David Carradine: Requiem

It came as a shock to hear about the death of actor David Carradine, 72, in Bangkok, where he was working on a new movie. Most of us recall Mr. Carradine from the ground-breaking TV series of the 70s, Kung Fu. By Mr. Carradine's own admission, the series was both a blessing and a curse. It gave him not only national but international exposure, but it got him typecast forever with that role. Even though he made other movies such as "Bound for Glory," possibly his best role, where he portrayed folk singer Woodie Guthrie, it was forever the series, Kung Fu, that was attached to his name.
As practitioner of Shaolin Style King Fu for over 35 years, I feel we owe a debt to Mr. Carradine and the TV show for popularising the art. I was an avid fan of the show. It sought, in its own way, to explain the concept of Kung Fu while still being entertaining. Though I may have had qualms about the way Kung Fu fighting was portrayed in the show, I still found it vastly enjoyable. What it lacked in realism it more than made up in entertainment.

David Carradine was the eldest son of John Carradine, a prominent character actor of the 1940s. He was in his thirties when he got the part of Kwai Chang Caine, a Taoist monk fleeing from the law in China by escaping to the America West in the 19th century. Actually, Mr. Carradine got the part through a fluke. And this is the controversial part of the story. The one person credited with the original idea of an "eastern western" was none other than Bruce Lee, who had given Kung Fu (or Gung Fu) its first exposure in the 60s TV series, The Green Hornet. In it he played the Green Hornet's sidekick, Cato, who was adept at this "inscrutable martial art." Bruce Lee had pitched the idea with the possibility of him playing the lead in the show. Unfortunately, given the temper of the times and, yes, the racism, it was believed that American audiences were not yet ready for an Asian leading man on TV.

Mr. Carradine, who had appeared in movies and Broadway, was given the role. It helped that he had studied dancing, primarily ballet and tap dancing, so that he was agile and limber enough to portray the martial arts master and monk who, when he wasn't spouting Confucian sayings, was setting things right in the Old West---and only when violence was absolutely necessary. Mr. Carradine himself had complained that after the first TV movie, when the show became a series, the Federal Communications Commission got involved and they set some rules and guidelines. To whit, no one was to be killed in the show; and the fight sequences had a limited time in which to be shown. So, usually, the fight sequences were reserved toward the very end of an episode and, in some cases, were displayed in slow motion to make it more stylized (which the FCC loved).

The show itself was not, admittedly, historically accurate. Not that most TV viewers cared at the time. Since Bruce Lee had been turned down for the role, the story line was changed so that the protagonist was a half-Chinese, half-American boy who enters the Shaolin Temple. He is trained and then sent out as all monks are to do good works in the countryside. However, in an altercation he kills the Emperor's nephew while protecting one of his masters from the Temple. So he goes on the lam to America. The concept of a Shaolin-trained monk traversing the American West in the 1870s is captivating but for the fact that it could never have happened. By the time of the Quing Dynasty in China (1644-1911), the Shaolin Temple had been destroyed by the government, because of fear of rebellion. All its monks had been forced to flee and they started training in secret, and eventually their martial arts techniques spread to the general population.

As noted, Mr. Carradine was not, like Bruce Lee, a martial artist. He did study martial arts sometime later, mainly Tai Chi. As for Bruce Lee, denial of the role only added to his frustration about making it in America. He went back to Hong Kong, where he had been raised and found, to his amazement and pleasant surprise, that the audiences there loved his portrayal in The Green Hornet. In fact, in Hong Kong it was known as the Cato show. The rest, as they say, is history. He started making movies there and changed the whole concept of the martial arts feature. Honestly, prior to Bruce Lee coming on the scene, most of the martial arts movies (and I've seen most) were positively dreadful. The scenery, the choreographing, the acting, everything was terrible. Not for all, but for most. Bruce Lee infused the martial arts genre which his vitality and gave it sophistication. He led the way for all the others that came after.

As for Mr. Carradine, my prayers and condolences go to his family and loved ones. It is sad that he passed away at this time. His career had been given a boost with the Kill Bill saga, in which he played a mastermind of a gang of assassins who is hunted down by his protege played by Uma Thurman. It was the typical Carradine role: understated but affective. He will be missed.

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