In the 1980s, they may have called him Bruce, but comedians still lovingly called him Johnny.
Johnny Yune, born Jong-seung in 1936 in the southern half of Korea when it had fallen under Japanese rule, who broke barriers in America as a stand-up comedian in the 1970s and starred in two martial arts movie parodies in the 1980s (They Call Me Bruce? and They Still Call Me Bruce) died on March 8, three years after being diagnosed with dementia. He was 83.
Yune’s name got Anglicized when he became a United States citizen in 1978; he first came to America, though, as a college student in 1962, studying music at Ohio Wesleyan University. He began performing stand-up a couple of years later in New York City.
Comedian Tom Dreesen recalls: “We were friends for 45 years. He was one of the most talented comedians I’ve ever known. Prior to becoming a comedian he was a singer who actually sang in seven different languages including Yiddish. He started doing comedy and had an act that had stand-up and also break into a short song in perfect Italian, “Ole Solo Mio.” He was trained in opera and would blow audiences away with his commanding voice and range. He did so many charities with me and even sang at my daughter’s wedding. I’ll miss you Johnny and thank you so much for your friendship.”
By the late 1970s, show business had caught on. In 1978, He appeared with a hyped introduction from Dick Clark on Dick Clark’s Live Wednesday variety showcase on NBC, with Clark noting that NBC already was giving the still-unknown Yune his own special.
The next year, in this The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson performance and panel, Carson notes that his show had discovered him first.
Yune would rack up more than 30 Tonight Show appearances.
He played a comedian in an episode of The Love Boat; a talk-show host on the all-star movie romp, Cannonball Run; plus roles in other 1980s films such as Nothing In Common and Gidget’s Summer Reunion.
Here’s a scene from They Call Me Bruce? (1982), where Yune plays a goofy Korean confused for Bruce Lee (as well as his character’s grandfather.
When the Summer Olympics came to Seoul, South Korea, in 1988, Yune was there, front and center, performing alongside Bob Hope and Brooke Shields. For two years afterward, Yune hosted his own talk show in Korea, The Johnny Yune Show (자니윤쇼).
Later in life, Yune regained his South Korean citizenship, becoming a dual citizen in 2013. From 2014-2016, he served as auditor for the Korea Tourism Organization.
Rest in Peace, Johnny.