The eldest son of character actor John Carradine made more than 200 appearances in films and television shows, first rising to prominence with his starring role as Caine in the TV series Kung Fu. At the time, me and my friends thought he was the coolest thing on the planet: he sought peace with everyone he encountered, yet could quickly put down any opposition that arose simply by using his hands and feet (and head). Later I caught up with his 70s film work: a union leader in Martin Scorsese’s Boxcar Bertha, laconic race car driver Frankenstein in Paul Bartel’s Death Race 2000, and, especially, his embodiment of folk singer Woody Guthrie in Hal Ashby’s Bound for Glory.
More recently he starred with Uma Thurman in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill movies, which were widely viewed as a “comeback” for him, but, really, he never went away. He had a trio of very solid performances in the early 80s: as Paul Gaugin in the TV movie Gaugin the Savage; as Cole Younger, an outlaw trying to hold his family together in Walter Hill’s The Long Riders; and as a police detective tracking down a flying serpent run amuck in Manhattan in Larry Cohen’s Q.
Even as his resume became filled with more and more television work and direct to video movies during the late 80s and into the 90s, he maintained an edge to the characters he played and, where appropriate, a spirited air of bemusement, as in the ill-advised revival of his most famous character during the mid-90s with Kung Fu: The Legend Continues. When Tarantino finally gave him a chance to shine, he showed that he had lost none of his creepy, elegant splendor, his ability to sneer and smile at the same time.
By all rights, the Kill Bill films should have led to more juicy roles in major productions, but Hollywood doesn’t really know what to do with actors who age gracefully yet are clearly not young anymore. He’s made more than 40 appearances since Kill Bill – how many have you seen? He snared a small part in Crank: High Voltage, which is exactly the sort of crazed B-movie in which he once starred.
Rumors about Carradine’s cause of death have already been floated, but I’d prefer to remember him on the screen, as Caine in Kung Fu: with his arms spread wide in a welcoming gesture — with just a touch of menace in reserve. (See the clip embedded below. A bit low-quality, but you get the idea.)
Our condolences to his family and friends. Feel free to share your memories of David Carradine.