Friday, June 5, 2009

The Late, Great David Carradine

David Carradine, who played Kwai Chang Caine in the TV series Kung Fu and Frankenstein in the movie Death Race 2000, passed on June 3, 2009 at the age of 72. He was found hanging in a Bangkok hotel where he was making a new movie.

David Carradine was born John Arthur Carradine in Hollywood, California on December 8, 1936. His father was legendary actor John Carradine. To avoid being confused with his father (whose birth name was Richmond Reed Carradine--he took the stage name "John" in 1935 and legally changed it two years later), Carradine took the name David not long after he started his career. Carradine attended various San Francisco area colleges, studying music and later acting. He served in the United States Army from 1960 to 1962. David Carradine began his career with guest appearances on Armstrong Circle Theatre, East Side/West Side, and Wagon Train in 1963. In 1964 he was cast in the Broadway play The Deputy. That same year he appeared in episodes of Arrest and Trial The Virginian, and Alfred Hitchock Presents. He also appeared in the movie Taggart that year.

It was in 1966 that David Carradine was cast as the lead in the short lived TV series Shane, based on the classic film of the same name. Although the series was expected to do well, it was cancelled after a mere sixteen episodes. The show's failure would not hurt Carradine's career, as from the late Sixties into the early Seventies he guest starred on such shows as Coronet Blue, Cimarron Strip, The Name of the Game, Ironside, Gunsmoke, and Night Gallery. He also appeared in the films The Violent Ones, Young Billy Young, The McMasters, and The Good Guys and the Bad Guys. In 1969 he appeared off Broadway in the play The Transgressor Rides Again.

It was in 1972 that David Carradine appeared in the role for which he was most famous. It was that year that the pilot movie for a new series, entitled Kung Fu, aired on the American Broadcast Company (ABC). The movie proved successful and Kung Fu aired as a monthly series starting in the fall of 1972, becoming so popular that it was eventually made a weekly series starting in January 1973. In the series Carradine played Kwai Chang Kaine, a Shaolin monk of Chinese and American ancestry, who had to flee China after killing his teacher's murderer (who just happened to be the Emperor's nephew). Wandering the Old West, he searched for his American half brother Danny Caine. Pursued by bounty hunters and facing injustice along the way, Caine often found himself forced to use his kung fu to defend himself and others. The show may have been responsible in part for sparking the Kung Fu craze in the United States in the Seventies.

Today it would be considered politically incorrect for someone such as Carradine, who was of mixed European and Cherokee descent, to even play someone who was half Chinese. That having been said, Carradine endowed Caine with a quiet dignity and never played him as a stereotype. Kung Fu still had fairly good ratings when it went off the air, ending only because David Carradine felt he could not continue on the series giving the many injuries he had received while making it.

Carradine followed his success in Kung Fu with what might be his most famous movie role, that of Frankenstein in Death Race 2000. The movie portrayed a fascist police state in which the Transcontinental Road Race has become the national pastime. No mere car race, in the Transcontinental Road Race the drivers were awarded points based on how many pedestrians they hit and killed, and it is perfectly legal to kill one's competitors. Made on the cheap by Roger Corman's New World Pictures, the movie would become a cult film, inspiring a 2007 remake entitled Death Race.

The next several years Carradine appeared in such films as Cannonball, Bound for Glory (playing Woody Guthrie), Thunder and Lightning, Deathsport (a follow up to Death Race 2000), Circle of Iron, and The Long Riders (playing Cole Younger). He also appeared on television in the TV movies Mr. Horn (playing Tom Horn) and Gaugin the Savage, playing Paul Gauguin). The Eighties saw Carradine appear in such films as Q (another cult movie), Lone Wolf McQuade, The Warrior and the Sorceress, Ingmar Bergman's The Serpent's Egg, Behind Enemy Lines, Armed Response, Warlords, and Wizards of the Lost Kingdom II. On television he returned as Caine in Kung Fu: The Movie and guest starred on Matlock. He also appeared in the mini-series North and South and North and South, Book II.

The Nineties saw Carradine appear in such B movies as Dune Warriors and Future Zone. He once more played Kwai Chang Kaine in the TV movie The Gambler Returns: The Luck of the Draw. From 1993 to 1997 he played Caine's grandson. The Naughts would see Carradine appear in yet more B movies, with some notable exceptions. He appeared as Bill in the movies Kill Bill Vol. 1 and Kill Bill Vol. 2. He also guest starred on the series Queen of Swords and King of the Hill.

It is hard for me to express precisely how deeply saddened I am by David Carradine's death. Like many I first noticed him as Caine in the TV series Kung Fu, but I remember him well in other roles as well: Frankenstein in Death Race 2000, Cole Younger in The Long Riders, and Shepard in Q. The roles were each different from Kaine and different from each other. Frankenstein was a racer in the Transcontinental Road Race, but not the government stooge the Resistance believed him to be. Cole Younger was a historical figure, one of the leaders of the James-Younger gang, continuing his wartime activities by fighting against the Radical Republicans. Shepard was a dedicated New York City detective who saw a link between a series of ritualistic murders and the disappearances of people from rooftops. Each of these roles was different, but Carradine played them all well. He was a versatile actor with a good deal of talent. Indeed, while many of the films he made could be called cheesy at best, Carradine always turned in a good performance.


Jeremy Barker said...

I have to disagree about Carradine's most famous movie role being Frankenstein in Death Race 2000. His role as the titular Bill in Kill Bill is iconic, made all the more so by being his last big film before his death.

Mercurie said...

I've no doubt that Bill was his biggest movie role. I think it slipped my mind because Frankenstein made such a big impression on me as a kid.