they called practical self-defense. It took about five years, but I established a solid business.
These days you’re even more of a businessman. What else are you involved in?
I’m involved heavily in magic. As a matter of fact, I’m now starting a company called Ninja Magic Enterprises. I’m starting also to get into publishing. I have a friend that owns a publishing company, so we’re going to start trying to publish our own books on martial arts.
You’ve already written a few books.
I think I’ve just finished my eighth.
How did you get into it?
When I got heavily into the martial arts, I started to realize that everybody’s got questions. How long does it take to become a black belt? How old do you have to be to start? Almost every book on the martial arts was … how-to-do-it books. Almost nobody had written books that were for the general public. So I came up with the idea to do a book called “500 Questions and Answers on the Martial Arts,” which ultimately became “The Complete Martial Arts Catalog.” I started writing and it became a hobby and then eventually turned into something fairly lucrative.
You’ve also written screenplays?
I’ve written a bunch of screenplays. Two of them were made into movies: One was called “Vendetta” and the other one was called “Force Five.” I just finished a screenplay called “Ninja Nanny.”
Do you think you’ll ever retire?
No. I think retirement kills you. When you’re retired, I think you go down the drain. At my age, I think I’m as fit as most people because I work out all the time. Plus the fact that I enjoy what I do – you can’t beat that. I may get into other areas. I’d like to do more books. Someday I’d like to produce my own picture.
Are you married?
I was married a long time ago. I’ve been divorced a long while.
I have two boys. One of them runs a cigar company. The other one works in the movie business. He’s a cameraman and producer.
Are they into martial arts?
My youngest one is a martial arts black belt – in karate and jujitsu. The other one studied but he is now busy raising a family. He’s going to have his first child.
What can the average person get out of martial arts?
I have a lot of lawyers and doctors who come in and it is almost like a catharsis. People that are high-level executives or lawyers – they’re constantly under a lot of pressure. When they come in here, they get to kick a bag, they get to punch, they get to yell. That releases all that pent-up energy.
OK, I have to ask. How long would it take you to subdue me in a fight?
Ten seconds. Maybe less.
COMPANY: Beverly Hills Karate Academy
BORN: Budapest, Hungary; 1946
EDUCATION: B.A. and master’s, anthropology, California State University Northridge
CAREER TURNING POINT: Taking a position as a bodyguard for Phil Spector.
MOST INFLUENTIAL PEOPLE: Martial arts instructor Masatoshi Nakayama, theater entrepreneur and student Ted Mann, and martial arts author Joe Hyams.
PERSONAL: Lives in Sherman Oaks; divorced, has two adult sons.
ACTIVITIES: Magic, hiking, chess, watching movies, reading.
For reprint and licensing requests for this article, CLICK HERE.