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Legacy: David Carradine and 'Kung Fu'


Prolific actor David Carradine, best known for the Kung Fu TV series, the Quentin Tarantino film Kill Bill, and a series of ads for telephone directories, has been found dead in the closet of his hotel room in Thailand, where he was about to begin participation in a new film.

Preliminary reports have the death as a suicide by hanging.

The circumstances of his death, however, should not be allowed to overshadow his accomplishments as an actor.

As the son of actor John Carradine, David Carradine both benefited from his Hollywood family connection and rebelled against the industry that employed him. He appeared in a few very good movies, such as Bound for Glory and The Long Riders, and many, many very poor ones. He played a wide variety of roles, with numerous appearances as villains, some of which were quite memorable, even in some very bad films.

What he’ll be most remembered for, however, is probably the TV series Kung Fu. The show ran from 1972 through 1975, and it reflected a big change in American attitudes. Set in the Old West, Kung Fu featured Carradine as Kwai Chang Caine, a Shaolin monk, a serene and peaceful practitioner of Eastern religion and Chinese martial arts transplanted to the United States. Kung Fu included only a couple of minutes of physical action scenes per episode, concentrating most of the time on interesting angles on personal relationships.

In that regard, however, the show was actually quite traditional. Many excellent Western TV series tended to concentrate on personal stories instead of mere action, notably classics such as Gunsmoke, Bonanza, and Have Gun, Will Travel. What Carradine and the show’s writers brought to the genre was a post-Vietnam attitude of weariness toward conflict, a yearning for peace that manifested in an oddly Christian way: a simple refusal to seek revenge for wrongs done to oneself.

In this regard, Kung Fu had the blend of traditional elements and innovation that makes for good entertainment and sometimes real art. The show was serious in its presentation of Caine’s ideas and their source in Eastern thinking, including frequent flashback scenes depicting his childhood years in a Shaolin monastery in which he learned the lessons he applies in the main story lines.

Like any conventional Western hero, Caine seeks peace for himself and others, but he always must ultimately employ violence in pursuit of that elusive goal. In that way, Kung Fu still has resonance today, for the attempt to bring peace to a violent world perpetually requires the use of force, as is evident both in national defense issues and society responses to crime. Carradine’s work in Kung Fu remains a valuable contribution to that eternal debate over when and how the use of force is justified.

–S. T. Karnick, editor of The American Culture

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