David Carradine, 72; created iconic role in 'Kung Fu'

By Dennis McLellan
Los Angeles Times / June 5, 2009
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LOS ANGELES - David Carradine, who became a television icon in the early 1970s starring as an enigmatic Buddhist monk with a flair for martial arts in "Kung Fu" and more recently played the head of a group of assassins in the "Kill Bill" movies, has been found dead yesterday in Bangkok. He was 72.

Mr. Carradine was found hanged in his luxury hotel suite, the Thai newspaper The Nation reported on its website, citing unidentified police sources.

The actor, who was in Bangkok to shoot a movie, could not be contacted after he failed to appear for a meal with the film crew on Wednesday, the newspaper said. His body was found by a hotel maid the next morning.

The Thai newspaper reported that a preliminary police investigation found that Mr. Carradine had hanged himself with a curtain cord and that there was no sign he had been assaulted. An autopsy is expected to be performed today.

Chuck Binder, who was Mr. Carradine's manager, cautioned against prematurely concluding the actor committed suicide and emphasized the death was being investigated by police.

"I know David pretty well," he said. "I do not believe he is a candidate for suicide. He had a family. He had a life. He was happy. This movie in Bangkok was going great. He was starting three more films. He was in great spirits."

In a statement to the Los Angeles Times, Martin Scorsese, who had known Mr. Carradine since directing him in the 1972 movie "Boxcar Bertha," said he was "deeply saddened" by the actor's death.

"David was a great collaborator, a uniquely talented actor, and a wonderful spirit," he said.

David Carradine came from an acting family. His father, John, made a career playing eccentric characters in film and on stage. His brothers Keith, Robert, and Bruce also became actors. Actress Martha Plimpton is Keith Carradine's daughter.

"My Uncle David was a brilliantly talented, fiercely intelligent and generous man. He was the nexus of our family in so many ways and drew us together over the years and kept us connected," Plimpton said yesterday.

David Carradine appeared in more than 100 films, including Ingmar Bergman's "The Serpent's Egg" (1977).

He also played folk singer Woody Guthrie in Hal Ashby's "Bound for Glory" (1976) and appeared with his brothers Keith and Robert in the 1980 western "The Long Riders."

More recently, he played the title character of a samurai-trained assassin in Quentin Tarantino's two-film "Kill Bill" saga (2003 and 2004).

Mr. Carradine, however, remained best known for "Kung Fu," which ran on ABC from 1972 to 1975.

The hourlong series featured Mr. Carradine as the shaven-headed Kwai Chang Caine, the orphaned son of an American man and a Chinese woman who had been trained in a Shaolin monastery, where his blind mentor, Master Po, called his young student "Grasshopper."

When Po is murdered by the Chinese emperor's nephew, Caine kills the nephew. To avoid execution, he flees to the American West.

The series, for which Mr. Carradine received an Emmy nomination, is credited with helping popularize martial arts in the West.

But in his memoir "Spirit of Shaolin," Mr. Carradine admitted that while making the series "I was a fake."

"I knew nothing about kung fu," he wrote. "At the time I did not understand it at all, and I was faking it all the time even though I knew the moves. I am an actor. We just thought we had a good story."

Mr. Carradine, however, later studied the techniques and philosophy of martial arts and made a number of instructional videotapes.

He returned to play the grandson of his original "Kung Fu" series character in the 1993-1996 syndicated series "Kung Fu: The Legend Continues."

A self-described Hollywood outsider, Mr. Carradine early on had a reputation for what an Associated Press writer in 2004 described as "a quick-to-anger actor and hard-drinking partier."

But he reportedly gave up drinking in 1996 and candidly discussed his past drinking and drug use, primarily with what he described as "a lot of psychotropic drugs."

Mr. Carradine, who appeared in the 1985 TV mini-series "North and South," appeared mostly in small independent films over the past few decades.

"He's been undervalued as an actor," Stacy Keach, a longtime friend who co-starred with Mr. Carradine in "The Long Riders" and "Gray Lady Down," told the Star-Ledger in 2004. "David is a real practitioner in details, nuance, which is where great art lives. He has a reservoir of imagination and a totally unique point of view about everything."

Actress Sally Kirkland, a longtime friend who co-starred with Mr. Carradine in the 2008 film "Richard III," called him the "definitive actor's actor."

"He was just bigger than life, a very special spirit," she said yesterday.

Mr. Carradine returned to the limelight several years ago when Tarantino cast him in "Kill Bill," with Uma Thurman.

"Playing in 'Kill Bill' helped," Mr. Carradine told the Austin American-Statesman in 2005. "Up until then everyone was saying 'Grasshopper.' Now everyone says 'Bill.' "

Tarantino, who is known for resurrecting the sagging careers of veteran actors, reportedly tailored the role of Bill for Mr. Carradine.

"David Carradine - Caine! - I grew up with this guy," Tarantino said before the release of "Kill Bill: Vol. 1" in 2003. "He was so cool as Caine. He was always the cool one. He's the coolest in 'Kill Bill.' He is Bill."

His performance in "Kill Bill: Vol. 2" earned Mr. Carradine a Golden Globe nomination as best supporting actor.

Born in Los Angeles, Mr. Carradine studied music theory and composition at what is now called San Francisco State University. He developed an interest in acting while writing music for drama department revues and joined a Shakespearean repertory company.

Mr. Carradine, who had a two-year stint in the Army in the early '60s, appeared on Broadway in the mid-'60s in "The Deputy" and "The Royal Hunt of the Sun"

Around the same time, he also made guest appearances on TV series such as "Wagon Train" and "The Virginian" and starred in the short-lived 1966 western series "Shane."

A list of surviving family members was not immediately available.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this obituary.

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