Joe has eye of the Tiger

REMEMBER this classic James Bond movie moment?

In Diamonds Are Forever, Sean Connery and a blond diamond-smuggler named Peter Franks scrap it out in a rising glass elevator.

In typical fashion, 007 takes a pasting from the powerful baddie until he manages to make a late comeback, blinding Franks with foam from a fire extinguisher.

Bond then hurls his nemesis over a bannister to send him plunging six storeys to his death.

"Then Jill St John, who was absolutely beautiful, bent over me and I couldn't help but open my eyes. Sean Connery shouted: 'Joe, you're supposed to be dead!'"

'Tiger' Joe Robinson, who played Franks in the 1971 Bond film, grins as he recalls the most famous moment of his low-profile, but colourful movie career.

When Joe popped into The Visitor offices during a recent holiday in Morecambe, he was keen to share this and other tales from his days as a cinema action hero.

The bodybuilder, wrestler, fight co-ordinator and martial arts expert starred in 37 films in the 50s, 60s and 70s, alongside such luminaries as Errol Flynn, Diana Dors and Anthony Quinn.

And away from the cameras, he rubbed brawny shoulders with everyone from Frank Sinatra to Kirk Douglas.

In his day he was known as 'The Blond Beefcake', an adonis of a man with rippling muscles, and even now it is easy to see why.

To say Joe is proud of his body is putting it mildly.

A confident character, the Tiger needed no encouragement to remove his shirt and show off the kind of tanned physique most men 50 years younger would envy.

As for his grip, it could surely crush rocks.

"That was my soft one," he grins as we shake hands and he nearly lifts me straight off my feet.

Even today, it appears Joe Robinson is not a man to be messed with. The formidable figure, born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne but with ancestral links to South Cumbria, is now retired from the silver screen and lives in Brighton.

He spends much of his time travelling the world but has a soft spot for Morecambe.

Not only do his cousin Lillian Simpson and her husband Bob live at Overton, but back in the late 40s and early 50s, 'Tiger Joe' was a top professional wrestler at The Winter Gardens.

Just like modern movie action hero The Rock, Joe was a third generation wrestler, following in the footsteps of his grandfather and father.

He trained in many different forms of combat, including judo and karate, while growing up in South Africa.

With his blond hair, rugged looks and powerful build, Joe soon became a big box office attraction after joining the UK pro wrestling circuit in his early 20s.

"I came along before the TV era and the likes of Mick McManus," he says.

"People queued around the block to see what was billed as my six foot seven inch flying drop kick."

The highlight of Joe's career in the ring came in 1952 when he beat former Olympic champion Axel Cadier to win the European Heavyweight Wrestling Title at the Royal Albert Hall.

However, after injuring his back while wrestling in Paris, Joe returned to his first love – acting.

"I've been a film fan all my life and my hero was Errol Flynn," he says.

"I eventually got to do a film with him and it was the most amazing thing."

He had trained some years earlier at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) and appeared in a number of minor film roles.

But his big break came after he landed the part of Harry 'Muscles' Green in the London stage musical 'Wish You Were Here'.

Joe was spotted by writer Wolf Mankowitz, whose novel 'A Kid For Two Farthings' was to be adapted for film in 1955.

"They were considering Kenneth More for the part but it called for someone who knew how to wrestle and anyway, he was much smaller than me," said Joe, who loves to talk about his height (he remains a strapping 6ft 1ins tall) and how it compared to other actors of the time.

"Everyone exaggerates their height in Hollywood and leading men wear lifts in their shoes to make them seem taller," he says knowingly.

The Tiger was cast as Sam, a gentle giant who dreams of becoming Mr World and in the film's closing sequence, beats former boxing champion Primo Carnera in a wrestling match.

He was also the love interest of Diana Dors, who was then known as 'The British Marilyn Monroe'.

"I kissed her on screen, she was absolutely beautiful and she said I reminded her of Burt Lancaster," said Joe, who does not mind giving the impression that he was, and perhaps still is, a bit of a ladies' man. A Kid For Two Farthings was a success and Joe was invited to the Cannes Film Festival of 1956.

He stayed at the plush Carleton Hotel in Cannes and says he danced with Hollywood leading ladies Brigitte Bardot, Sophia Loren, Esther Williams and Grace Kelly.

Joe also gave a judo exhibition on the sands, where legendary musical star Gene Kelly joined in.

The sky seemed to be the limit for Joe but then his five-year contract with London Films collapsed on the death of Alexander Korda, producer of A Kid For Two Farthings.

He was offered a part in the 1956 adaptation of Alexander The Great, starring Richard Burton, but director Carol Reed advised him to turn it down. Joe admits this was a mistake. "I thought I was a big star and perhaps success went to my head," he says.

From there the offers began to dry up. He did make the odd bit-part appearance here and there, such as alongside Roger Moore in TV show The Saint and as a gladiator in the 1962 Anthony Quinn film 'Barabbas'.

"I played all kinds of roles – Vikings, Nazis, you name it – but I turned down the part of the 'gong man' for J Arthur Rank because I thought it would typecast me," he explains.

His movie career seemingly on its last legs, Joe concentrated on running his martial arts centre in Brighton and his gym in London.

But then he was offered the spot in Diamonds Are Forever through his friendship with Sean Connery.

Sean trained at Joe's gym during the 1960s. The Tiger also knew Honor Blackman, Connery's leading lady in the film Goldfinger, from the time he trained her in judo and they co-wrote a martial arts book.

"I nearly got the part Robert Shaw eventually played in From Russia With Love, but Shaw was Sean Connery's golf partner and that's why he got it," says Joe.

"I think Connery felt a bit guilty about that.

"We were the same height so he recommended me for Diamonds Are Forever.

"I was getting paid 2,000 for the part and Connery said that was rubbish, because he didn't like the producers and thought he was badly paid.

"So thanks to him I ended up with 9,000, which was a lot of money in those days."

Joe's biggest acting role since Diamonds Are Forever was seven years ago, when he played Burt Lancaster in a documentary on the American actor's life.

But his reputation as a tough guy has continued to open doors for him. In the early 80s Joe was invited to Hollywood, where he was a guest at the homes of Kirk Douglas and Frank Sinatra. "Sinatra invited me to his house and he served everyone, including his own staff, with spaghetticarbonara," he says.

He also knows Arnold Schwarzen-egger, whom he says looked up to him as a young bodybuilder.

Joe says with pride: "Schwarzen-egger used to say I had the best shoulders he had ever seen."

The Tiger's legend as a hard man was put to the test six years ago in Cape Town when he was attacked by muggers on a street corner.

Joe's eyes widen, the veins in his neck bulging as he assumes a fighting stance to re-enact this frightening moment.

"There was nine of them, two with baseball bats, one had a knife and one had knuckle dusters.

"I said to them: 'Are you tired of living? Come on punks, make my day'.

"I used my years and years of judo experience to throw the first man and break his arm, beat a few of them up and then I ran like bloody hell!"

This story is straight out of the movies; a pensioner 'cleaning house' on a gang of thugs.

Certainly the South African newspapers had a field day when they found out about his heroic deed.

"The headlines said: 'The Tiger Shows His Claws!'" says Joe.

"I felt revitalised and like a hero again. It proved to me I could still fight.

"It was only later on that it affected me. I used to wake up screaming because they really could have killed me."

Thankfully, he survived to tell the tale.

Twice-married Joe is now a father of four, with 11 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

Even so, this immensely proud man would rather not admit his true age.

He concedes to being "in my 70s" but prefers to say "I was born on the same day as Clint Eastwood and I'm younger than Roger Moore.

"People say I look like Harrison Ford and could pass for 50."

He laughs a deep, throaty laugh, then taps me playfully on the arm, nearly knocking me off my chair.

Whatever his age, there certainly appears to be plenty of life left in this Tiger.