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Cult TV: The Master Episode 1- ‘Max’

June 28, 2021 | Posted by Bryan Kristopowitz
Cult TV - The Master Image Credit: Kino Lorber

Cult TV Issue #6: The Master Episode 1

Hello, everyone, and welcome to the latest issue of Cult TV. I’m Bryan Kristopowitz.

So, where the heck has this column been since the last one, way back in February 2019, when I reviewed the first episode of Street Hawk (check out that column here)? Basically, despite my best efforts, I just didn’t have the time to keep doing it on top of everything else I was doing. I did plan on getting back to it multiple times in late 2019, then in early 2020, but it just never happened. Now, I think I’ve figured out how to do it with everything else I’m involved in. Instead of trying to review/talk about multiple episodes per column I will only do one episode per column. At the moment, that seems more doable.

So why am I not continuing with Street Hawk? Why am I moving on to the ninja show The Master? I don’t have any better reason beyond I just am. I do plan on getting to the rest of Street Hawk as the column progresses (12 more episodes to go!), but as I get back into the world of Cult TV I thought it would be cool to start off with something “new.” And The Master seemed like the “new” thing worth reviewing.

So that’s where Cult TV is. It’s still alive. It’s still a thing. I hope you like it.



The Master is a ninja based action adventure show that aired for thirteen episodes on NBC back in the winter of 1984 (the first episode aired on January 20th, 1984, and the final episode aired on August 31st, 1984). Created by Michael Sloan (Sloan would later create the original The Equalizer TV show), The Master stars Lee Van Cleef as John Peter McCallister, a World War II and Korean War veteran who trained in the ninja arts in Japan once his military service ended. McCallister eventually became a full on ninja master, the first Westerner to ever apparently do that. One day, McCallister decides to leave Japan and head to America to look for his daughter (he had no idea that he had a daughter). Wanting to do this pisses off his fellow ninja practitioners, especially his best student Okasa (the Sho Kosugi), who decides to go after his teacher and kill him. Taking out McCallister won’t be easy, as McCallister is “the Master” of the title.

When McCallister arrives in America he hooks up with, by chance, Max Keller (Timothy Van Patten), a sort of badass quasi vigilante who drives around to various towns in his custom van, fighting bad guys and helping people and whatnot. After agreeing to help McCallister find his daughter, Keller wants to learn martial arts and the ninja arts from McCallister, something McCallister is loath to do at first because he doesn’t believe that Keller has the discipline to follow through with the training. McCallister eventually relents and does agree to train Keller in the ninja arts.

And so Keller and McCallister head out on the road in Keller’s van, riding around to various towns to look for McCallister’s daughter and help people with their problems. Okasa hits the road, too, in hot ninja pursuit of McCallister. Will McCallister ever find his daughter? Will Keller learn the way of the ninja? Will Okasa find his old master and take him out?

The Master basically came out in the middle of the 1980’s “ninja craze” but was unable to maintain a large enough audience to stay on the air, which seems strange when you consider the amount of big time ninja content that was out in the world at the time. The “Cannon Ninja Trilogy” was about to be completed towards the end of the year with Ninja III: The Domination, the American Ninja phenomena was set to begin in 1985, and there were loads of low budget ninja movies on TV and in video stores all over the place. How could a ninja TV show not work, especially a ninja TV show featuring the goddamn ninja, Sho Kosugi?

I don’t really know. I can only venture a guess and say that, on a weekly broadcast network TV show budget, The Master, even with Sho Kosugi on the show and doing the show’s fight choreography and providing the kind of ninja insight that only he could/can, couldn’t deliver on the kind of ninja action ninja loving audiences expected. Just how spectacular could a TV show be compared to a movie like Revenge of the Ninja? I’d also suspect that, while a popular actor, audiences just didn’t buy Lee Van Cleef as a believable ninja master. How could this old man beat a guy like Sho Kosugi? It’s ridiculous.

So The Master was cancelled after 13 episodes. The show did manage to sort of live on after cancellation as the show was turned into a series of movies that were available to buy and rent. Typically, two episodes were put together as one of these movies and the title of the series was changed to The Master Ninja. According to The Master’s Wikipedia page, seven of these “movies” were created. I remember seeing these in a few video stores I frequented back in the day but I never got the chance to rent them (they always seemed to be out when I was there). Two of The Master Ninja movies were also featured on episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000. So there’s a chance you may have seen The Master Ninja without knowing it was really The Master. The fine folks at Kino Lorber via its KL Studio Classics line released the full series on DVD and Blu-ray back in February, 2018, which is what I will be using to review the show. I don’t know if the show is streaming anywhere. CBS Home Video seems to have the rights to the show, so maybe it’s on Paramount+ at the moment? Maybe Hulu? I have no idea. I know you can get the show on DVD and Blu-ray. The set doesn’t have any special features on it, but at least it has all 13 episodes, which is what’s most important.

And so, without any further what have you, let’s get started with the first episode of The Master.


Episode 1: “Max”


Director: Robert Clouse
Writer: Michael Sloan

“Max” begins with a voice over from Timothy Van Patten’s Max Keller explaining the plot of the show. Lee Van Cleef’s John Peter McCallister is a ninja master in Japan, the only American to ever do that. McCallister is on his way to America to search for the daughter he never knew he had. Before he leaves, though, McCallister is attacked by a group of ninjas. As you would expect, McCallister destroys these ninjas, dispatching them with ease (well, Lee Van Cleef’s super obvious stunt double takes care of these ninjas). McCallister is then attacked by Kosugi’s Okasa, and Okasa manages to get the better of his former ninja master, at least for a moment, hitting McCallister with a ninja star to the back.

Over in America (Illinois, I guess. That’s what pops up on the screen), we see Keller getting his ass kicked by bikers in a bar (they throw him through a window, something that Keller says happens to him quite often). Keller gets back at his attackers by sabotaging their motorcycles and we get to see some nifty/dangerous looking motorcycle accident stunts. The scene then shifts to Keller driving down some rural road, where he picks up a woman (Holly Trumball, as played by Demi Moore) who is being chased by the local sheriff. Did Keller just pick up a fugitive from justice? Not exactly. It’s complicated, sort of. After a quick car chase where Keller’s van outruns the cop (we see another fairly decent car stunt), Keller takes Holly to a nearby bar, mostly to question her and figure out what needs to happen next. It’s in this bar that Keller meets McCallister.

So the cop that Keller outran shows up, there’s some small town corrupt cop hooha, the cop harasses McCallister (the cop, played by Bill McKinney, rummages through McCallister’s luggage and finds his ninja sword. The cop actually tries to arrest McCallister for having a concealed weapon), and a brawl ensues. Keller, once again, gets his ass kicked, but McCallister comes to his rescue. Lee Van Cleef’s stunt double puts on quite the ninja skills/martial arts display here, destroying multiple video game cabinets and the bar in general. McCallister, Keller, and Holly escape, and they head to a nearby small airport owned and operated by Holly’s father Mr. Trumball (Claude Akins).

So then some stuff happens, McCallister and Keller talk, Keller asks McCallister to train him in the ninja arts, and we find out that the Trumball airport is in the way of a greedy scumbag land developer (Mr. Christensen, played by Clu Gulager) who wants to build a shopping mall where the airport is. Some Christensen henchmen actually show up and try to burn the airport down. Luckily, Trumball and some of his employees use fire extinguishers to put a good chunk of the fire out. But you know that this fire attack won’t be the last time Christensen tries to destroy the airport. McCallister knows this, too. While he trains Keller in the ways of the ninja, he will also come up with a plan to deal with Christensen.


So then some more stuff happens, we see McCallister put Keller through the ninja ringer, and we find out what McCallister plans to do. And while all of that is happening, we find out that Okasa is in town and he is watching McCallister. When will Okasa strike?

The last third of the episode is all about McCallister’s big plan. And what is the big plan? First, take out the cops (we see McCallister in his ninja outfit, as well as Lee Van Cleef’s stunt double, taking out the cops). The second part of the plan is to infiltrate Christensen’s business HQ and get him to see the error of his ways. The first part of the plan works out, the second part doesn’t, as Keller ends up killing Christensen with a ninja star to the chest (Christensen did shoot at Keller first, though, so it was totally self-defense). McCallister eventually gets inside, but instead of confronting Christensen he ends up fighting Okasa in the building’s communications room.

Now, this big hooha ninja fight in the communications room is the highlight of the episode as it shows both Sho Kosugi in his full on ninja bad guy glory, and it shows Lee Van Cleef and his stunt double in theirs. There’s a terrific bit where Okasa tries to kill McCallister with a bow and arrow and McCallister catches every arrow shot at him with his bare hands. We then get a nifty back and forth ninja fight, with McCallister momentarily besting Okasa before McCallister escapes. I think we’re supposed to believe that McCallister has killed Okasa as he does some sort of pressure point thing to his former student, but we know that that isn’t the case. Okasa is just incapacitated for a moment. There will be other days.

The episode ends with McCallister and Keller on their way to Atlanta to pick up on a lead regarding McCallister’s daughter (Holly tells Keller something off screen about McCallister’s daughter). We also see Holly fly by in a crop duster type airplane.

I think it’s odd that this first episode isn’t a 90 minute TV movie type deal because the script suggests that the episode’s story should be bigger. There should be more stuff in Japan with McCallister fighting off the ninjas that want to kill him because he wants to believe Japan, there should be more with McCallister and Okasa interacting as teacher and student, and there should be more with Trumball, Holly, and Christensen. You’d think that Christensen would have more henchmen to send out after both Trumball and Keller and McCallister. There should also be more action, both with Keller and McCallister fighting bad guys and Okasa going after McCallister. I mean, why isn’t there a scene in the movie where Christensen’s henchmen think Okasa is with McCallister, they go after him, and Okasa takes them out? Because Okasa doesn’t seem like the kind of bad guy that would team up with other bad guys to get at McCallister. Okasa is way too focused on his own shit to deal with anyone else’s. And the world could always use more Sho Kosugi ninja action from the 1980’s.


After watching the first episode, I still don’t get why Lee Van Cleef was picked to star as McCallister. I mean, he’s a star, sure, but beyond that what’s the draw? How was anyone supposed to believe that Lee Van Cleef was a big deal ninja master? Did NBC think “we can just use Lee for the dramatic parts of the show, and then we can stunt double him for the martial arts scenes” and that was it? People would just buy it? It’s not a terrible plan, a terrible idea, but the execution of it is bad. You never once believe that Lee Van Cleef’s stunt double is Lee Van Cleef. Even from behind with his face hidden it’s obviously not Lee Van Cleef. At least Lee Van Cleef is dedicated to the part and trying super hard. The Rocky III moment is a bit much (you’ll know it when you see it).

Timothy Van Patten does a decent enough job as Keller. He’s charismatic, he’s interesting, and you get a sense that Keller really wants to help people. Van Patten doesn’t do a very good job with giving out the necessary exposition for the show, and it’s brutal when his Keller asks McCallister to train him as a ninja. Van Patten is at his best when he’s being a smart ass and a nice guy that just wants to help. It’s also cool how Keller has a pet hamster in his van. Will the hamster act as a sort of mascot for Keller and McCallister as the show goes on?


Sho Kosugi is fantastic as Okasa, although the episode doesn’t have enough of him in it. Yes, it isn’t Okasa’s show, but perhaps it should have been. I bet people would have watched that show. Kosugi is credited with doing the show’s martial arts fight choreography, as well as being a sort of technical advisor when it comes to the show’s ninja elements.

As for the guest stars, none of them really get any time to shine. Demi Moore does an okay job as Holly. She has some chemistry with Van Patten and has the goofy scene where she flies the plane, but that’s about all she has going on in the show. I really thought that, maybe, Moore would end up being McCallister’s daughter and she would join him along with Keller for the duration of the show. Didn’t happen, which is a shame. Akins really doesn’t get to do much as Mr. Trumball. His one big scene, where he confronts a lawyer that’s working with Christensen, is confusing as hell. I didn’t know if Akins was supposed to be the good guy or the bad guy in the scene. And Clu Gulager? Did he film his scenes in a day? Half a day? He barely does anything. He doesn’t even get to fight Van Patten, which is shame.

And be on the lookout for “Judo” Gene LeBell in the big hooha bar room brawl. Because it’s always fun to spot him in something, TV show or a movie.

Episode director Robert Clouse, of Enter the Dragon, Black Belt Jones, China Obrien, and Gymkata fame, makes the most of what he’s given script wise and does a great job with the episode’s action set pieces, both the car stunts and the martial arts fights. The Lee Van Cleef stunt double is, again, ridiculous, but it’s the episode’s only real negative point action wise.


Despite my issues with the show so far, I kind of like The Master. It’s goofy and ridiculous, yes, but it’s entertaining enough. It also has Sho Kosugi in it, and that’s the most important thing. Why the hell didn’t NBC just do a show with Kosugi as the star? Who cares if his English wasn’t the greatest? He could have kicked ass as a good guy every week. People would have watched that! They really would have!

Rating: 3.5/5


Next episode: The Master Episode 2: “Out-of-Time-Step”



The Master Episode 1: “Max” IMDB page

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Cult TV, Bryan Kristopowitz