In my teens, I used to watch reruns of "Kung Fu" on Global Television on Friday nights about 2:30 in the morning. This was in the mid-1980's, a full decade after the show had been cancelled, and by this time, its star David Carradine was busy doing direct-to-video movies: his days as an A-list star behind him. His death in Bangkok is a shocking end to a career which has had many ups-and-downs, and a personal life of alcoholism and belligerent behaviour. But despite all of the sordid details that sruface about his offscreen life (and now death), I'd rather talk about his work. I've always enjoyed seeing David Carradine in films big or small. Despite whatever troubled life he led offscreen, in front of the camera, he was always a quiet storm-- a man who had tremendous presence onscreen, yet always had this curiously calming element as well. One can imagine that this quality was instrumental in his casting as Kwai Chang Caine in "Kung Fu" (seen below).
Although this role was reportedly originally considered for Bruce Lee (prior to his superstardom), the initially baffling choice to cast an American actor as a Shaolin monk who travels through the 19th Century American West, proved to be inspired, as Carradine lent credence to role's demands for both action and introspection. Although I was too young to see the show in first run, I could have imagined the impact the series had initially. Not only did "Kung Fu" have the good fortune of being made just at the cusp of the martial arts craze in North America, but it also was a unique blend of martial arts action and Eastern philosophy in a Western setting... with more of an exotic feel than most of the chopsocky films that would soon fill the drive-ins. I loved how they would always cross-cut the show's present Western setting with flashbacks of Caine's teachings in the Orient.
And on the big screen, David Carradine (the eldest acting son of the legendary John Carradine) had the good fortune of being in Martin Scorsese's first commercial feature Boxcar Bertha, (produced at the Roger Corman factory) co-starring his then-companion Barbara Hershey with whom he had a child named Free (a name synonymous with the hippie lifestyle they embraced). During the 1970's, his most impressive screen role was his Oscar-nominated performance as Woody Guthrie in Hal Ashby's dustblown biopic Bound for Glory (1976). That same year, Carradine starred in the drive-in cult classic Death Race 2000, another Corman product which perhaps foreshadowed things to come.
In 1973, Carradine also directed himself in the impressive feature Americana, which sadly sat on the shelf for eight years prior to release. Had it debuted closer to the time it was made, it would no doubt have struck a chord with the anti-War movement. This fine film (also co-starring Hershey) is an absorbing allegory of a Vietnam vet who faces scorn all while trying to repair a merry-go-round in a small town. This pet project showed great promise. And another self-directed effort You and Me (1975) has sadly dropped from sight-- and has remained high in my "must see" list for years.
Carradine co-starred with his talented half-brothers Robert and Keith in Walter Hill's superb western The Long Riders (1980), a retelling of the Jesse James legend for its age. The novelty of this film is that the brothers James, Younger, Miller and Ford were all played by real life acting siblings. (James and Stacy Keach played the James brothers, the Carradines played the Youngers.) Carradine actually stole the film as Cole Younger, and his scenes with Pamela Reed (as Belle Starr) are especially delightful. (Outside of the iconic "Kung Fu" role, this may be my favourite David Carradine performance.)
In the 1980's, his career became increasingly prolific, albeit largely with smaller budgeted films which quickly made their way to the video racks. But still, he would show up in a popular movie or TV show. He was a formidable villain who menaces Chuck Norris in Lone Wolf McQuade, a modern-day rural adventure which is shot and scored like a spaghetti western. That same year, it was a joy to see him alongside Lee Majors in an episode of "The Fall Guy", effortlessly showing off his screen charisma.
He continued to make pictures in the Corman factory, as well as a few by the new King of the B's in town, Fred Olen Ray. He co-starred with Lee Van Cleef in what is likely Ray's best feature, Armed Response (1986), as a father and son team who seek vengeance on an Asian mobster. The decade ended having made such quickies as Crime Zone (1988) (an interesting futuristic thriller), and contributing a glorified cameo in the murder melodrama Nowhere to Run (1989) (also an early Carl Franklin film). He played an amusing variation on Caine in the enjoyable (at least to me) post-apoc action film Dune Warriors (1990), by the prolific Cirio Santiago.
Caine had already been reprised once by the actor in the 1986 TV-movie Kung Fu: The Movie, co-starring Bruce's son, Brandon Lee (no small coincidence, I'm sure). However, Carradine had another shot at his famous role in the TV series Kung Fu: The Legend Continues, which was shot in Toronto in the mid-1990's. He played the grandson of the original Caine role who was in the big bad city helping out his hotheaded police detective son on cases. This series was pure fromage, in the haphazard ways in which they tried to make Toronto look like an American city, and in the cornball attempts at Eastern philosophy or aphorisms. Although it was decidedly more comic book than the previous series, I didn't care-- I loved it anyway.
It was becoming more apparent that David Carradine was turning into his father-- not just as a former mainstream star who would do anything for a quick buck, but even as he reached seniors' age, he was as busy as ever. In this decade alone, he has more than 90 film or television credits to his name! But for all that prolific output, his most famous role was assuredly the titular character in Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill. It was great to see him again in a mainstream role, and one would have hoped to see him in more A pictures, hoping that the Tarantino Touch would resurrect his career with at least some of the fortune bestowed upon John Travolta. No matter, he still had an impressive list of films big and small.
While he could be a solid action lead or a good villain, it is no small wonder that people still think of him as Caine- showing an unusual serenity instead of machismo. In fact, I think that quality permeates most of his best work. His men weren't supermen, and thereby fascinated us all the more.