More Than Just a Legend,
He Started a Martial Arts Revolution!
By Scott Shaw
This article originally appeared in the April 2005 issue of the magazine MA Success.
Author's Note: I knew David Carradine. I first met him when I was having lunch at a Malibu beachside cafe in about 1978 and David pulled up in his red TransAm. He was a friendly, talkative guy, and we had a great conversation. Much later, we worked together on the film, Capital Punishment, and came close to working together on a couple of other films including, The Roller Blade Seven. When I was asked to write this article about David, I was happy to do so. Not only was he a great actor, having done some very important films, but to say he was an interesting, complex individual was an understatement. This being said, the article pretty much says the rest...
“The point of Kung Fu is improving the moment-to-moment texture of your existence. Plus, it helps out a lot with your longevity — your general physical, mental, and spiritual health. It is one of the most important things you can devote your life to,” David Carradine.
When one thinks of the founding fathers of the American martial arts, certainly the names Ed Parker, Chuck Norris, and Jhoon Rhee come to mind. Though the contribution of these individuals, and many more of the early pioneers can never be understated, few Americans have made more of a direct contribution to bringing the martial arts to the minds of the masses than David Carradine.
Martial Art Hall of Fame historian and renown martial art editor and author, John Corcoran states, “There were three events that introduced the martial arts to the American masses, the first was the movie Billy Jack, the second was the television series Kung Fu, and the third was Bruce Lee.”
Introducing Kung Fu
The series Kung Fu was a monumental event in the history of television. It brought eastern philosophy and the martial arts to the masses. Many people who never thought about Taoism, Buddhism, or even knew that a Shaolin Temple ever existed were drawn to these ancient understandings. Moreover, the fighting styles of Kung Fu were brought into people’s homes once a week. This introduction to Eastern philosophy and the martial arts caused a revolution in the American martial art community — people flocked to martial art studios desiring to be touched by these ancient systems which taught the philosophy of combat.
At the heart of the television series Kung Fu was its lead character, Kwai Chang Caine. Veteran actor David Carradine played Caine. Carradine’s performance ideally embodied the subtle elements of his character’s philosophy and drew the viewing public into the story lines of good overpowering evil presented in each episode of this revolutionary television series which aired from 1972 to 1975.
The Birth of a Legend
David Carradine was born on December 8, 1938 in Hollywood, California. He was the first son of the famed actor of the stage and screen John Carradine. David spent his adolescence in New York City where being the son of a famous actor was not always pleasant. “There were a lot of gangs in the public schools of New York. I remember one time I got jumped. They were telling me your dad killed Jesse James.” This was based in the fact that his father’s character had killed Jesse James in the 1939 film of the same name. This type of physical altercation caused the young Carradine to grow up tough.
After his stint in New York City, Carradine relocated to San Francisco to attend California State University, San Francisco. At the university he immersed himself in the study of music. But, the call of the acting arts soon came knocking on his door. Carradine explains, “When you sit at a table in the student union with the musicians, they all are talking very technical, about structure and theory. But, when you talk to actors, they are talking about emotion, philosophy. What they had to say was a lot more interesting to me. Then one day this guy comes up to me and asked me if I wanted to be in a play.” With this, David Carradine begins his acting career.
Soon after this first acting performance, the same guy who offered him a role in a play was heading across the bay to audition for a role in a Berkeley Shakespearean group. He asked Carradine to come along. Carradine climbed into his friend’s Mercury Monte Claire Convertible, drove across the bridge, where they both auditioned and received roles in Romeo and Juliet.
With this, Carradine was sent into a hectic period of life. “It was really funny,” exclaims Carradine, “I was going to college during the day time, I’m rehearsing in the evening, and I’m working the graveyard shift at Lucky Logger Brewery at night. So, there wasn’t much time to sleep.”
On the opening night of the play, his mother had informed his father that David was appearing on stage. His father traveled to the bay area and watched the opening night performance. After the performance Carradine details that his father said, “Okay, you want to be an actor, let’s start working at it.” With this David Carradine's acting career began to take off.
In The Army Now
With College behind him Carradine began to pursue his acting career on a full time basis. “I moved down to Los Angeles to see if I could get going in the movies but I didn’t have any luck. So, I hitchhiked to New York and I got a job with a Shakespearean repertory.” Just at the point his acting career was talking off, however, Carradine was drafted. “Everybody of my generation had pretty much found a way to avoid the daft. I didn’t want to do it, but I said, ‘Guess I have to.’ But, the thing is, when I came back to New York, after the army, one of the things that I think made me successful was that I had this toughness that the guys who avoided the draft did not posses.”
Back in New York, Carradine did stage and eventually began to break into the film and television industry. He performed his first lead in the 1966 television series, Shane. After Shane, Carradine continued his acting career performing numerous roles on both television and the big screen. One day in 1972, the role which would define has acting career was presented to him. He was offered the part of Kwai Chang Caine.
When the producers of Kung Fu approached Carradine about doing the series, he details, “I had no interest in doing a television series. But, Jerry Thorp, who was the producer, director, and really the mentor of the series, had seen me in a play in New York. When he discovered the script, I don’t think he really even considered anybody else. I came home from doing the lead role in Marty Scorsese’s film, Boxcar Bertha, and there was a manila envelope leaning against my door. I opened it up and there was a script. On the cover was the word, ‘Kung Fu.’ Now, I heard that word maybe twice before. But, I really didn’t know what it was. I began reading the script and I said, ‘My God, this is brilliant. I can’t believe they are going to do this on T.V.’ The problem was, there was a series contract associated with the role and everybody who knew me knew I didn’t want to do another series.”
Carradine didn’t believe that the movie, made for television, was ever going to turn into the proposed series, however. “I figured, this is never going to be a series. This is a great part for me. But, are you kidding, this is never going to be a television series! In the United States, come on, the networks are never going to give it a go!” But, give it the go, they did. And, though Carradine contractually had a way out, he agreed to do the series for only three years.
Carradine details, “I loved the project so much, I thought it may have some kind of international significance. The way I put it to my manager was, ‘I could get out of this right now, because there is a glitch in the original contract. But, I cannot, with any conscious, stop this from happening.’ This was because they couldn’t do the series without me, as it was all based on that movie. So, I knew if I didn’t do it, it would die. But, I told them, I will only do it for three years.” With this decision came the birth of the most influential martial art orientated television series in history.
Carradine and the Martial Arts
By the time Carradine came to the series, Kung Fu, he was not a novice to the fighting arts. He had trained in boxing, he was an avid fencer, and he had been trained in self-defense, both with and without weapons, during his time in the military. The art of Kung Fu was new to him, however. Though it was a new style of fighting he heartily embraced it and it has become an art that has stayed with him for the rest of his life. He has produced videos and written books detailing his understanding of these ancient systems of self-defense.
Carradine became an avid student of Tai Mantis Kung Fu, under the direction of Grandmaster Kam Yeun. He trained in Wing Chun with Leo Wang. He also has trained with one of Kam Yeun’s senior student’s, Rob Moses, who founded his own style, the Tai Shan Mantis, Nine Psalms Praying Mantis System of Kung Fu.
Three Years Later
Carradine performed the lead in the series, Kung Fu, for three years. At the completion of the third year, Carradine walked away. “The series was never canceled,” he details, “The day I left I think it was number two in the ratings.” Though he did the series for three years, he never truly understood the impact the series was having. He explains, “You have to understand, at that period of time, I didn’t own a T.V., I didn’t read newspapers or magazines, and I was working eighteen hours a day. I think it was in the middle of the last season when I was at somebody's house that I picked up an industry magazine. I was reading this article and all of a sudden I came upon my name and it was describing the significance and the power of the show. I said, ‘Really?’”
More than simply a popular television series, Kung Fu, opened the door for many prominent actors to hone their acting chops. Jodi Foster, Don Johnson, and Harrison Ford all appeared on the series. Carradine, however, describes how he began to truly realize the importance of the series when he was shooting his lead role in the highly acclaimed film, Bound for Glory, that depicted the life of famed folk singer, Woody Guthrie. “I was walking away from this hotel in one of my final scenes and I saw this Asian Gardner. I thought he was a real gardener, but he was actually an actor, who was playing the role of a gardener. He looked up and asked me if I was going to do anymore of those Kung Fu things. I said, ‘I didn’t think so.’ But he said, ‘I really wish you would, because before you all we got to play were houseboys and laundry men. Now we get to play Emperors and Kung Fu Masters.’”
Immediately upon the completion of the original, Kung Fu series, Carradine moved forward onto a film acting career that has numbered over one hundred films to date. The first film he did was one of the most successful Cult Film Classics in history, Roger Corman’s, Death Race 2000. Here Carradine is faced off against Sylvester Stallone.
“I started shooting, Death Race 2000, two weeks after I left the series. I had set it up in advance because at that time, I knew that if you leave a television series and you don’t do a movie right away, you may not ever do a movie. Also, I wanted to get rid of the image of that Little Chinaman I was playing. So, when I saw the script, I said, ‘This is perfect. This is absolutely a Caine basher.’”
Carradine continued forward acting in a number of A-Films. Then, he received a call from one of the most influential directors of the twentieth century, Ingmar Bergman. “This, in itself, was unique for an American actor. I couldn’t turn that one down,” explains Carradine. “That was at a time, however, when the people who were in charge of United Artist were interested in preening me for a star career with the studio. They wanted me to turn down the Bergman film. They had something else in mind. But, I told them, ‘Look, I’ve got to do it! This is one of the greatest directors of all time — one of the people who got me interested in being an actor in the first place!’ So, I kind of fell out of favor with United Artists.” After that decision Carradine found that it was not as easy to get the Hollywood big budget films. None-the-less, he carried on in his acting career in independent films. “I made a ton of those. Some of those are really great, some I would prefer to forget about.”
Kung Fu: The Movie
Carradine began to realize that the independent film market had become flooded with product and the financial rewards were diminishing. He also was becoming more and more aware of the influence the television series, Kung Fu, was having -- which was by this point in worldwide syndication. It was at this point, he approached Warner Brothers to see if they may be interested in continuing forward with the television series. Carradine explains, “Actually, I had made up the story with Radames Pera, (the actor who played young Caine on the original series). We got together in New York. I was doing Saturday Night Live and he was studying filmmaking at the New York Film School. We realized that we both had very similar ideas about continuing the story, “Son of Kung Fu.” The next morning, I was having breakfast at NBC and I wrote down a treatment on a napkin. I took that napkin to Warner Brothers.”
It took several years for the project to come together. But finally, in 1985 the studios began to push forward with, “Kung Fu: The Movie.” Carradine details, “When Warner Brothers discovered Brandon Lee, that pretty much lost Radames the part, which was very unfortunate. In Warner Brothers’ infinite wisdom, they thought having the son of Bruce Lee in a movie starring David Carradine would really help. I guess they were right. This was the first movie of Brandon’s career. At that point he wasn’t even sure he wanted to be an actor. They talked him into doing a screen test — almost under protest. And, I said, ‘Let me do the test with him to see how we work together.’ The day we did the test it was raining and very cold. We were outside. We were soaking wet. And, it was freezing. He looked over at me and said, ‘You don’t shake, you’re not cold, you don’t even blink. How do you do it?’ I said, ‘Kung Fu, man.’”
Though Brandon Lee was the son of famed martial art innovator Bruce Lee, he had not formally studied the martial arts by that point in his life. Carradine explains, “You know, he had no knowledge of Kung Fu. His father had died when he was just a little kid. So, we taught him and he picked it up right away -- I guess it was in his blood.”
With casting in place and the movie a go. Kung Fu: The Movie won new fans both new and old. With the success of this movie as an impetuous, Warner Brothers slowly began to move forward with the next leg of David Carradine’s Kung Fu legacy, “Kung Fu: The Legend Continues.”
Kung Fu: The Legend Continues
With the new series up and shooting in Canada, Carradine had realized that he had a new commitment to his character and his legacy. He details, “When I did the first series, I was not conscious of the impact of the show. Also during the first series I was not aware of the impact that the star could have. Back then, I just thought of myself as an actor and basically I just hid out on the set. With the second series, I was the co-producer and one of the creators. So, I was much busier in all aspects of production and story development.”
The second Kung Fu series lasted a total of four seasons and then it was time for Carradine to move back to L.A. and move on with his career. Enter, Quentin Tarantino.
In 1996 Carradine returned to the Toronto Film Festival. While doing the series, Kung Fu: The Legend Continues he had grown very fond of the city and though he was no longer living in Toronto, he returned for the festival. There, he ran into Quentin Tarantino. Carradine explains, “We started talking right there and it was obvious he was writing something for me. He had read my autobiography. He had seen most of my movies. You know, he loves trashy movies. In fact, one of the movies I made, “Americana,” he could actually recite all of the dialogue. After that we would run into each other every now and then and talk. And, things kept moving forward.”
A few years passed and one day Carradine returned home from shooting a film in Spain. On his telephone answering machine were two messages — two from Tarantino and one from his agent. All three were in reference to Tarantino’s upcoming film, Kill Bill. Carradine details, “I called Quentin and we met at a Thai restaurant and he handed me the script. Quentin told me he wanted me to play Bill.” With this, the next stage of David Carradine’s influence on the world of martial arts began.
A little known fact is that Warren Beatty was originally scheduled to play the role of Bill. But, Carradine won out. “I guess it was just that Tarantino liked the way I talked,” jokingly exclaims Carradine.
Flying Through the Air
As Kill Bill has extensive martial art segments; intermixed with Tarantino’s unique style of presenting dialogue, the actors went through an intense three-month period of martial art training, both in Los Angeles and Beijing. Carradine was trained for this film by famed fight choreographer Yuen, Woo Ping, renown actor and samurai swordsman, Sonny Chiba, and his own personal trainer Rob Moses. The actors, including Tarantino, (who was initially scheduled to play the role of Pai Mei), performed an intensive training schedule -- five days a week, eight hours a day. They were also schooled in wire works -- as it was initially planned that there would be a lot of highflying fights, reminiscent of Hong Kong Kung Fu Cinema. “We were thinking that we were going to do a whole lot of that high wire flying stuff like in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon,” details Carradine, “ But, what happened is that Quentin saw, The Matrix 2, and he hated it. He said, 'That stuff is over.’” With this, much of the wirework scheduled for the film was deleted. In fact, the high flying fight seen Carradine shot with Michael Jai White was deleted from the final version of the film and is left only to the, “Extras,” on the DVD release.
Carradine agrees with the choice Tarantino made. He exclaims, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon has been done. I said to him, I don’t want to see a Woo Ping movie. I want to see a Tarantino movie. And, the essence of a Tarantino film is the dialogue. We tune into Pulp Fiction not to see people shoot each other, but to hear what they have to say.”
David Carradine never stops presenting his art and philosophy to the world. He has recently signed a deal with HarperCollins for his next book, “The Kill Bill Diaries.” This book will present his thoughts and experiences during the making of the film. In addition, since Kill Bill, he has continued to act in films. And, though he is very hush-hush about his new project, he is currently in talks with Tarantino about a new, yet to be disclosed, up coming project.
When the name David Carradine is spoken, the thought of Kwai Chang Caine and his monumental television series, Kung Fu, that brought the martial arts and Eastern philosophy to the masses may be the first thought that comes to mind. Though this may be his calling card, David Carradine is much more than this. He has had an illustrious career both in front of the camera and as a producer and director. To add to his ongoing accolades, he has been nominated for a Golden Globe for his work in, Kill Bill. From, Kill Bill, he has again presented his unique mastery of both the martial arts and acting to a whole new worldwide audience.
David Carradine has had an illustrious acting career. He starred in one of Martin Scorsese’s first films, Boxcar Bertha. Ingmar Bergman, one of the most influential European directors of history, personally asked him to star in his film, The Serpent’s Egg. He graced the American cinema with such critical hits as Bound for Glory and The Long Riders. But, Carradine is most noted for his portrayal of the character, Kwai Chang Caine, in the television series, Kung Fu.
Carradine understands the impact this role has had on his life and the viewing masses, “As it turns out, I am the foremost T.V. evangelist for the art of Kung Fu. I can’t give up the job. I owe it everything.”
Sidebar: Kill Bill - Look Out, Here Comes David Carradine Again!
The films Kill Bill Vol. 1 and Kill Bill Vol. 2 have proven to be the most financially successful martial art orientated films ever produced in U.S. For the U.S. box-office alone Kill Bill Vol. 1 has taken in over $ $70,000,000.00 and snatched over $175,000,00.00 worldwide. Kill Bill Vol. 2 had grossed in excess of $65,000,000.00 in the U.S. and $150,000,000,00 Worldwide.
Initially scheduled for released as a single feature, Miramax, the primary studio behind the film, decide due to its extended length that it would market best as two separate features. This decision left David Carradine all but absent from the Kill Bill Vol. 1, but he came back and hit a home run, passionately driving the title character home into the hearts of the viewing masses in Vol. 2.
Both the audience and the critics alike have raved about Carradine’s performance it this new martial art classic. Though the integration of his earlier character Kwai Chang Caine was subtlety integrated in Kill Bill when he was seen playing a bamboo flute, this reference was quickly forgotten, as his character becomes both a heartless killer and a loving father. The revitalization of Carradine’s career from this film is obvious. Look out, here comes David Carradine — Again!
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