Friday, June 5, 2009


Kung Fu was my favorite TV show of the 1970s. It was the talk of the schoolyard whenever a new episode aired. In those days the mere phrase "kung fu" was such a novelty that some of us took the name of the show to be another name for the main character. I remember kids telling one another, "Did you see when Kung Fu kicked that man, and he flew through the air..." and so forth. "Grasshopper" was a popular term of mockery, a label for an inferior like "Toby" briefly was a few years later. The theme music was one of those tunes that clearly had the name of the show built into it. That challenged our creativity. Here were some schoolyard lyrics:

Kuh-ung fuuuu...
I will do kung fu on youuu...
And on your mother, too...
I will do kuh-ung fu!

It was the first dramatic series I can recall following on a regular basis, and its obvious advantage in my young eyes was that it had nothing to do with boring lawyers or doctors or anything like ordinary life. I wax nostalgic for the Seventies now, but while I lived through the decade the everyday details bored me. Then as now, I guess, I was attracted by things that spoke of the past. I was aware of the few westerns that remained at that point, like Gunsmoke, but that show bored me, too. Martial arts were much more exciting than gunfights. There was something about hand-to-hand combat that captivated me, which probably explains why I fell under the spell of professional wrestling around the same time.

By default, I suppose, David Carradine was my favorite actor of the time. Since my family didn't go to the movies much, I didn't see much of Carradine after the show ended, but I recall rooting for him to win the Best Actor Oscar for Bound for Glory, a film I hadn't seen. It soon became difficult to follow his movie career once he became as profligate a performer as his father was. There was one towering milestone in that era, as far as I was concerned, and that was his showdown with Chuck Norris in Lone Wolf McQuade: pure B-movie Armageddon set to staggeringly epic music by Francesco De Masi.

I remember the publicity stating that Carradine had stipulated that, though he as the villain must lose and pay the ultimate penalty, he would not allow his character to be killed by Chuck Norris by means of kung fu. I guess he felt he still had an image to maintain. But it could only be downhill from there. Norris had established his dominance, so he got to do the second-string MIA rescue movie while Carradine was stuck with the third-string project, P.O.W. The Escape. When opportunity or necessity knocked, he reverted to his Kung Fu persona. The last two decades of his career are a blizzard of obscurities, and his coin had grown so debased that Tarantino could not polish it enough to attract serious buyers. Look at what he'd done since the Kill Bill movies (where he was only a second choice, anyway) and it's a long litany of "Huh?" My exploitation instincts suggest that there is a trove of trash here begging for discovery, with known cult items like Sonny Boy serving as tips of the iceberg, but just as in his dad's case, or like Cameron Mitchell, you can't help but see that Carradine had been given a chance to really make good and had blown it, and probably for reasons that had not so much to do with his talent, either. When such men stumble across the exploitation screen it adds a note of tragi- to the general comedy of most such ventures. Sometimes that lends an emotional resonance to those films that tell themselves as stories apart from the stories they attempt to tell. Carradine worked long enough to leave an epic of declines and falls behind. I don't know if there are many like him left with similar stories, or if there'll be any more before long. I don't exactly feel sad tonight, but I do feel a little older than I should.

Before I logged on tonight I watched JCVD, which I'll review this weekend. The movie actually name checks Carradine at one point, and I was also reminded of him a little during Van Damme's fourth-wall breaking soliloquy. I could imagine Carradine having the same thoughts at some point.

It was really tough. I saw people worse off than me. I went from poor to rich and thought, why aren't we all like me? Why all the privileges? I'm just a regular guy. It makes me sick to see people who don't have what I've got, knowing that they have qualities, too. much more than I do! It's not my fault if I was cut out to be a star. I asked for it. I asked for it and really believed in it. When you're thirteen, you believe in your dream. Well, it came true for me. But I still ask myself today what I've done on this earth. Nothing! I've done nothing!...It's hard for me to judge people, and it's hard for them not to judge me.


Classic Maiden said...

A truly wonderful post. Your memories of watching Kung Fu back in the 1970s was especially a special treat to read.

I must say I was sad to read about his passing though - I've always had admiration for him as an actor.

Look forward to your review of JCVD!

hobbyfan said...

One generation will remember David Carradine for "Kung Fu" and "Bound For Glory", as well as the original "Death Race 2000". Most of today's audience will only know him from "Kill Bill" and those insipid Yellow Book commercials.

Perhaps one of the best "Kung Fu" eps in the series---and you'd probably agree, Sammy--is the one where David got to work with his father, John, and one of his brothers (Keith or Robert, I forget which at the moment). Pure gold.

If I'm not mistaken, Carradine's passing leaves Radames Pera (Young Caine) as possibly the lone regular cast member still alive today. Meanwhile, let's see if there's a marathon of "Kung Fu" or its sequel somewhere on the cable this weekend or next.

Samuel Wilson said...

CM: Thanks. It was sort of fun to remember those days.

Hobby: I'd rather see a station show some of the stuff he'd been doing in the last two decades to see if he held up like his dad and other classic character actors.