David Carradine as Kwai Chang Caine (Wikimedia Commons/ABC-TV)
For millions of Americans in the 1970s, the face of Asian martial arts was David Carradine.
From our vantage point, more than 40 years after the debut of ABC-TV's Kung Fu, it seems more than a little strange that an Asian actor wasn't chosen to play martial arts expert Kwai Chang Caine, instead of the 100% Caucasian Carradine. In 1972, though, it wasn't so unusual. A decade before, Mickey Rooney's portrayal of Mr. Yuniyoshi in Breakfast at Tiffany's was seen as funny, not offensive. Twenty-five years before that, Hollywood managed to make the film adaptation of Pearl S. Buck's Chinese epic The Good Earth without a single Asian actor in a lead role. Seen in that light, Kung Fu was downright progressive, given that it did cast a number of Asian actors in regular roles.
But in 1972, the fans weren't thinking about that – they were just drinking in all the great kung fu action by Carradine and company.
Carradine's half-Chinese, half-American Shaolin monk Kwai Chang Caine wandered the Wild West, attempting to be a man of peace in a violent world. He often flashed back to his monastic training, remembering the teacher who gave him the nickname "Grasshopper." Caine's lessons with Master Po and Master Kan gave pop culture a catchy way to refer to a novice… but they also imparted the wisdom of Eastern philosophy.
Though Kung Fu was only on TV for three seasons – and David Carradine never really knew martial arts in the first place (he used his skill as a dancer to fake it, picking up real martial arts knowledge as he went along) – the image of Carradine as a kung fu master persisted. Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill films featured Carradine as an assassin in a world of martial arts-inspired revenge. The movies revived Carradine's flagging career and harked back to his glory days as Kwai Chang Caine.
Four years after David Carradine's death, the entertainment world has changed, and it's unlikely he'd ever get to play a character like Grasshopper if he were alive and working today. Still, though it may not be PC, we love watching his kung fu.
Written by Linnea Crowther