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Kung Fu, Starring David Carradine As A Shaolin Monk: Facts And Stories

Entertainment | November 28, 2020

David Carradine on 'Kung Fu.' Photo by Walt Disney Television via Getty Images Photo Archives/Walt Disney Television via Getty Images

In 1972, David Carradine stepped onto TV screens as Kwai Chang Caine, protagonist of Kung Fu. The show presented the saga of a Shaolin monk wandering the American West of the 19th century. American viewers hadn't seen a show quite like this before, but it combined a perennially popular genre, the western, with a genre that was rapidly gaining interest, martial arts. The show was an interesting mix of the increasing interest in martial arts and Eastern thought with the nostalgia of the Western. 

A Controversial Origin

Bruce Lee. Source: (brucelee.com)

The show’s origin story is steeped in controversy; according to Bruce Lee’s widow, Linda Lee Caldwell, Bruce Lee had the original concept of a martial artist living in the American Old West, but Warner Bros. took it. There is circumstantial evidence to support her assertion; in 1971, during an interview on The Pierre Berton Show, Lee discussed the concept, explaining that the Old West setting was appropriate because of the violence of the West. As the interview progressed, Berton asked Lee whether the audience would be okay with a non-American actor, and Lee responded that that was the reason that the show would not be filmed. However, this evidence is only circumstantial and according to biographer Matthew E. Polly and other sources, Ed Spielman created the show the show. Lee had another connection to the show:  as they were casting the role of the main character, Lee was considered, however, Tom Kuhn, a studio head, was concerned that the audience wouldn’t be able to understand Lee, who had a thick accent.  

Kung Fu Master On The Run

Po, played by Keke Luke. Source: (Pinterest)

In the show, the main character Kwai Chang Caine played by David Carradine, is half-Chinese, the son of an American man and a Chinese woman. Caine is wanted for murder in China and has a $10,000 bounty on his head, and so he flees to America, where he must deal with both desperados and bounty hunters as he tries to find his brother Danny. Prior to fleeing to America, he is marked by a dragon and tiger on his arms; he gets the marks in the pilot episode, when he brands himself prior to leaving the Shaolin monastery. Throughout the show, Caine flashes back to his training in the Shaolin monastery under the blind master Po. Po gave Caine the nickname “Grasshopper” after teaching him a lesson about being aware of the world around him, including the grasshopper at his feet.

Some Elements Were Just Not True

The marks on Caine's arms. Source: (Shaolin Monastery Historical Society)

Though the show is peppered with Eastern philosophy, it fictionalizes certain aspects. For example, while the Shaolin monks do practice kung fu and are capable of some amazing physical feats, branding their forearms is just a myth. And Caine was not completely true to his monastic order either; Shaolin monks shave their heads, remain in the monastery, and stay celibate throughout their life. While Caine’s head was shaved at the beginning, just as David Carradine’s was, Carradine allowed his hair to grow throughout the series, refusing to have it cut until near the end of the third season. You can identify where you are in the show based on the length of Carradine’s hair; throughout the show, Caine was not celibate either.

Casting Caine

Source: (IMDb).

When David Carradine, a man with no Chinese heritage, was cast as Caine, he was cast for his ability to dance; he also gave a good reading. Since he had no martial arts training, they initially used stunt doubles to film the fight scenes. By the third season, Carradine began to learn kung fu. Once he began his training for the show, he became a devoted practitioner, practicing tai chi and kung fu for the rest of his life. His kung fu abilities were not the only fabrications, however. For example, Caine was supposed to walk on rice paper to demonstrate the lightness of his footsteps. He was directed to practice using eggs, which turned out to be unnecessary as rice paper was not available and they used butcher paper for the scene. They also got creative with the set for the monastery. It was repurposed from the 1967 film Camelot.    

A Family Affair

John Carradine. Source: (IMDb).

David was not the only Carradine who appeared on the show. Keith, his younger brother, played the younger Caine, and Carradine’s youngest brother Robert appeared in one episode. Their father, John Carradine also had a recurring role as Rev. Serenity Johnson. In addition to several Carradines, Harrison Ford, Jodie Foster, and William Shatner made guest appearances on the show.  

The Show Spawned Sequels

Carradine with Chris Potter as Daniel Caine. Source: (IMDb).

The show had high ratings and was nominated for two Golden Globes. It could have continued, but Carradine decided to leave. Because of its popularity, it has had several sequels. In 1986, the first sequel to the show was made, the TV movie Kung Fu: The Movie. This continuation of the story starred Bruce Lee’s son, Brandon Lee, as the son of Caine. Lee also played the role of Caine’s great grandson in the next sequel, Kung Fu: The Next Generation in 1987. Finally, in a somewhat confusing twist, in the 1990s series Kung Fu: The Legend Continues, Carradine returned, playing Caine’s grandson.  

Tags: David Carradine | Kung Fu

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Cyn Felthousen-Post

Writer

Cyn loves history, music, Irish dancing, college football and nature. Social media is also her thing, keeping up with trends and celebrities with positive news. She can be found outside walking or hiking with her son when she's not working. Carpe diem is her fave quote, get out there and seize the day!