Thursday, March 20, 1997 | 11:59 a.m.
He has a face most people know and a name most people don't.
Branscombe Richmond became a person almost everyone recognizes but can't name through bit parts in action movies with big stars. He was usually the heavy, and always the loser in brawls with Norris, Van Damme, Seagal, Schwarzenegger and Stallone.
"I get that a lot," he says. "I'll be walking by and someone will say, 'Hey, that's' ..."
Richmond's voice trails off.
"It doesn't bother me at all. Fame is not an important thing for me. I prefer the fortune. Can I have some more fortune, please? Having fame is a pain in the butt."
As if to prove the point, he recalls an incident at a Stevie Wonder concert he attended with his wife.
"A couple of rows back I hear this guy saying (to his friends), 'That's that tough guy in the movies.' The concert hasn't even started, and this guy says, 'Hey, you think I could take him?' That's when you realize there's a fine line between entertainment and reality.
"I fought Jean-Claude, Arnold, Sly, Stephen and Chuck Norris (in the movies), and I can't imagine what it must be like to be like that."
But Richmond, a genuine nice guy whose amiability belies his screen image, can envision his career path.
"If I can play Las Vegas and still do television and motion pictures, I think it helps each other. I mean, Cher does it. Bette Midler does it. It's just who's going to be the next generation of actor-musician."
It's an apt description of Richmond, who in addition to having a featured role (Bobby Sixkiller) in the syndicated TV series "Renegade" and a succession of minor film roles, leads a 10-piece group called the Renegade Posse Band.
He brings them to town for a one-nighter on Friday. The group includes a pair of singers from Las Vegas, Wailana Lee and Laura Angelini.
"Oh, man, I'm so excited. This is the first time to be on the Strip for me. I've played Vegas a couple of times before, but never on the Strip. I want to be part of the new Rat Pack. Can we have a new Rat Pack? Let's come up with a list. Let's see ... Wayne Newton, Tom Jones, Geechy Guy, Branscombe Richmond, Pat Morita..."
This is Richmond's way of slyly mentioning his opening act, the "Karate Kid" and "Happy Days" star who called himself "The Hip Nip" when he performed his standup act here in less politically correct days.
"Do you think Las Vegas will come back to that?" Richmond asks, continuing the Rat Pack theme.
Informed that it probably wouldn't, he went on, undeterred.
"You can still have the Rat Pack 2000. I'll quarterback. I just need some receivers and some hotel bookers who believe in it."
Accordion to Richmond
In the course of a 30-minute telephone interview, you find out many interesting and salient things about Branscombe Richmond, the first of which is, he played the accordion. For 13 years.
This isn't so much a proud revelation as an admission of guilt.
"You don't get any girls that way," he says. "You get a monkey with a tin can and loose change. And I wore glasses. I was a tall, skinny kid growing up in a Jewish neighborhood, wearing glasses and playing the accordion. Plus, I had a mustache. You know that 16-year-old mustache? That fine hair? Oh, man."
He eventually graduated to guitar, then to piano.
"I really wanted to play sax," he says, "but my dad said you couldn't sing and play sax at the same time."
Richmond grew up in Southern California and claims he was "the only person of color in Encino before the Jacksons moved in."
Jermaine Jackson, he says, was in his high school graduating class and voted best-dressed male. Richmond was voted best dancer.
"There you go. He was hardly in school and he still got best-dressed."
What a Card
Richmond also had designs on a professional baseball career. He was drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals out of high school. Failing to get a winter-ball assignment after a year and half, he went to an open tryout in Florida -- where his aspirations melted during a sprint to first base.
That was the first skills test for all the players, and the only one for many.
"The coaches were like, 'Thank you, next. Thank you, next.' If you got a thank-you, you pack your bag and go home, and I got a thank-you. I went up to them and said, 'I'm here for a tryout and you only had me run to first base.'
"One of the coaches lowers his glasses and says, 'We can teach you how to hit, field and throw, but we can't teach you how to run fast to break up a double play.' I went back home with my tail between my legs. I cried the whole way home."
Where he took a job in a nightclub upon his return.
"I was checking IDs. I was an underage bouncer. Some guys would go, 'Wait a minute, weren't you in my class?' My dad was getting concerned that his kid was gonna hang out in nightclubs forever. I was winning dance contests and singing, so he said, 'You're gonna go back in the film business but you're gonna start at the bottom'" (as an extra).
Road to stardom
Richmond had made his motion-picture debut at age 6 in the Marlon Brando version of "Mutiny on the Bounty."
While working as an extra in his second incarnation in movies, he got his first break.
"One of the stunt guys didn't show up for work one day, so the stunt coordinator came up to me and said, 'Can you run through a stampede of cattle?' I did with about four other stunts guys. I was the fastest out there, which was kind of ironic."
Following that picture, "Castaway Cowboy" with James Garner and Vera Miles, Richmond began hustling stunt work and ultimately made his name in the business that way.
Soon, he was being cast in movies and given speaking parts, setting his career in motion. He has appeared in "Batman Returns," "Hard to Kill," "Commando," "Licence to Kill" and "Star Trek III."
Richmond has also completed five seasons on "Renegade," the syndicated action series starring Lorenzo Lamas. The shooting schedule runs from June to January, and requires 16-hour days.
"We're seen by 60 million viewers a week internationally," says Richmond, whose own ethnicity -- French, English, Spanish, Italian, Aleut Indian, Tahitian, Hawaiian, German -- makes him a true international star.
He describes the Renegade Posse, which he formed four years ago, as a "rock, country and blues band."
Then he reconsiders.
"How about rhythm, country and shoes? There's a little country and enough funky blues in it to keep your feet tapping."