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David Carradine 1936 - 2009

Posted by Ty Burr  June 4, 2009 02:34 PM

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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.

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11 comments so far...
  1. RIP Grasshopper.

    Posted by LCTKD June 4, 09 04:52 PM
  1. He made a living in his craft, and along the way, made our lives a little more joyful. And God, that man was handsome!

    See you on the other side, Caine.

    Posted by reindeergirl June 4, 09 06:50 PM
  1. Just read the whole Wexler dust-up - though 'dust-up' is putting it *extremely* mildly. Its very troubling in light of his death today..

    Posted by davita1111 June 4, 09 07:33 PM
  1. David Carradine starred in a late 70's film called "Fast Charley, The Moonbeam Rider," a Roger Corman production. I was working in the art department crew, a 20-something aspiring actress. David was invariably polite, inquisitive, soft spoken and intense. Whenever possible, I observed him on set. He was a gifted actor and a kindred spirit to many in the film company. I am so sorry that his life ended this way ... so sorry ...

    Posted by Faar June 4, 09 09:33 PM
  1. there is a lot of stuff that goes on in bangkok. i would not be suprised to find that he did not commit suicide

    Posted by paul June 4, 09 11:19 PM
  1. to post #2;
    Handsome?! what planet are you on?!

    Carradine was just one wierd dude.....period.

    Posted by Carradine's no actor June 5, 09 09:12 AM
  1. His father was in about twice the 229 movies you credit him for...

    ...from maybe the only person that remembers "Shane" more kindly than "Kung Fu."

    Posted by my10sense June 5, 09 11:24 AM
  1. I don't think the reports are conflicting about suicide versus NATURAL causes -- they are conflicting on suicide versus ACCIDENT. Either way, an unfortunate loss.

    Posted by anita June 5, 09 11:33 AM
  1. GOD I loved this man! ANY time I ever saw him in anything I made a point of seeing it. I wish he knew just how much he meant and was loved by the generation that grew up with him. He gave us so much more than he ever knew. Rest in Peace my friend. our Prayers go out to the Carradine Family.

    Posted by Conni June 5, 09 12:12 PM
  1. Gave an amazing performance in "The Golden Boys" recently. Still never lost the talent. A great actor. A huge loss.

    Posted by Percy June 5, 09 01:38 PM
  1. Very nice eulogy for an interesting and unusual man.

    Posted by schlep June 8, 09 09:08 AM

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