'Kung Fu,' 'Kill Bill' Actor David Carradine Dies

The star of "Kung Fu" and the "Kill Bill" movies has died at the age of 72.
By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 5, 2009

David Carradine, the lean, laconic star of the 1970s TV series "Kung Fu" and the arch villain in Quentin Tarantino's two-part saga "Kill Bill," was found dead June 4 in a Bangkok hotel room.

A newspaper in Thailand, the Nation, reported that a hotel maid found the actor's body. Thai police said he apparently had hanged himself with a curtain cord.

Mr. Carradine, 72, was in Bangkok to shoot the film "Stretch," his manager, Chuck Binder, told the Associated Press.

Although his best-known roles celebrated his martial-arts prowess and his coiled-snake cool, he was a serious actor who appeared in more than 140 movies and worked with directors as varied as Martin Scorsese and Ingmar Bergman. He also was a member of a distinguished acting family, which included his father, John Carradine, who appeared in such movies as "Stagecoach" (1939), "The Grapes of Wrath" (1940) and "The Ten Commandments" (1956). Mr. Carradine's four brothers and two daughters also are actors.

Tarantino once described Mr. Carradine as "one of the great mad geniuses of the acting community," linking him to other "mad genius" actors, including Jack Nicholson and Christopher Walken. "Mad" was, at times, as apt as "genius," as in 1975 when a naked Carradine ended up in jail after vandalizing a neighbor's house while tripping on peyote.

He played his first leading role, as a Depression-era union organizer, in a 1972 feature film, "Boxcar Bertha," where his director was Scorsese, who was making his own Hollywood debut. "Boxcar Bertha" co-starred Barbara Hershey, Mr. Carradine's partner at the time and the mother of his son Free (who later changed his name to Tom).

Soon afterward, he was cast in the role that made him a star, playing Kwai Chang Caine in the ABC-TV series "Kung Fu." From 1972 to 1975, his character, a Chinese American Shaolin monk, wandered barefoot through the American West righting wrongs and quietly dispensing koans of faux-Zen wisdom. He reprised the role in a mid-1980s TV movie and played Caine's grandson in the 1990s syndicated series "Kung Fu: The Legend Continues."

"I am Kung Fu," he told The Washington Post years later. "I mean I'm not [messing] around you know. . . . I'm really into revolution, but it's the revolution of the body and spirit -- seeking illumination is what I'm doing."

For his role as folk singer and union organizer Woody Guthrie in Hal Ashby's "Bound for Glory" (1976), he was named Best Actor by the National Board of Review and nominated for a Golden Globe. In "The Serpent's Egg" (1977), he played a Jewish alcoholic circus performer opposite Liv Ullmann in 1920s Germany. Although the movie is widely considered the low point in Bergman's directing career, Mr. Carradine received respectable notices.

He also won acclaim for his role in "The Long Riders" (1980), directed by Walter Hill. He and his brothers Keith and Robert played the Younger brothers, members of the notorious James gang.

He also had the occasional bomb, particularly in the 1980s when his reputation as a messy, temperamental drunk made him almost unemployable. He said he stopped drinking in 1996.

Alcohol did not always account for the low quality of Mr. Carradine's projects. A 2008 TV mini-series called "Kung Fu Killer" also was forgettably bad. "Carradine, playing a character alternately called White Crane and the White Crane, brings new meaning to the word 'disheveled,' " Washington Post television critic Tom Shales wrote. "He looks like the bed got up on the wrong side of him."

He was born John Arthur Carradine in Hollywood on Dec. 8, 1936, the eldest son of John Carradine and Ardanelle Abigail McCool. He studied music theory and composition at what is now San Francisco State University but gravitated toward acting. He made his professional debut with the Theatre of the Golden Hind in Berkeley, dropped out of college and found the occasional role with the Shakespeare Repertory Theatre in San Francisco. He also sold encyclopedias.

Drafted into the Army, he formed an entertainment troupe and produced and starred in musicals before being court-martialed for shoplifting from a base grocery store. Living in New York after being discharged, he played Laertes to his father's Hamlet at a theater on Long Island. He then signed a contract with Universal Studios and began appearing in small guest roles on television and supporting roles in movies.

He introduced himself to a new generation of moviegoers as the title character in Tarantino's over-the-top revenge epic, "Kill Bill," Volumes 1 and 2. In Vol. 1, released in 2003, he is a menacing voice on the phone; in Vol. 2, released the following year, he is revealed as a ruthless assassin and a doting father. For his performance in Vol. 2, he received a Golden Globe Best Supporting Actor award.

Mr. Carradine also composed and recorded more than 60 songs and was a painter, sculptor and the author of three books, including his autobiography, "Endless Highway" (1995).

In addition to his six-year relationship with Hershey (also known as Barbara Seagull), he was married to Donna Lee Brecht, Linda Gilbert, Gail Jensen and Coco d'Este. The marriages ended in divorce.

Survivors include his wife of four years, Annie Bierman; four children; and four stepchildren.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company