First there was Bruce Lee, and then there was Chuck Norris He was followed by Jean-Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal. Now it is Jeff Speakman.
Speakman is the newest karate-movie hero. Like Norris, he is home grown. His first film, ''The Perfect Weapon,'' opens here on Friday. In it, Speakman is a wanderer who returns home to learn that his mentor has been murdered. Naturally, he looks for the killer or killers. It is more likely the second because killers come by the bunch in these movies.
The karate movie heros all seem to be cut from the same cloth. Most are politically conservative, have hopped about the world and have incredible self-assurance.
Speakman has done a little hopping and is supremely self-assured. He knows where he wants to go, and he is determined to get there, he said.
We met in Washington, and he was still up and enthusiastic. ''This is the 13th of 19 cities I will do before the tour ends,'' he said.
He was not looking for sympathy. ''People say, 'How can you do this, how can you go from city to city, talking to all those people? I say easily. I enjoy it. They don't know. I've worked for this all my life.''
He's 33. He was born in Chicago to a restaurateur. He has a brother and a sister, but neither has tried show business. ''I come from a very blue-collar family,'' he said. ''I was the first in the family to get a college degree.''
He paid his own way. ''I know what it is like on the poverty level,'' he said.
He went to Missouri Southern Stage in Joplin where he majored in psychology. ''But not to make a living,'' he said. ''It was just for the knowledge.''
He remembers when he became interested in kung fu. ''It was the television series,'' he said. ''I was about 14 when 'Kung Fu' started. I was fascinated by the dedication, the control. I particularly liked the flashbacks in which David Carradine, as a little boy, talked to his mentor.''
In 1983, Speakman moved to Los Angeles where he studied ken po with Grand Master Ed Parker.
Ken po? Another form of karate? Who knows which from which?
''The people who study them know,'' said Speakman. ''Ken po is similar to kung fu. All these things originated in China, but ken po is really American. It was developed here. It is the science of
self-defense. It is both imaginative and practical for self-defense on the streets of the '90s.''
''Absolutely,'' said Speakman. ''It is a most practical application of self-protection.''
Speakman studied ken po for six years in Los Angeles. At the same time, he did a little acting. ''I was working as a bodyguard for Tricia Fisher, the daughter of Eddie Fisher and Connie Stevens. She was doing a film in Greece, 'Pretty Smart.' It was made by the same people who did 'Hardbodies.' I was on the set one day, and I asked the producer if I could do a few lines. He said I could.
''When I got back to the States, I did guest shots on a few television series, and then I was introduced to Mark DiSalle, who was directing Van Damme in 'Kickboxer','' said Speakman.
DiSalle was impressed, and he and his partner, Pierre David, asked David Campbell Wilson to write a screenplay that would fit the Speakman talent.
'''The Perfect Weapon' was the result, and when the Paramount executives saw it, they gave the star a four-picture deal.
He knows where he wants to go with the ken po films. ''I want to prove myself as an actor, then go on to something else, as a comedy or straight actor,'' he said. ''Arnold Schwarzenegger did it. He's brilliant. He allowed himself to be used for a succession of sight gags in 'Twins,' then in 'Kindergarten Cop' proved he could act. You've got to respect him. He is successful at everything he does.''
Speakman should enjoy the same kind of success.