In the 1960s and 70s, his scowl was unmistakable and his kung fu pose conveyed a menace that went beyond martial arts mastery. He called himself Count Dante and he claimed to be “The Deadliest Man Alive” in garish comic book ads and gruesome instructional manuals. While his name and title may have been more show biz than lineage, his drive to live up to his fearsome reputation left one man dead and a promising career in ruins.
Count Dante’s real name was John Keehan and he grew up in a posh section of Chicago. In the early 1960s he was one of the most intriguing figures in America’s nascent martial arts scene. Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris were his contemporaries, but Keehan’s appetite for self-promotion was greater than a movie star’s. When he wasn’t putting on karate tournaments, he was styling hair and courting Playboy Bunnies. He was one part “Black Belt Jones” and one part Warren Beatty from “Shampoo.” He challenged Muhammad Ali, tested his hand speed against a quick draw artist, and kept an African lion as a house pet.
But as the 1960s gave way to the 70s, Keehan could no longer separate himself from the macho marketing tool that he created. Rival dojos were stormed, the life of Keehan’s best friend was lost and Dante became involved in the Purolator Armored Car Robbery in 1974 that netted four million dollars. Soon after the robbery, Dante mysteriously died and was buried in an unmarked grave.
The documentary film “The Search for Count Dante” is filmmaker Floyd Webb’s personal journey into the Dante legend. Webb explores how a rich kid from Chicago became the self-proclaimed “Crown Prince of Death” all told against the backdrop of social change during the 1960s and 70s and the emergence of martial arts in American popular consciousness.
For this film, Webb has interviewed a cast of characters that is as colorful as The Count himself that includes karate champions, mob informants and trash talking tai chi masters. Count Dante’s story is one that begins with the promise of athletic glory and ends with one of the most lucrative heists in the history of American criminal enterprise.