The original Kung Fu series hit the airwaves in 1972, and not before or since has a martial arts-themed TV show had such a profound impact with an audience. First, the show hit number-one in the ratings during its peak. Second, several shows won Emmy awards, television’s most coveted accomplishment. Third, coupled with the hit films of Bruce Lee, Kung Fu helped launch the biggest worldwide martial arts boom in history.
Kung Fu would not be Kung Fu without David Carradine as Kwai Chang Caine. In the new syndicated weekly series, which began airing on January 20, Carradine reprises for the third time the role he made famous. In this extensive candid interview, the veteran actor reflects on the impact of the series, his years of training in kung-fu, his participation in martial arts films — and demonstrates a propensity for subtle humor, a side of himself we’ve seldom seen. Interview by Dwight Brown, published in 1996.
The original Kung Fu series hit the airwaves in 1972, and not before or since has a martial arts-themed TV show had such a profound impact with an audience. First, the show hit number-one in the ratings during its peak. Second, several shows won Emmy awards, television’s most coveted accomplishment. Third, coupled with the hit films of Bruce Lee, Kung Fu helped launch the biggest worldwide martial arts boom in history. The Kung Fu television series is the only TV program ever to emphasize the philosophy of martial arts over the action. Its weekly lessons in human values define television’s ultimate goal — to educate and entertain. The show has undergone three stages of evolution over the last 20 years. Here, star David Carradine shares his thoughts about the old series and the the new one. Interview was conducted in 1995.
How does the new Kung Fu show differ from the original series?
David Carradine: We’ve created a whole new thing. What we originally were going to do was shoot a modern story that would flashback to the old series with Master Po. And we still have an element of that. But we’ve got a whole new set of stuff where I’m the master and Chris Potter, as a little boy, is the student. He’s about ten, and I’m teaching him kung-fu. Then, when the temple catches fire, we get separated. He thinks I’m dead; I think he’s dead. We meet again fifteen years later. He has basically forgotten everything I taught him and doesn’t believe in it any more. So we find each other and we have to learn to know each other and love each other all over again. And he has to learn the martial arts again. Now he’s a cop. So, basically, he shoots ’em and I kick ’em. And I keep trying to teach him the gentle ways and try to educate him in the Tao. He slowly picks up on it. By the end of this [the first] season, he’ll pick up on it more. There’s this one thing where he says, “What you did to those Japanese guys at the airport. Could you teach me that?” I say, “You weren’t ready.” He answers, “Well, I’m ready now. Why don’t I come down to the Sunday class?” I say, “Why. To learn to fight? I think we had this conversation when you were twelve years old. That is not the reason to learn.” Then he asks, “What is?” I say, “When you can answer that question for yourself, then you will be welcome in my class.” So that’s the beginning of it. He keeps coming closer and closer to get back in. By the time we’ve done the series for five years, he will be a guy with a lot of martial arts background. We’re teaching him every day.
When you started the first Kung Fu series, you had no martial arts background, right?
Carradine: No, I didn’t.
You learned with the then Technical Advisor David Chow and have been with several teachers since then, including Mike Vendrell, the new show’s fight coordinator. How does one compare to the other?
Carradine: Mike Vendrell is, I would say, the best jazz kung-fu artist…maybe on the earth. He’s not a classicist, but he studies all the time. He studies all kinds of little hand moves, grappling, and he’s a master of the kick-and-punch part of it, too. And he’s a great choreographer. I’ve known him for, I think, about eighteen years. He was a teacher of a friend of mine. The friend said, “You’ve got to meet this guy.” So I did, and I was the person that introduced him into movies. I got him a job as a stuntman on one of the movies I was doing. Since then, he’s progressed quite a bit. He’s done choreography for Jean-Claude Van Damme, Steven Seagal, and he’s the guy that taught [Arnold] Schwarzenegger kung-fu. Also, I introduced him to Brandon Lee on Kung Fu: The Movie [see story in this issue]. Brandon studied with him for several years, and now choreographs his own movies. But it’s all Mike’s stuff. He’s about the best for the movies, for sure. I mean, I’m sure there’s some old Chinese guy who’s better, but not for this…not for the movies. You gotta be able to talk, for one thing. And you gotta understand camera and stuff like that. I’ve taught Mike a lot of stuff about that. He used to stand and look over my shoulder in the editing room. He learned what’s necessary…what you need. There was no choice but Mike for this. David Chow is older. Even in the old series, we changed to Kam Yuen. Kam is now concentrating on a health center. He’s really more of a healer these days than he is a kung-fu practitioner. He still teaches, but there’s no way that he would uproot himself from this huge healing center that he has and come up here for the next seven years. Mike was willing to do it. And Mike is probably exactly the right man.
What styles of kung-fu do you practice?
Carradine: I studied mainly several different varieties of northern Shaolin. Shaolin itself, praying mantis or northern tai mantis, as they call it, tai-chi, and one other form which I think is the center of Kam Yuen’s real techniques — a thing called the small circular fist — which is a lot of fun. It’s a great form. You get down on your knee, spin around and do all kinds of weird stuff that you don’t do in most of the other forms. Then I studied a certain amount of hung gar — southern Shaolin stuff. Black tiger, tiger crane. Just cause I thought I should spread out. The difference basically being northern Shaolin has very long and fluid moves. You go way up and way down, and you have these long kicks, all of which suits my body very well. The southern forms use a wider stance; I mean, a ridiculously wide stance. And hardly use the feet at all. It’s all done with the hands. You hardly ever move your feet. You don’t even change stances. Every once in a while you’ll do a knee kick or shin kick or groin kick. But none of that flashy stuff. Then I studied a little bit of wing chun from Leo Wang. My teachers, basically, were, originally, David Chow, who’s basically a judo specialist and knows a little kung-fu. I moved from him to Kam Yuen. Then I studied with Leo and with Mike Vendrell. I also studied with a guy I met through my younger brother. He’s a bouncer in a nightclub in Los Angeles. And I studied competition karate from T.J. Lee. IKFP: Point karate or full contact? Carradine: Full contact. IKFP: Did you ever compete, David? Carradine: Never in a ring.
Have you ever had to use your kung-fu skills?
Carradine: Yeah. And I’ll tell you — knock wood — it was always easy.
Carradine: Yeah. Let me put it this way. Masters in the martial arts do not go around picking fights with movie stars. They have better things to do with their lives. The guys who pick fights with you are always punks. So it’s always been just a snap. It takes about three, four moves at the most. Sometimes just one. One time there was a guy that came up to me in a bar — and I probably shouldn’t have been in a bar. I mean, you don’t become world famous at martial arts and hang around in bars. But this is a place in my neighborhood and I dropped by to visit somebody there who I didn’t really want to see in my house. While I was there, this huge guy just threw himself at me. I had a drink in my hand. And all I did was put the drink against my chest and stepped back with only one foot. His punch went right straight past me and he tripped over my foot. He ended up hitting a barstool and landing in a pile in the corner. The bartender and the barmaid threw him out of the place and told him not to come back. The funny thing about it was, I wasn’t dodging the punch…I was just protecting my drink [laughter]. From my training, leaving my foot there, there was probably something deliberate about that. But I never thought about it; it just happened. Then one time, I remember we were in Argentina. We were doing a swordfighting picture and we had about fifty swordfighters. One of these guys challenged me. I told him, “You got to be crazy. Why do you want to challenge me? Nobody wants to fight me.” And he insisted on it. I just kept saying no. And finally, he just threw a punch at me and I slipped it. He threw another one at me and I blocked it. Then he threw another at me and I thought, “This is a little much.” So this one I caught, praying mantis-style. I spun him around so he was facing the other way, kicked his feet out from under him and set him down on the ground. I kissed him on his head and walked away. And that was the fight. But that’s about as much fight as I’ve ever had to deal with. Since I’ve studied this art — again, knock wood — nobody’s ever landed a punch on me. IKFP: Have you carried the kung-fu part of your life from the end of the original series until now? Carradine: Well, I never stopped studying. I made that movie, The Silent Flute. They changed the title to Circle of Iron, where I played, like, five parts. And I’ve done, I think, about twenty martial arts films. IKFP: I haven’t seen all twenty, that’s for sure. Carradine: No, you probably haven’t. But I have done them. Maybe more, I don’t know. I have a resume at home that would list them. Actually, they’re listed in a book. IKFP: Do you enjoy doing this show more than the first one? Carradine: As I said, I didn’t know anything about kung-fu when I started the first show. I had a certain background. I had done some boxing, I’d done a lot of regular, John Wayne-style fights in movies, and I’d done a certain amount of tumbling and gymnastics. And I was trained as a dancer. That was enough, at the time, because nobody knew anything about the arts then. They were still a mystery. Now I’ve got twenty years of study.
Why did you study competition karate?
Carradine: When I did that movie with Chuck Norris, I thought I should find out something about what it is he does.
Lone Wolf McQuade?
Carradine: I was not impressed.
Didn’t you throw out some challenge to him or something?
Carradine: That was all a publicity stunt. We treated each other like perfect gentlemen. I didn’t want to get in a fight with him, and he didn’t want to get in a fight with me. And we played the game exactly like you’re supposed to. We sat around and drank beer and joked. Chuck’s a practical joker. One of his great tricks was throwing Chinese firecrackers into a car [laughter]. Just throw ’em down on the floor and see what you do next. IKFP: You scream like hell [laughter]? Carradine: Well, either that…or you stay cool. But there was a lot of stuff like that. Chuck’s not much a drinker and he doesn’t party. But every once in a while, he’ll toss a beer with you. And then he gets loose. IKFP: He’s quite active with the Kick Drugs Out of America campaign. Carradine: Yeah. I am too. I believe in it myself. But as an Irishman, I respect my birthright to drink [laughter]. IKFP: Are you completely Irish? Carradine: No…I’m very mixed. In this order: Irish, English, Scots, Welsh, German, Spanish and Italian. I ran into somebody once who gave me the lineage of the Carradines. I think of myself as basically Irish. Which is funny, you know, because here I am playing a Shaolin priest. But everybody seems to buy it.
Well, you’re convincing.
Carradine: Yeah. Well, you know, when I walked off the series in ’75, it was just about the hottest thing there was going. I think we were number two in the ratings. I think number one was All in the Family. I thought it was starting to fall. It was four years of my life and I walked off of it. It wasn’t cancelled like most series are. I just left.
What was your reason for leaving?
Carradine: I thought that we were losing the specialness and becoming like a regular TV show. I thought we were starting to repeat ourselves. IKFP: Are you safeguarding against that this time? Carradine: Well, in a way it’s a different show. My character is exactly the same. He could say, “What the hell am I doing here? How did I get in 1993 in Chicago?” And I’ve got three answers for that. One is, I’m my great-grandson. The second is, I’m 150 years old. The third one is, I arrived in a Delorean [laughter all around because of the obvious reference to Back to the Future]. The one that they say is that I am my great-grandson. But there is some sense of the fact that maybe I’m actually the same guy and I’ve lasted this long. Now there is documentation for that. There was a famous kung-fu master who was documented as living 253 years. Now, everybody will say, “Sure, Chinese documentation!” But to some extent it is documented. And I take his herbs. So maybe I’ll make it. So I walked out on the series. This time I intend to stay with it until people don’t want to watch it any more. Which could be forever. The longest running TV show there ever was is still running.
Which one’s that? A soap opera.
Carradine: No. Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. The longest action-adventure series ever was Gunsmoke, which was twenty-one years. So, with all the stuff we got going here, it’s quite possible we could run a long time. And I’m determined — I will not leave the show — I will do this show until people don’t want to watch it any more.
Who initiated the comeback of the show?
Carradine: I did. I spent twelve years doing that.
Twelve years trying to get them to do it?
Carradine: Not trying! I got them to do the movie of the week in ’85. Then they instituted a series — right then. And I turned it down. I said, “This is not Kung Fu. It’s gotta be Kung Fu. So I turned it down, and they did it without me anyway. IKFP: They did? I didn’t hear of it. Carradine: It was called Kung Fu. It went right down the drain. Nobody ever saw it. I don’t think they ever showed it. They realized it obviously wouldn’t work. You can’t do Kung Fu without the real Caine. It’s funny, isn’t it? Because when we did the original Kung Fu , I was the real Caine but I wasn’t real kung-fu.
Are there any flashbacks in the new show back to your old show?
Carradine: Oh, yeah.
They use clips from the old series?
Carradine: Yeah. We just pull ’em out of the old series. But at the same time we have these flashbacks where I’m the teacher and I teach this kid who plays Chris Potter as a young man. IKFP: Does he snatch the pebbles from your hand? Carradine: We got a new one that we do in the modern show where I throw a matchbook in the air and grab it, and he tries to grab it before me. Cause we’re always in a bar…it’s modern. And I say, “When you can snatch the matchbook…
[Laughter] You didn’t laugh the first few times you did those takes?
Carradine: I sure did.
Are they doing any kind of humor in this show?
Carradine: Listen, there were always a lot of jokes in the old Kung Fu. People didn’t necessarily see them, but they were still there. They were subtle. The new show is funnier than it was, in a way. Because I’m playing the same guy I always played — very serious about everything. And that’s funny. You know, like Laurel and Hardy. Hardy has all the funny lines, but it’s Laurel you laugh at. And you laugh at him because he’s so serious about it all. That’s sort of the way it works. Chris Potter has all the funny lines and I’m the serious one. And I get the laughs. My job, as one of the producers, is to try to keep this really Kung Fu.
So that’s your safeguard against redundancy this time?
Carradine: It’s my job. The whole new series is my idea from the start. But it takes two-hundred people to do it. And I’m on stage all the time so I can’t very well be doing everything. But I do what I can.
What do you think of the direction martial arts are going now?
Carradine: It’s pretty confusing. Jean-Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal, I guess, are the main guys right now. It’s all speed and violence, which I really don’t think is the essential purpose of the arts. And I don’t think it’s a good way to represent them. The stories that they do are all based on revenge. And the guys run around with automatic weapons at the same time. Then they throw down the weapon and go do some kung-fu. What they call kung-fu; I don’t call it kung-fu myself. Van Damme is a kickboxer, he’s not a kung-fu artist.
He says he’s a kickboxer. He won the Belgium title once and then he got beat in the European title [fight].
Carradine: Okay, you said that. I didn’t say it.
I said it because I know it for a fact.
Carradine: You said that. I didn’t say it.
You don’t have to worry about that. There’s no problem there.
Carradine: Okay. And Seagal, I don’t know.
I thought he had an in-depth background in aikido.
Carradine: How deep can you get into aikido? Aikido’s aikido. Chuck Norris, as you know, has a very heavy competitive background. He’s originally trained in tang soo do, then what he did was competition karate. Chuck is very fast and very precise. I think he’s really good. But I don’t think that the whole thing that is kung-fu is even touched on by any of these guys. I just think all they’re into is what they know about fighting and their movie mystiques. I don’t think these guys know anything about the history, the philosophy, the inner truth you’re supposed to be searching for. The stuff that we try to do in Kung Fu, which we did in the old series. That’s why I decided to do it again. It just seemed like nobody’s got the assets. They all thought it was a question of kicking and punching.
So when kids get involved in this new series, basically there are no schools around that can teach them the mentality that defines your TV show?
Carradine: Sure, they’re around. People just don’t go to them. I meet people all the time that say, “You inspired me with your show and I want to study karate.” [I ask] “Why didn’t you go study kung-fu?” Sometimes it never occurred to them, and sometimes they said, “Well, it wasn’t available.” It is available. You know, there are signs everywhere that say “karate.” Kung-fu’s a little quieter. They’re not big advertisers. It’s always been strange to me. A lot of people don’t even know that the name of the show [Kung Fu] is the name of a martial art. So they go out and they study hapkido, tae kwon do, something like that, and think that that’s it. Most of the time, even with real kung-fu guys, when you go to study they won’t tell you anything. They just show you moves. They don’t talk to you. The karate guys are very into discipline, strictness, all that kind of stuff. I think kung-fu is in a whole different direction than that. But you got to know the guy [the sifu] for ten years before he’ll start talking to you. You can’t just go in and expect to find the kind of philosophy from a kung-fu instructor that the blind master told Grasshopper.
What has the philosophy of kung-fu done for you in your personal life?
Carradine: Well, it’s not particularly out of line with ideas I had before I started doing the series. The attitude, certainly. I suspect I’m a lot different now. But how do I know. I’m living inside this body. The body moves with me, like being in a boat. As far as I know, I’m just in the same damn boat I was always in. The fact that I’m in a different ocean now is something I might not notice. That’s pretty kung-fu right there, isn’t it [laughter]?
[Laughter] Yeah. That’s something to go home and think about. You’ve lived in and out of Hollywood for fifteen, twenty years.
Carradine: Well, I was born in Hollywood. I was brought up all over the continent. I never had a Hollywood crowd I ran with. You know, like kids of the Fondas, Bridges, and those people. I never knew them.
Carradine: Not through my choice. I was just a kid. Through my dad’s choice, I guess. Then when I finally became a Hollywood actor…it’s hard to explain. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to talk to these people or anything, it’s just that I didn’t. Most of my friends are carpenters or bulldozer drivers.
Does that help or hinder you for getting parts? Carradine: I’m not at all popular with the studios. Never have been. IKFP: What’s the reason? Carradine: I’ve never really been able to figure it out. Some people tell me I’m scary. You think I’m scary? IKFP: No. Only if you had something to fear, someone might be afraid of you. Carradine: Well, people tell me that I’m intimidating.
Normally, intimidated people would probably find you intimidating.
Carradine: Most of the heads of the heads of studios in Hollywood are slightly over five feet tall [laughter].
[Laughter] And they’re not Irish.
Carradine: Well, some of them are, actually. [Tristar CEO] Mike Medavoy, I think, is an Irishman. I’m not sure. Medavoy’s a funny name. And I never thought he was scared of me, but he was intimidated. But hell, he intimidates people all the time as the head of a studio. Let me see if I can explain it. One time I remember I had a meeting with a guy named Mike Frankovich, who was the president of Columbia Pictures at the time. He had just cast me in a film, which would have been my first movie lead. He took me into his office, a wood-paneled, dark place. Very beautiful. He sat me down and he said, “David, one thing I always tell my boys is–” “–Excuse me, Mr. Frankovich,” I said. “With all due respect, I’m not one of your boys.” Five minutes later, the meeting was over and I didn’t have the part anymore. Now it’s hard to believe that that’s enough to get you in trouble. But maybe that’s where the answer lies — I’m not anybody’s boy. And maybe you have to be somebody’s boy if you want to get ahead in the industry.
Do you have any major motion picture plans?
Carradine: Well, yeah. In April, I think it is, I’m going to Russia to do a new film of Crime and Punishment. I think it’s been done before, but this would be the first time anybody ever shot it in Russia, where it was written. I’m supposed to work opposite John Voight, who’s been a friend of mine for twenty-five years. It makes a lot of sense, going to Russia and doing [a film based on] a Russian novel. That’s the only big movie I have in my future, except for my own projects, which I’m constantly working on. I’m also writing another book.
Carradine: About me. You saw the first book, right?
Carradine: No. The Spirit of Shaolin. It’s basically a philosophy book. Kung-fu philosophy handbook. When I was taking it around looking for publishers, they kept asking me for an autobiography. So I decided that I should write one.
Do you think you’re ahead of your time for the stuff that you’ve done?
Carradine: Always felt like I was. And I always reveled in that. I’ve always felt that that was a complimentary title, being called ahead of your time. It doesn’t generate the same kind of revenue as when, let’s say, you’re right on your time. But it’s certainly a lot better than being behind the times. That’s one of the big problems with the new Kung Fu. How do we keep it ahead of the times? Because it always was. It was shocking when it first came out. How do we keep it that way with everybody doing martial arts now? How we can surprise people is something we worry over every week. How we can push it forward. And dealing with the major problems of today: the homeless, drugs, terrorism, or anything you want to name.
How did you get cast for the original series?
Carradine: I didn’t have to audition. I had a couple meetings. You should read my book. The first chapter will tell you that whole story. I beat out Bruce Lee for the part. A lot of people in the martial arts community, people who were were close to him [Bruce], believe that he insulted an old Chinese guy in Hong Kong and that he ordered that Bruce Lee be hit. You know, like the Mafia does. And that somebody applied the dim mak [“death touch”] to him, which would result in a blood clot that would either reach the brain or the heart, depending on which direction it was going. It takes days for it to work, sometimes weeks. I know one guy who actually survived it. That’s in my book, too. Somebody gave him the dim mak and he got really sick. He went to his Chinese doctors and it took him months to recuperate. I don’t think he’s the same today.
If someone was doing this to you, would you know it?
Carradine: Probably not. But, you know, it does fit because Bruce was really arrogant. And it would be easy for him to insult somebody that just wouldn’t take the insult.
So, hypothetically, it’s possible. But nobody knows?
Carradine: No, nobody ever will know. But among his closest friends, that’s what they believe.
If you don’t want me to use that [quote], just say so.
Carradine: If I didn’t want you to use it, I wouldn’t say it. Nobody believes the marijuana theory, nobody believes that he overtrained to the point where he killed himself. Most of the people believe in that theory we were talking about. But nobody will ever know. There are no marks on the body. [Adopting a Bela Lugosi accent] Only two little punctures in the throat. For a moment the pain is unbearable [laughter]! Anything else you want to know?
Yeah. Where is your tattoo from?
Carradine: Paris, 1978. Heart with wings. That’s only one. Man, I got tattoos everywhere [laughter].