David Carradine

d. June 4, 2009

David Carradine, star of the cult TV series Kung Fu who found recently renewed fame in the title role of Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill” pictures, was found dead June 4 in his Bangkok hotel room. He was 72.

Thai police and newspapers first reported the death as a suicide, announcing that a hotel maid found Carradine’s body hanging in a closet with a cord around his neck. Thai agencies later called the death an accident. Carradine was in Thailand to start shooting a new movie titled “Stretch,” his manager Chuck Binder told the Associated Press.

Coincidentally, less than a week after his death, Carradine’s final television role as a guest star on Mental, a new Fox network series set in a mental hospital, was broadcast. Carradine spent the hour with no dialogue and little to do, portraying a man in a catatonic state after being struck by lightning.

Carradine was the eldest son of venerable stage, screen and television actor John Carradine. His younger half-brothers Keith and Robert also became actors. The three appeared together in 1980’s “The Long Riders” as the wild-west outlaws the Younger brothers.

David Carradine was born in Hollywood and made his professional debut with a Berkeley, Calif., stage troupe. He found occasional roles with the Shakespeare Repertory Theatre in San Francisco before he was drafted. As part of an Army entertainment unit, he produced and starred in musicals until he was court-martialed for shoplifting from the base PX.

He found stage work around New York before signing with Universal Studios, where he started appearing in small film and TV roles. Larger parts followed in episodes of such TV series as Arrest and Trial, Wagon Train, The Virginian, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, East Side West Side, Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theatre, The Trials of O’Brien, Coronet Blue, Gunsmoke, Ironside, Cimarron Strip, The Name of the Game and Night Gallery.

Carradine first gained positive notices on Broadway in 1965, playing the king of the Incas opposite Christopher Plummer as conquistador Francisco Pizarro in Peter Shaffer’s “The Royal Hunt of the Sun.” Soon after, he signed for his first TV series, Shane, playing the quiet but deadly gunslinger in an ABC adaptation of the famous Alan Ladd film. Jill Ireland co-starred as the now conveniently widowed farm wife and Christopher Shea was the boy who idolized Shane (and who echoed the movie’s famous call in the show’s opening every week, urging Shane to come back). The series ran only from September to December 1966.

Carradine first played his most famous role in “Kung Fu,” the 90-minute ABC Movie of the Week that aired on Feb. 22, 1972. As Kwai Chang Caine, Chinese-American Shaolin priest and master of the martial arts, Carradine wandered the American west of the 1870s in search of his half-brother while dodging assassins sent by the Chinese royal family, seeking vengeance for Caine’s slaying of the royal nephew who killed his beloved teacher Master Po. Laden with pacifistic, mystical mumbo jumbo, slow-motion kung fu fights and constant flashbacks to his training under masters Po (Keye Luke) and Kan (Philip Ahn), Kung Fu became a cult hit as television’s most stylized and peculiar western ever.

ABC scheduled the series to start in October 1972 as monthly relief for its other unconventional western, Alias Smith and Jones, but soon switched Kung Fu to weekly airings in January 1973. For three seasons, Caine wandered the west, quietly dispensing wisdom and enlightenment while inevitably beating the tar out of the killers, bigots and bullies who just wouldn’t leave him alone. He finally tracked down brother Danny Caine and a nephew in a four-part story that ran just as the series was canceled.

At the same time Kung Fu started, Carradine got his first feature lead in 1972’s “Boxcar Bertha,” playing a Depression-era union organizer in Martin Scorsese’s directorial debut. He won acclaim for his role as activist and folk singer Woody Guthrie in “Bound for Glory” (1976), and worked for celebrated Swedish director Ingmar Bergman in “The Serpent’s Egg” (1977). Carradine appeared in more than 100 movies, some like “Death Race 2000” (1975) that gathered cult followings, and many that are long-forgotten bombs. Tarantino gave him a new cachet as Bill, leader of a cult of assassins in “Kill Bill,” released in two “volumes” in 2003 and 2004.

Carradine also continued to appear on television, as a guest star in Airwolf, The Fall Guy, Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, Matlock, Alias, Medium and others, and the star of such TV-movies as “Mr. Horn” and “Gauguin the Savage.” In 1993, Carradine resurrected Caine in Kung Fu – The Legend Continues, starring in and co-producing an ill-advised update in which the original Caine’s great grandson dispensed peace and love and well-placed kicks in a modern urban setting. The series was syndicated for four seasons, running longer than the original.

Carradine as Shane, top, and Caine.