Thursday, June 4, 2009

David Carradine - The Man Who Inspired Thousands of Sifus

David Carradine
Dec. 8, 1936 - June 4, 2009

Two days ago, I wrote that I was bummed.

Today, I'm fairly pissed.

First, I got the news that Koko Taylor, Queen of the Blues, died in Chicago yesterday at the age of 80. She was probably best known for pitching a "Wang Dang Do
odle" all night long.

Then I go to my Facebook page and I hear that David Carradine, star of TV's "Kung Fu" hanged himself in a hotel in Bangkok.

To those who are too young to remember the early 1970's, "Kung Fu", Bruce Lee's classic, "Enter the Dragon" and blaxploitation movies with the likes of Fred Williamson and Jim Kelly, were the catalysts for a major martial arts fad. Every kid wanted to be just like those guys. It no longer was considered "dirty fighting" to kick someone in a fight.

That martial arts fad flamed out pretty quick, but by the early 1980's, Chuck Norris, the Karate Kid and the whole ninja fad brought the martial arts back to the
forefront of American pop culture. It was at this time that WPIX, Channel 11 out of New York, brought back "Kung Fu" in syndication.

As a young martial arts student, I was pretty much hooked. I watched it every Thursday on WPIX. When I spent the summers with my father and step-mother in California, I was overjoyed to see it on TV every night on Channel 44, much to Dad and Linda's amusement and chagrin.

True, the martial arts was pretty lame. Carradine had no training prior to the role. He was just a soft shoe dancer who could fake it pretty well. That, and
when he squinted his eyes, some bonehead TV executive could be convinced that he was Asian.

If there was one fault with "Kung Fu" it was that Carradine's character, Kwai Chang Caine, was one of a long line of Asian characters played by Caucasians. For some reason, even heroic Asian characters, like Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto, were always played by heavily made-up white guys.

It's also become widely known that Bruce Lee was originally up for the part, but didn't get it because Hollywood execs didn't believe that anyone would want to see an Asian lead actor. Bruce sure proved them wrong with "Enter the Dragon."

Still, despite the hokeyness, the show worked. It successfully combined two radically different genres, the western and martial arts. It challenged us philosophically while it entertained us. A great deal of the credit for that goes to Carradine for bringing humanity, heroism and (when warranted) humor to a character that could have been just another Asian stereotype portrayed by a white actor.

And it helped inspire millions of kids, including a certain middle-class-white-punk-from-the-suburbs in Hamden, Ct., to take up the practice of Kung Fu.

David Carradine as Woody Guthrie in "Bound for Glory." This role got Carradine nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor in 1977.

A Postscript.

Carradine was more than just a two-hit wonder with his portrayals of Kwai Chang Caine in "Kung Fu" and as the master assassin, Bill, in the "Kill Bill" movies. He also starred in the original "Death Race 2000." Though it's pretty camp as film-making goes, the plot is surprisingly prescient. It shows a corrupt, dictatorial American government using a murderous cross-country road race to distract the populace, much like the Romans used gladiatorial combat, or "American Idol."

He also did an inspiring portrayal of America's greatest folk musician, Woody Guthrie, in the film "Bound for Glory." Check it out, not only for the musical history or as a biography, but as a dead-on depiction of the American labor movement in the early 20th century. Sometimes, we need to be reminded of what others have fought and risked their lives for so we can enjoy the lives we live today.

Lastly, he hosted Saturday Night Live in December 1980 in one of the rare, funny episodes of that otherwise awful season. That episode featured a number of obligatory jabs at his role in "Kung Fu". However, the best skit was his portrayal of Woody Guthrie being visited by a young Bob Dylan in the hospital, played dead-on by a young Joe Piscopo.


  1. Great Blog Sean. I can say I'm fairly depressed over this event.

  2. First the American Life Network dropped "The Green Hornet" reruns from its lineup, then Koko Taylor and David Carradine die.

    Looks like I picked the wrong week to stop taking my meds.

  3. Great blog.

    I think the Bruce lee kung fu thing is a myth. He was already deep into his movie career before the Kung Fu tv show launched.

    The Bruce Lee bio movie was terribly inaccurate all the way through - BTW. I think that is the source of this.

  4. Hey Sensei Strange,

    Thanks for the comment. Yes, "Dragon" was horribly inaccurate on so many levels it isn't funny. In fact, I may even do a blog post about it.

    However, it is common knowledge that Lee helped come up with the original concept of "Kung Fu", which was originally called "The Warrior." And the part was given to Carradine because the studio execs didn't believe an Asian could be a credible leading man.

    I've read about that in numerous articles over the years, including in excerpts from the book, "Bruce Lee: The Incomparable Fighter."

  5. I would love to see that Sat. Night Live skit with Carridine and Piscapo!