The rugged actor who was the cult star of Kung Fu
David Carradine initially doubted that his new TV series Kung Fu would succeed. “I mean,” he recalled, “a Chinese Western, about a half-Chinese, half-American Buddhist monk who wanders the gold rush country and doesn’t care about gold, and won’t even step on an ant because he values all life, and hardly ever speaks? No way!” But Kung Fu made Carradine a household name. The 72-year-old actor was found dead last week in the closet of a hotel room in Bangkok, where he had been filming a movie, a rope wrapped around his neck and genitals. Thai authorities suggested the death was the result of autoerotic asphyxiation, but the incident remains under investigation.
The son of actor John Carradine and half-brother to actors Keith, Robert, and Bruce Carradine, David had a turbulent youth in Los Angeles, said The Washington Post. He spent time in reform school after running with a street gang. Drafted into the Army in 1960, he formed an entertainment troupe and produced and starred in musicals “before being court-martialed for shoplifting from a base grocery store.” He moved to New York and devoted himself to acting, and after several years in theater was appearing routinely on television and, eventually, in films. “He played his first leading role, a Depression-era union organizer, in the 1972 feature film Boxcar Bertha,” directed by Martin Scorsese. That same year, he debuted in Kung Fu on ABC.
As Kwai Chang Caine, the lean, craggy Carradine was “a thinking person’s action hero,” said the Los Angeles Times. A pacifist Chinese Shaolin monk “on the lam in the American Old West,” Caine employed the unarmed combat of the show’s title against enemies he met along the way. But he preferred to disarm them with “Zen-like paradoxes” he’d learned during the spiritual training that was depicted in the show’s many flashbacks, which featured the blind Master Po (Keye Luke) famously calling his young disciple “Grasshopper.” The show lasted three seasons, during which Carradine harbored an embarrassing secret: “I knew nothing about kung fu. I was faking it all the time.”
The “mysticism and pacifism” of the series, which earned Carradine an Emmy nomination, left its mark on him, said the London Times. “Today I feel I am a totally nonviolent man,” he said years later. “I am not sure I’d resist even if someone tried to kill me.” Carradine reprised the Caine character in a Kung Fu TV movie and played his character’s grandson in the 1990s series Kung Fu: The Legend Continues. His non–Kung Fu work was mixed. He starred in such lowbrow offerings as Death Race 2000 (1975) and Cannonball! (1976). But he received good reviews for his performance as Woody Guthrie in Hal Ashby’s Bound for Glory (1976), and most recently in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill movies, in 2003 and 2004.
With “a reputation for being headstrong and difficult,” Carradine led a colorful life off-screen, said The New York Times. Married five times, he was also involved with actress Barbara Hershey, with whom he had a son named Free. A heavy drinker, smoker, and user of what he called “a lot of psychotropic drugs,” he once landed in jail after vandalizing a neighbor’s house while nude and high on peyote. But as he grew older, Carradine said he had given up his self-destructive lifestyle and embraced a subtler form of rebellion. “I am Kung Fu,” he reflected. “I’m really into revolution, but it’s the revolution of the body and spirit—seeking illumination is what I’m doing.”
Carradine is survived by his fifth wife, Annie Bierman, three children, and four stepchildren.