A true wild child of Hollywood, Carradine was a member of a performing dynasty, a 60s survivor, a legendary hellraiser, and a consistently underrated actor. His death at 72 in a Bangkok hotel room -- there are now conflicting reports that he either committed suicide or died of natural causes -- robs us of a chance to see where his comeback in the "Kill Bill" movies would have ultimately led.
His father was actor John Carradine, and the son strikingly resembled the father in gaunt, sinewy, laid-back intensity (much more so than half-brothers Keith and Robert Carradine). David was born John Arthur Carradine but changed his name when he started seriously pursuing acting, sometime after dropping out of San Francisco State College and following a two-year army stint. He did Broadway (261 performances as an Incan king with Christopher Plummer in "The Royal Hunt of the Sun") and landed the lead in a short-lived TV series remake of the classic western "Shane," both of which prepped Carradine for his breakout year of 1972. That was when a young Martin Scorsese cast him as the labor leader-turned-bank robber love interest of "Boxcar Bertha," the director's first Hollywood film, and when Carradine signed up to play Kwai Chang Caine, the half-Chinese Shaolin monk hero of the seminal TV series "Kung Fu."
The show, which ran until 1975, made him a star, further popularized Asian martial arts, and introduced the word "Grasshopper" as a term of endearment. It also arguably put Carradine's career in a box, despite a fine and cryptic performance as Woody Guthrie in Hal Ashby's 1976 "Bound for Glory". (Carradine and "Bound" cinematographer Haskell Wexler recently mixed it up at an L.A. screening of the film; in later years, the actor provided as much entertainment offscreen as on.)
He also appeared in such classic drive-in junk (a term of praise in this case) as 1975's "Death Race 2000," starred in one of Ingmar Bergman's very few English-language movies, 1977's "The Serpent's Egg" (a notorious bomb at the time, it may be due for reappraisal), and in 1980 appeared with Keith and Robert as the Younger Brothers in Walter Hill's "The Long Riders," a majestic neo-western that easily transcends the gimmickry of its casting.
But "Kung Fu" kept paying the bills, and Carradine returned to play Caine in a 1986 TV movie and Caine's grandson in the TNT series "Kung Fu: The Legend Continues," which ran from 1993 to 1997. The success of the original show allowed him to intermittently direct labors of love like the little-seen "Americana" (shot as time and money allowed from 1973 onwards, it was finally released in 1983), in which Carradine plays a troubled Vietnam vet obsessed with rebuilding a merry-go-round.
He wrote the music for that movie, too. In truth, the guy did a little bit of everything: composing and performing music, sculpting, painting, kung fu exercise tapes, voice-over work for shows like "King of the Hill," TV cameos, writing his autobiography (it's called "Endless Highway," and at 600 pages he wasn't kidding). He played himself in a "Lizzie Maguire" episode and directed a few, too. Man's gotta eat.
And then came "Kill Bill" volumes I (2003) and especially II (2004), in which Tarantino called upon all the hard living, rattlesnake menace, and Zen cool Carradine had accumulated over the years. The climactic scene lets the actor summon the spirit of Caine and give himself up to the dreaded Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique without giving up an inch of his lethal, insolent dignity. It's a mark of Carradine's ongoing work-ethic that he appeared in an astounding 37 movies after the second "Kill Bill," few of which have received or will receive any respect, all of which paid, and some of which he hopefully enjoyed.
Another thing Carradine did a lot of was get married: Five times in all, with three children: daughters Calista and Kansas and, with then-girlfriend Barbara Hershey, a son named Free (he now goes by Tom). If you count "Stretch," the film he was working on when he died, Carradine appeared in around 145 movies. That's not even close to the 229 his dad made, but it's still the stuff of a working actor, and I truly hope that gave him more pride than being an A-list star. He was too weird, too ornery, and too tapped into the ghosts of the 1960s and the modern American West to sit comfortably atop the film industry's complacent heap. That's what made him a keeper.