WHEN the new television season begins in America in September, prime-time viewers across the nation will be introduced to a new series, Martial Law, introducing a fresh kind of action hero. He will have the roly-poly figure of Frank Cannon (Cannon) but the agility and Oriental wisdom of Kwai Chung Caine (Kung Fu). He will also be Hong Kong martial arts choreographer-director-actor Sammo Hung Kam-po. You could have knocked Hung over with a feather when he received a call from action director Stanley Tong Kwai-lai about the role. The last thing on his mind was a television series. Hung would be the first to agree he is not exactly prime-time sexy action man material. At slightly more than 1.7 metres tall and weighing 100 kilograms, Hung comes closer to Cannon than Tom Magnum but his rounded frame has always belied a nimbleness and agility that put many leaner, meaner men to shame. 'I was hesitant,' laughed 'Big Brother' Hung, speaking from his Los Angeles home. 'I haven't acted in a while and my main interest is now in directing. I consider myself 'retired' when it comes to acting and if I sometimes take on guest roles, it's just for kicks. So, at first, I really didn't want to take it on.' But persuaded by Tong and his friends that he should not waste his acting or action skills, Hung finally relented. 'I just thought I'll try,' he added. 'I never thought I could do anything like this. It's very hard, you know, for an Asian actor to be in a prime-time television series.' Hung moved to Los Angeles about six months ago to develop directing projects in Hollywood. Although he and his wife - former Miss Hong Kong and actress Mina Joyce Godenzi - had spent several years looking for projects to work on together, nothing was finalised. 'You know in Hollywood, everything is more talk than action. Every project takes a long time to get off the ground,' Hung explained. His decision not to sign on a manager or agent because he wanted more time to look around on his own did not help speed things up. Little did he expect that the first project off the ground would be a television series. In Martial Law - which will be aired in the coveted 9pm slot on Saturday nights on CBS - Hung plays Sammo Law, a Shanghai policeman seconded to Los Angeles to help his counterparts there with some cases. Because he is working outside his own jurisdiction, Law is officially not allowed to carry a weapon and will be seen punching his way out of trouble with anything he can get his hands on. 'I think it'll be very exciting,' said Tong, who put the idea together and will serve as the series' executive producer. He will also direct the first few episodes. 'It will put all the usual stereotypes to rest and I think Sammo is the best person to do that. If you look at him, you wouldn't expect him to be able to fight but he does that very well. And that's what the US audiences ask for: they want surprises. 'And they'll be pleasantly surprised when they see him taking on the bad guys with pots, pans and plants, or anything else he can grab. We will also be introducing Chinese concepts such as feelings of loyalty and brotherhood.' At present, it is Tong - who made his Hollywood debut with Mr Magoo - who is liaising with the scriptwriters to make sure the series will carry the right messages. After all, it was Tong who first attracted CBS producer Carlton Cuse with his idea for the series. Cuse liked it so much that even though they had missed the pilot season, he gave Tong the green light - and US$2 million (HK$15.5 million) - to make a half-hour pilot. 'We've had to tread very carefully to keep a balance. We don't want it to just go on about Oriental culture and beliefs, nor do we want to play down the Americans' roles. And there are a lot of things that American writers don't really understand about Chinese culture, so I can help explain it to them,' said Tong. Hung himself is rather pleased with the way Sammo Law and the scripts are shaping up although he admits that, as an actor, he does not have much input. 'But the most important thing is, it stars a Chinese character, which is something that's groundbreaking. It's encouraging that the Americans involved in it are also very excited about it. They like the idea a lot,' he said. So far, the idea of being in a prime-time series has not fazed Hung. 'I just do my best, that's all. I don't give myself pressure. You cannot take everything so seriously. I've already worked so many years so why give myself more pressure? I just have to make sure I maintain my professionalism.' Hung grumbles good-naturedly that he now has to 'start training himself all over again' and get back into exercising so that he can keep nimble. He is not worried about the physical part of his new challenge. The 47-year-old, whose last major role was in Ah Kam: The Story Of A Stuntwoman, went to the same opera training school as superstar Jackie Chan. Both went through the same rigorous backbreaking training that Hung would later bring to the screen in Painted Faces. Like all his 'brothers', Hung went into stuntwork and worked his way up to a spot in front of the cameras. His first starring role was in The Iron Fist Monk but the martial arts exponent later discovered he preferred 'telling people how to act' and opted to concentrate on directing. His last Hong Kong outing as a director was Jackie Chan's Mr Nice Guy. To date, his name appears on the credits for close to 190 films either as choreographer, director or star. These days, however, it is his battle with the English language that is taking up most of his waking hours. To that end, he has signed on his wife as his dialogue coach for the series. In the meantime, he has increased his lessons with a teacher from three-hour sessions to seven hours. 'It's very difficult,' laughed Hung. 'Seven hours every day, what do you talk about? Even the teacher has run out of subjects to talk about. Unfortunately, this isn't a take-your-time kind of thing. When the show opens, I'll have to do interviews with the US media and you have to talk a lot!' If his English was adequate, he would not be nervous about making his debut on prime-time television, Hung added. 'If I could speak fluently I wouldn't be worried at all. After so many years in the business, there isn't much I haven't experienced. The only difference is that I have to speak in English, that's all.' Hung admits he is still focused on a directing career because he believes he should 'leave the acting chances and the fighting to the younger ones'. He does not know whether the television series will help him achieve that dream but feels that after the initial 13 episodes, he will be a more familiar name in America. 'If it is a hit, it will probably help. If not, hey, at least I tried my best. That's all I can do.'