Jim Kelly, a martial artist probably best known for his roles in Enter the Dragon (1973) and Black Belt Jones (1974), died 29 June 2013 at the age of 67. The cause was cancer.
Jim Kelly was born on 5 May 1946 in Millersburg, Kentucky. Part of his childhood was spent in San Diego, although he would return to Kentucky to graduate from Bourbon County High School in Paris, Kentucky. He attended the University of Louisville, but left during his freshman year to study Shorin-ryu karate. Mr. Kelly had studied karate since 1964. He first studied the martial art in Lexington, Kentucky and then later in Chicago. He earned his black belt in California. It was in 1971 that he won the World Middleweight Karate title at the 1971 Long Beach International Karate Championships, in addition to other titles that year.
In 1972 he made his film debut in a small role as a karate instructor in the film Melinda. He was cast as Williams in Enter the Dragon (1973) at the last minute when the original actor dropped out. Jim Kelly would go onto appear in several films in the Seventies, including starring in the title role in Black Belt Jones (1974). He also appeared in Three the Hard Way (1974), Golden Needles (1974), Take a Hard Ride (1975),One Down, Two to go (1976), Hot Potato (1976), Black Samurai (1977), The Tattoo Connection (1978), Death Dimension (1978), and Mr. No Legs (1979).
After 1979 he rarely appeared on screen. He made a guest appearance on the show Highway to Heaven in 1985. In 1994 he appeared in the films Ultimatum (1994) and Stranglehold (1994). His last appearance was in 2009 in the film Afro Ninja. In later years he operated a tennis club in San Diego, California.
Jim Kelly was not necessarily a great actor, but he was a great martial artist. That fact made him perfect for the films in which he appeared in the Seventies. Indeed, he was the first African American martial arts star. As such he found himself in major roles in two film genres forever identified with the Seventies: martial arts movies and Blaxpolitation movies. While many of his films could hardly be considered classics even in the loosest usage of the term, in many respects Jim Kelly paved the way for black action heroes in mainstream films. It is perhaps in part because of Jim Kelly that Wesley Snipes, Samuel L. Jackson, Denzel Washington, Will Smith, and many others have starred in action films that might have featured white actors in earlier years.