David Carradine

Active - 1959 - 2012  |   Born - Dec 8, 1936 in Hollywood, California, United States  |   Died - Jun 3, 2009   |   Genres - Action, Drama, Western, Crime, Comedy

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Biography by Bruce Eder

David Carradine was born John Arthur Carradine, eldest son of John Carradine, the beloved and very busy character actor, whose roles encompassed everything from John Steinbeck's Reverend Casey to Bram Stoker's Dracula. David Carradine's early adult life was one of exploration -- though born in Hollywood, he tried on a lot of sides of living before he finally turned to acting as a profession. He worked with various community and semi-professional dramatic companies in San Francisco; hitchhiked his way to New York; did Shakespeare in Akron, OH, and parts of New Jersey; and all of the other things that aspiring would-be actors are supposed to do. He got a few early screen credits in television productions such as Armstrong Circle Theater ("Secret Document"), and in various series produced by Universal Pictures' ReVue television division, including episodes of The Virginian, Wagon Train, and Arrest & Trial, plus The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. He also made his big-screen debut thanks to Universal with a small role in the R.G. Springsteen-directed western Taggart (1964). His real professional breakthrough came a year later on the Broadway stage, however, in Peter Shaffer's The Royal Hunt of the Sun, in a cast headed by Christopher Plummer. He enjoyed an extended run in the Broadway production, which was accompanied by the first round of publicity for Carradine, even then focusing on his unpredictable, iconoclastic nature. He was lured back to Hollywood by the chance to star in the series Shane, based on the George Stevens movie and the Jack Schaefer novel. He was able to put his own stamp on the role, quite different from the portrayal that Alan Ladd had delivered in the film; but the viewing public had been swamped by westerns for a decade, and the series never had a chance to find an audience, lasting only 16 episodes. From 1967 until 1972, he was occasionally seen in one-off roles in dramatic series such as Coronet Blue and The Name of the Game, and was in a remake of Johnny Belinda with Mia Farrow and Ian Bannen, but was most often seen in westerns, including The Violent Ones (1967) and The McMasters (1969) (playing a Native American in the latter).

In 1972 he was approached about the possibility of starring in a proposed series that was easily the most offbeat western ever considered by a network up to that time: Kung Fu. The public had long since lost interest in traditional westerns, but here was a story that combined a quest with a tale of pursuit and necessarily included philosophical conflict never before addressed in series television. The role appealed to Carradine, and he got the part of Kwai Chang Caine, the Chinese-American hero, despite knowing nothing of martial arts. Drawing on his ability as a dancer at his meeting with the producers, he was able to prove with one well-placed kick at a point above his head that he could pull it off. The series ran for three seasons, during which time Carradine put an increasing amount of himself into the portrayal. And the public responded, especially viewers under 40, who resonated to the character and the man behind it. Kung Fu became one of those odd cult shows, the fans of which were devoted beyond the usual casual weekly viewing. Carradine saw to it, however, even during the run of the series, that he kept busy on other projects, including the Martin Scorsese-directed Boxcar Bertha (1972), starring his paramour Barbara Hershey, and small roles in the Robert Altman revisionist detective film The Long Goodbye (1973) and Scorsese's Mean Streets (1973).

Kung Fu made Carradine a star, but he eventually left the series, owing to disagreements with the producers. His withdrawal from the series could have damaged his career, but Carradine was fortunate enough to latch on to a script that Roger Corman was planning to produce -- a new kind of action movie, Death Race 2000 (1975), became a huge underground hit and proved that Carradine had some measure of big-screen appeal. He followed this up with Cannonball (1976) and other action pictures done for Corman. In the midst of those movies, he found the opportunity to star for the first time in a major, big-budget Hollywood feature, Bound for Glory (1976), portraying legendary folk singer/songwriter Woody Guthrie. Carradine put a lot of his own experience in music into the portrayal, and the movie was a critical success, though a box office disappointment. Good roles kept coming his way, however, not only through Corman but also from an unexpected quarter, Ingmar Bergman, who cast Carradine, in memorable turn, as a Jewish trapeze artist in The Serpent's Egg (1977), co-starring Liv Ullmann. Even some of the most routine movies in which he appeared during this period were often worth seeing solely for Carradine's performances, never more so than his work as Captain Gates in the submarine rescue drama Gray Lady Down (1978).

Carradine made his directorial debut on a handful of episodes of Kung Fu. Upon leaving the series, he directed his first feature film, the drama You and Me (1975). The latter film co-starred Barbara Hershey and his brothers Keith Carradine and Robert Carradine were in the cast. His career across the next few decades involved a mix of major feature films, such as The Long Riders (1980), and offbeat smaller scale pictures such as Q (1982), interspersed with more personal projects such as Americana (1981), for which he served as screenwriter, director, and producer, as well as starring as a taciturn Vietnam veteran who heals himself and a troubled Midwestern town by refurbishing an old carousel. During the 1990s, he also returned to the role of Kwai Chang Caine in the series Kung Fu: The Legend Continues. Among the best elements of the series were Carradine's interactions with his co-star, Robert Lansing (another Hollywood iconoclast), especially in the late episodes, when the latter actor was terminally ill. Even when he was doing action features such as Lone Wolf McQuade (1983) -- in which he played the antagonist to real-life martial arts expert Chuck Norris' hero -- Carradine maintained a reputation for quality in the nature of his own work, which served him in good stead in the years to come. Longtime fans, appreciative of his work since his days on Kung Fu, could always depend on him to deliver a worthwhile performance, even if the vehicles in which he worked were less than stellar, as was often the case -- outside of Kung Fu: The Legend Continues -- in the 1990s. The stars finally lined up in his favor again in 2003, when Carradine appeared in Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill Vol. 1 with Uma Thurman, which led to his much-expanded part in the follow-up movie. Since those films, he has been busier than at any time in his career, with dozens of screen credits in the years that followed.

Carradine has written two books, Spirit of Shaolin and the autobiography Endless Highway, and has made a pair of popular instructional videos, David Carradine: T'ai Chi Workout and David Carradine: Kung Fu Workout. When not working, the actor enjoys painting, sculpting, and performing music. He also wrote several songs for the 2003 film American Reel, in which he starred as struggling singer/songwriter James Lee Springer. Carradine has three children, one each from his first two marriages, to Donna Lee Brecht (1960-1968) and Linda Gilbert (1977-1983), and one with Barbara Hershey, with whom he lived from 1972 to 1975. In 2009, he was found dead, hanged in a Bangkok hotel. He was 72 years old.

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  • Studied music theory and composition in college, and composed and performed music for several films.
  • Served in the U.S. Army for two years in the early 1960s.
  • Made his Broadway debut in 1964's The Deputy.
  • First film appearance was in Taggart (1965).
  • Had not studied martial arts until the Kung Fu series, but he continued to practice it and produced exercise and instructional videos on the subject.
  • Authored several books, including an autobiography titled Endless Highway (1995).
  • Although his death in 2009 was originally reported as a suicide, further investigation determined that he died of accidental asphyxiation.