KUNG FU: An Appreciation of the Original Series
In the early 1970s, a new pop culture phenomenon was capturing the attention of people around the world. It was the beginning of what we now know as the “Kung Fu craze”. The world of Martial Arts was not exactly new, the form of fighting had been seen in movies as early as 1962 with The Manchurian Candidate but it wasn’t until 1971-72 when Hollywood took notice of this exotic and exciting engine for action cinema and began releasing and producing movies about it. Chinese-American actor Bruce Lee was quickly becoming a star after playing Kato on TV’s The Green Hornet (1966-67), where he first showcased his brilliant fight techniques. He would go on to have two massive film hits in China with The Big Boss (1971) and Fist of Fury (1972) which became early blueprints for the genre that would rule the next two decades.
With his fame on the rise and starring roles in Way of The Dragon (written, produced, directed by Lee), Enter The Dragon (his breakout smash) and Game of Death, Lee had also come up with an idea for a new US TV series he pitched entitled “The Warrior”, about an Asian man wandering through the Old West and using his kung fu skills to take on villains he encountered. The series which became Kung Fu certainly sounded like Bruce’s The Warrior idea and according to producers and actors, Bruce was considered for the lead role but it didn’t work out:
Producer Harvey Frand: “David Carradine was always our first choice to play Caine. But there was some disagreement because the network was interested in a more muscular actor and the studio was interested in getting Bruce Lee.”
Producer Ed Spielman: “I liked David in the part. One of Japan’s foremost Karate champions used to say that the only qualification that was needed to be trained in the martial arts was that you had to know how to dance. And on top of being an accomplished athlete and actor, David could dance.”
James Hong (actor on the show and ex-president of the Association of Asian/Pacific American Artists): “if they were going to do a so-called Asian hero on Kung Fu, then why don’t they hire an Asian actor to play the lead? But then the show went on, we realized that it was a great source of employment for the Asian acting community”. Hong also stated: “Carradine had a good relationship with the Asian community.”
In 1972, the series produced by Warner Brothers did cast David Carradine in the lead role of Kwai Chang Caine, the half Chinese-American Shaolin priest from Hunan province who, after killing the Emperor’s nephew to avenge the murder of his Master Po (Keye Luke) flees China for America. When Caine arrives in the Western frontier of the 1870s, he begins traveling on foot (with his wooden flute in tow) searching for his half brother Danny Caine. On his trek he meets a myriad of people across all walks of life. With Caine wanted for murder, he had a price on his head forcing him to continuously move from place to place and evade capture (clearly inspired by another TV show, The Fugitive). The main theme of Kung Fu had the soft spoken and peaceful yet immensely powerful Caine using his extraordinary martial arts skills to defend himself and innocents caught in deadly situations. Audiences loved seeing the traditional Western genre injected with the new, thrilling Asian fighting style.
In one of the most memorable two part episodes entitled “Blood of the Dragon”, Caine finds that his grandfather (played by Dean Jagger in the episode “Dark Angel”) had a child with a cruel woman (Patricia Neal) and he has cousins from that union he never knew about. They are played by Season Hubley and Edward Albert. Caine must deal with the intense family drama while defending himself against a deadly band of assassins led by the diabolical Han Su Lok (Clyde Kusatsu) who are out to kill him for the murder of the Emperor’s nephew. The story utilized many supernatural and psychedelic effects with Caine actually battling an evil form of himself via hallucination.
While the slow motion Peckinpah inspired action sequences were exciting and filled with amazing fight choreography (David Chow: pilot & 1st half and Kam Yuen: 2nd half of series), Kung Fu had another layer which was equally important to the overall story. Flashbacks were used to link Kwai Chang Caine’s new adventures to his past as he remembered the many lessons about life taught to him by his Masters Po and Kan (Philip Ahn). Caine would use these teachings to solve problems and as a guide to find his way out of his predicaments. This aspect of the series made the psychological and spiritual impact all the more effective and resonant. The young Caine was played by Radames Pera who portrayed the character with an innocence and wonder that helped bring the character full circle.
Over the three years of playing Caine, David Carradine who began the show as a non martial artist but had dancing skills as well as boxing and streetfighting experience, made the character one of the most iconic in TV history. By the final season, he was training in martial arts for real. If you watch all three seasons you can see his style become more fluid and personalized. It’s a deeply graceful and superb performance from his career.
During its three incredible seasons (and 63 episodes), KUNG FU featured a long list of amazing actors who guest starred including: John Saxon, John Carradine, Robert Carradine, Keith Carradine, Bruce Carradine, James Hong, Benson Fong, Leslie Nielsen, Barbara Hershey, Carl Weathers, William Smith, John Vernon, Jack Elam, Alejandro Rey, Jodie Foster, Don Johnson, Lew Ayres, William Shatner, Sondra Locke, Tim Matheson, David Huddleston, Patricia Neal, Eddie Albert, Season Hubley and Chief Dan George.