Warrior: The Historical Inspiration for Dylan Leary

In the Warrior season 2 finale, a main character is revealed to be one of America’s racist demagogues.

Dean Jagger as Dylan Leary in Warrior on Cinemax
Photo: Cinemax

This article contains Warrior spoilers.

Although the Bruce Lee-inspired Cinemax series Warrior is fiction, it is loosely based on historical events of San Francisco in the 1870s. Just as Nellie Davenport (Miranda Raison) is based upon on a remarkable San Franciscan heroine, Donaldina Cameron, the Season 2 Finale drops a bomb for one of the show’s central characters. At the end of the episode when Dylan Leary (Dean Jagger) declares “I’m Dylan Leary and I’m here on behalf of the Workingmen’s Party of California,” it’s a major tell. The Workingmen’s Party of California was an actual organization during the period when Warrior is set. This means that Leary is based upon Denis Kearney, the real-life labor union activist and anti-Chinese agitator who founded the Workingmen’s Party.

Warrior’s head writer Jonathan Tropper admits that Leary is based loosely upon Kearney. However, he has always been clear about the show’s use of historical references.

“The design of the show is done in such a way that we are nearly almost telling a fable,” says Tropper. “Even the way we design our set is meant to look like almost the graphic novel version of this world. We’re not setting out from day one to do any kind of docudrama. What we’re doing is we’re using the truth of that period. And some of the events of that period, we’re still doing through the prism of a sort of graphic novel martial arts fable.”

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Like any good writer, Tropper embeds Easter Eggs throughout his work. For instance, Leary’s Irish bar, the Banshee, is a clear nod to another TV show Tropper wrote for Cinemax titled Banshee.

However, Denis Kearney wasn’t a barkeep like Leary. He was an extremely controversial racist demagogue, so well-known for his xenophobia that the term “Kearneyism” is a thing.

Born in County Cork, Ireland in 1847, he left home at age 11 after his father died. He became a cabin boy on the clipper ship Shooting Star and for the next decade, he travelled the high seas. By 1868, he first landed in San Francisco as a ship’s first mate. There, he continued to work as a seaman, rising to an officer’s rank on board a coastal steamer. However, his seafaring days ended after he was accused of deserting the ship in danger, forcing him to leave that career behind. In 1870, he married an Irish woman, Mary Ann Leary (note the maiden name) and they had their first child, Maggie, a year later.

They settled in San Francisco in 1872 where Kearney started a successful hauling business. Kearney had two more children, William in 1873 and Amelia in 1975. By 1877, his company owned five wagons (a respectable number in those days) and transported goods across San Francisco. In Warrior, Leary’s family is dead. He first meets Sophie (Celine Buckens) when he is visiting their graves.   

The success of Kearney’s hauling business led him to confront a growing city-supported hauling monopoly, which thrust him into the political arena. He was self-educated, literate, and furthered his knowledge by weekly participation in the Lyceum of Self-Culture. He was an engaging speaker for those that shared his sentiments and quickly grew in popularity amongst the disgruntled and unemployed. To fortify his political leanings, Kearney applied to a rising American socialist group, the Workingmen’s Party of the United States. But his application was denied because he was viewed as too extreme, so he went his own way.

In 1877, he founded the Workingman’s Party of California taking the position of President with J.G. Day as Vice President and H.L. Knight as Secretary. The Workingmen’s Party of California was the instigator behind the San Francisco’s Riot of 1877, which was depicted in the penultimate Season 2 episode of Warrior “Enter the Dragon.” Kearney was one of the most outspoken anti-Chinese ralliers so the season finale reveal that Kearney is the inspiration for Leary is a significant tease for those that know this history. It charts a nefarious path for Leary should Warrior season 3 become a reality.  

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As a public speaker, Kearney was a provocateur who often endorsed violence. And yet, his overall ideology, while incendiary, was inconsistent. He protested unemployment, banking corruption, unfair taxation, and the growing monopolies, and gained the most ground attacking capitalists who employed cheaper Chinese labor. Kearney propounded the rallying cry “The Chinese must go!” and was quoted as saying “A little judicious hanging right here and now will be the best course to pursue with the capitalists and the stock sharps who are all the time robbing us.” He warned “Remember Judge Lynch.” He was arrested repeatedly for inciting violence, but was repeatedly acquitted. 

Ironically, his opposers often pointed out that Kearney was himself an immigrant, so his xenophobia was fundamentally hypocritical. Nevertheless, he amassed a significant following, predominantly amongst angst-ridden unemployed Irish. His followers were called Kearneyites, and they became a formidable, yet short-lived political force that once sent 51 delegates to the California constitutional convention. In 1878, the Workingmen’s Party of California won 11 seats in the State Senate at 17 seats in the State Assembly. They were influential in the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, or at the very least, Kearney took credit for that Act later. But by then, Kearney’s notoriety had faded. 

Kearney’s political power ebbed by the turn of the decade. In 1878, he travelled to the Eastern U.S. in hopes of gaining more support. Although he was received by some huge crowds, there was also growing criticism of his communist leanings and intolerance. Kearney campaigned for Benjamin Butler, the Presidential candidate for the Greenback Party, in hopes of getting invited to be his running mate (he never was, and Butler lost anyway).

Like Warrior’s Walter Buckley (Langley Kirkwood), Butler was also a Civil War veteran, although unlike Buckley, Butler was a Major General with the Union Army. Buckley fought for the confederacy. The Greenback Party’s platform was anti-monopoly. Monopolies were a major issue at the turn of the century, alongside Chinese immigration, so much so that there was another major political party called the Anti-Monopoly Party in 1884. The Greenback Party existed from 1874 to 1889 before fading away. 

Kearney found an opponent in another San Franciscan named Wong Chin Foo, a Chinese Civil Rights activist who is characterized as the ‘Chinese Martin Luther King’ for his activism and sacrifice. Wong was a journalist and champion for the rights of Chinese Americans. Among other things, Wong is credited as the first reporter to publish the term ‘chop suey’ in a newspaper article for the Brooklyn Eagle in 1884. Wong heckled Kearney in the press. At one point, he challenged Kearney to a duel, offering Kearney choice of weapons: chopsticks, Irish potatoes, or Krupp guns (an artillery cannon of the time). If Warrior somehow manages to get picked up by another network for a third season, Wong might inspire another fascinating character.

By 1880, Kearney reduced his public speaking considerably. His speeches had lost their momentum and by 1883, he returned to the private sector, continuing to run his hauling business, and added an employment agency. He invested in various commodities, real estate, and stocks, and became quite wealthy. He died a rich man in Alameda, just across the bay from San Francisco, in 1907.

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Warrior was televised during a period of increased racism in the United States. There was even a focus upon anti-Chinese sentiments in the wake of the coronavirus. For the first season, some of the parallels were uncanny, even disturbingly prophetic considering that it was filmed a year prior. By recalling someone as divisive as Kearney, Warrior elevates itself into something beyond an action drama. It offers some insight into a dark period of American history and reminds us that we aren’t that far from it today, even though well over a century has passed. 

Bruce Lee was a pioneering advocate for racial equality. Beyond the Kung Fu action, it’s these timely historic references where Warrior honors Bruce Lee the best. With Cinemax ending production of all its original programming, like Lee, Warrior feels like it’s gone too soon. It has so much more to offer and it was clearly poised to do just that. Hopefully, some other network will pick up this extraordinary series because it has so many more relevant stories to tell.