If you have not yet heard, David Carradine, aged 72, was found dead in a Bangkok hotel room on Wednesday, probably of a suicide (or perhaps something more INXS-related?). I was in my den drinking a coffee, reading science and eating some Mini-Wheats when Mrs. Hank came in:
"Did you hear your buddy David Carradine died?"
I was shocked. "No! I didn't even know he was sick."
"They found him in a Bangkok hotel, so I don't think he was sick."
"Really? That's a pretty good way to go. And even if it isn't, I'm sure he's somewhere lifting someone else's good story about it."
Back in the day, I was into the martial arts so I watched a lot of martial arts movies. With the advent of DVD, I did not re-buy every bad martial arts movie I own but I still have them on VHS; "Super Ninjas", "Ninja Wars", if you like the Japanese kind, Chuck Norris movies, "Gordon" Chia-hui Liu movies, if you know your less popular. You name it, I have them. Except I only have one David Carradine thing(1). We'll get to that.
I met Carradine because I was in Syracuse, NY in 2001 to get inducted into the ITU (Tae kwon do) Hall of Fame and get an award and have some dinner. First, martial arts are not like baseball. With the collapse of the ITF(2) and in martial arts popularity in general in the 1980s a lot of martial arts federations came into being. I was pretty good when I was young, I won in the PA state championships and went to the nationals but I wasn't even in the top 3 in my school. In hindsight, it turns out we had a pretty good school.
Anyway, at these kinds of ceremonies it's always a good idea to have some famous people too. So David Carradine was there, along with Don "The Dragon" Wilson and Cynthia Rothrock and a bunch of other people. And me and Kim.
Because I am both older and a student of history, I know a lot about martial arts and its actual origins, as opposed to the stuff people just make up and claim is 'oral tradition.' Imagine my surprise when David Carradine got up to speak and basically recounted the life story of ... Bruce Lee.
Let's be honest. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, being a Chinese lead in a TV series was a difficult notion. Bruce Lee, darling of movie star martial arts acolytes during the craze of the period, had an idea for a TV show about a Chinese martial artist who gets stuck in the old west - an interesting mix. The money people loved the idea but told him that the audience would not go for it with an asian guy. So they got David Carradine.
When Carradine told the story, it had been his idea all along and having an American transported to Asia and then back to the old west made perfect sense. I was stunned, but if anyone else noticed they didn't say anything. He was the guy from "Kung Fu" so maybe there were star struck.
I didn't ask him about it, I wasn't there to show anyone up, plus I am not sure even he knew the truth by then. Some people can really convince themselves legend is fact. If you've ever seen a movie with David Carradine, like "Kill Bill" and you ever met him, you know he is not an actor any more than he is a martial artist. He talks like that in real life; slow, somewhat ethereal, odd glances.
A nice man, to be sure. He laughed at my jokes, as you can see.
Sorry for the lousy quality. We bought one of those Kodak instamatic things because we forgot to bring a digital. Photo: Kim Campbell
So back to the Carradine martial arts movies. I do own one, called "Circle of Iron" and he was great in it. Like "Kung Fu", he wasn't playing the role he was supposed to play, he was playing the one Bruce Lee was supposed to play, except Bruce Lee had died. In the movie, a young martial artist goes on a journey to a magical object. It's a metaphor, of course. The script by Stirling Silliphant ('Poseidon Adventure', 'Towering Inferno', 'Village of the Damned' and a friend of Lee) was terrific and it had Christopher Lee, Roddy McDowall and Eli Wallach, along with Carradine. The problem was that with Bruce Lee dead, and Carradine having a reputation as a martial arts (the flowery, move your hands kind) it was all wrong. Instead of Bruce Lee, Carradine was The Blind Man / Monkeyman / Death / Changsha who troubles 'Cord' on his quest and an unknown, Jeff Cooper, got saddled with a role that was too big for him.
Fans of the story can only imagine what it would have been like with Bruce Lee playing the more physical characters and Carradine playing the traveller.
Carradine wasn't my favorite 'famous' person to talk with there, Don Wilson was (3) but he was a good guy. Here's a picture of me and him. You can see by my deer-in-the-headlights look, I am not sure why this strange man is putting his arm around me. But that's just the kind of guy he was. Maybe he thought he had known me for 20 years.
If I ever see him in Heaven, I hope he doesn't tell a story of how he created Science 2.0. Lifting part of Bruce Lee's life is one thing, but the rest of us don't have that many legacies.
(1) Well, one martial arts one. I have "The Long Riders", a western, where he and two brothers played the Youngers, the Keaches played the James brothers and the Quaids played the Fords. A terrific movie and Carradine was perfect for it.
(2) Anyone who thinks more government control is good for culture can take a lesson from Korea. Gen. Choi, the founder of modern Taekwon Do (they all claims thousands of years of heritage but in Korea they were not formalized in any real sense until after WW2 - Japanese occupation does not lend itself to cultural promotion) had the audacity to offer to teach people in North Korea so he was basically removed and his presence in TKD history wiped out. The WTF is, since then, the official sanctioning body of Korea and thus TKD. The pervasiveness is so complete I have met Korean people who know about the martial arts but never heard of Gen. Choi. Incredible!
(3) In talking with Don Wilson, I told him my favorite film of his was "Ring of Fire 2" and he told me it was lifted from "The Warriors" and Kim and I started laughing, since on the way there I had told her they had lifted that story from "The Warriors". But be certain, before making movies Wilson was very much the real thing.
Here's a fight clip against Jean-Yves Theriault.
David Carradine's Last Stand