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Raymond Chow, producer who made stars of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, dies at 91

Raymond Chow in 2005. (Vincent Yu/AP)

Raymond Chow, a Hong Kong film producer who introduced the world to Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan and even brought the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to the big screen, died Nov. 2 at 91.

Hong Kong’s secretary for commerce and economic development, Edward Yau, confirmed the death but did not disclose details. In a statement, he said Mr. Chow “helped nurture a pool of Hong Kong talents and brought them to the international stage.”

Mr. Chow was a journalist who became a publicist for the Shaw Brothers Studio, which churned out hundreds of films and popularized the kung fu genre. Studio founder Run Run Shaw soon moved Mr. Chow to the production side of the business after Mr. Chow complained that the movies — made on low budgets and short schedules — weren’t good enough.

“I said I did not think I could keep my job because the pictures were so bad,” Mr. Chow told Asiaweek magazine in 1983. Frustrated with Shaw Brothers’ assembly-line ethic, he created his own production company, Golden Harvest, in 1970.

He soon outmaneuvered his gigantic former employer to grab the actor who would become synonymous with kung fu movies. Mr. Chow signed Bruce Lee in 1971 after seeing him on a Hong Kong television variety show.

Golden Harvest signed Lee to a three-picture deal, with each breaking Hong Kong box office records. Those movies were followed by “Enter the Dragon,” the first Chinese martial arts film to be produced by a major Hollywood studio, Warner Bros. It cost $500,000 and earned $40 million at the box office. Lee died days before the film’s release in 1973.

Lee’s death left a void for kung fu heroes in Hong Kong’s film industry that young performers were eager to fill. Mr. Chow signed one of them, a former stuntman named Jackie Chan, in 1979.

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Chan’s first taste of success in Hong Kong had come the year before with the film “Drunken Master.” After signing with Mr. Chow, he made a number of increasingly popular Chinese-language action-comedy movies that made him a superstar in Asia.

Mr. Chow invested plenty of time and effort introducing Chan to Western audiences. He arranged for Chan to spend time in Los Angeles learning English and star in his first English-language film, 1980’s “The Big Brawl,” which flopped. A year later, Mr. Chow gave him a minor role alongside top Hollywood names in “The Cannonball Run.”

“Rumble in the Bronx” (1995) catapulted Chan to worldwide fame. The film was released on 1,700 screens in North America and grossed $32.4 million, becoming the most successful Hong Kong film released in the United States. Three years later, Chan teamed up with Chris Tucker in “Rush Hour” (1998), and became a full-fledged Hollywood star.

Chan acknowledged the debt he owed to Mr. Chow’s grooming. “Mr. Chow gave me a chance to follow my dreams,” he told Variety in 2000. “I think today that without Golden Harvest, there is no Jackie Chan.”

Golden Harvest also helped bring to the silver screen another set of unlikely martial arts characters, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which began as a comic book and then an animated kids’ TV show with a cult following. Intrigued by the name, Mr. Chow agreed to produce a live-action movie based on the four crime-fighting, human-size turtles after Hollywood rejected the idea.

The movie about the pizza-eating, surfer-lingo-spouting terrapins named after Renaissance artists became a worldwide smash.

Mr. Chow was born in Hong Kong on Oct. 8, 1927, to a nationalistic father skeptical of Western influences. Following his father’s wishes, he completed his secondary and university studies in Shanghai. Information about survivors was not available.

Mr. Chow, a bridge player, told Forbes in 1990 about the business lessons he learned playing cards. “When you are fortunate, you try to take advantage,” he said. “And when you get a bad hand, you just try to watch yourself, minimize your losses, so that you don’t get killed.”

Golden Harvest made its last film in 2003. Mr. Chow sold his controlling stake four years later to a Chinese businessman, who changed the name to Orange Sky Golden Harvest.

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