Jim Kelly: Actor best known as Williams in 'Enter The Dragon'


A karate champion with a formidable Afro haircut and a laid-back countenance that suggested barely-channelled aggression, Jim Kelly enjoyed a brief career as a star of B movies, caught in a perfect storm between the twin booms in kung fu and blaxploitation. Kelly made his name alongside fellow martial arts expert Bruce Lee and actor John Saxon in the 1973 cult hit Enter The Dragon. Asked by the Dr No-like villain Han, if he fears his inevitable defeat, he says, "I don't waste my time with it. When it comes I won't even notice... I'll be too busy looking good."

Kelly's character, Williams, was an inner-city karate instructor who stood proudly in the face of abuse from "the man", the white police. In reality Kelly did run a karate school, in Los Angeles' Crenshaw neighbourhood. But he had made a conscious effort to break into the movie world, because, as he explained, he needed to "make a lot of money... be very famous... and be motivational for kids.'

Kelly grew up in Millersburg, Kentucky and in San Diego, where his father rented lockers to sailors at the naval station. A three-sport star in high school in Millersburg, he earned a gridiron scholarship to the University of Louisville but left after one season, reportedly when he clashed with a coach who was racially abusing a team-mate. He began studying karate and moved to Los Angeles to train in Okinawan karate under Parker Shelton. After opening his own school, and winning four tournaments, including the middleweight title at the Long Beach International Karate Championships in 1971, he was hired to train the actor Calvin Lockhart for the 1972 film Melinda, in which he made his acting debut as a martial arts instructor.

He landed the role in Enter The Dragon when Rockne Tarkington dropped out at the last minute, and producer Fred Weintraub was told to visit Kelly's studio. As an actor, Kelly was so self-controlled and deliberate he could make Lee look like Al Pacino, but he called the martial arts star, who died soon after Enter The Dragon was released, "just incredible, absolutely fantastic. I learned so much from working with him."

Signed to a non-exclusive three-film contract with Warner Bros, Kelly appeared in 10 movies in the next six years. The biggest was Three The Hard Way (1974) directed by Gordon Parks, Jr, in which he starred with ex-gridiron stars Jim Brown and Fred "The Hammer" Williamson. The three teamed up again, along with Lee Van Cleef, in the 1975 western Take A Hard Ride. Kelly played Black Samurai in a 1977 film based on the Marc Olden series of novels, and twice played Black Belt Jones. But after he starred in Death Dimension (1978) and playing a small part in The Amazing Mr No Legs (1979) his film appearances were rare, although he said he received "at least three scripts a year, but most of them don't put forth a positive image."

Instead he became a tennis pro, playing on the USTA senior circuit and opening his own tennis schools, first in West Los Angeles and later in the San Diego area, as well as taking the occasional acting role. He wasn't cast in I'm Gonna Get You Sucka (1988), where Steve Jones played a character called Kung Fu Joe, clearly based on Kelly, alongside Jim Brown as Slammer and Isaac Hayes in the Fred Williamson role as Hammer. In the 1990s he had small parts in two straight-to-video releases directed by Cirio Santiago.

Prompted in part by Quentin Tarantino's success, blaxploitation made a comeback, and although Kelly didn't rejoin Brown and Williamson (and Pam Grier) in Original Gangstas (1997), he did film a cameo, cut out of the finished film, for Undercover Brother, which used some file footage of him. He took part in the 2004 documentary about blaxploitation films, Macked, Hammered, Slaughtered and Shafted, and that same year acted in a Nike commercial, "Chamber of Fear", opposite basketball star LeBron James. He made his final acting appearance in a bit part in Afro Ninja (2009).

Kelly was a popular guest at comic book conventions, especially the huge San Diego Comic Con, where he was often asked to repeat another line from Enter The Dragon, said to an opponent who flashes his moves: "Man, you come right out of a comic book!" He died in San Diego of cancer.

James Milton Kelly, martial artist, actor and tennis player: born Millersburg, Kentucky 5 May 1946; married Marilyn Dishman (marriage dissolved; one daughter); died San Diego, California 29 June 2013.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Internal Sales Operator

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: You should be a good communicat...

Recruitment Genius: Operations & Engineering Manager

£35000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Operations & Engineering Man...

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper / Accounts Assistant

£19000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This well regarded, friendly, p...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Advisor

£15000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Advisors are r...

Day In a Page

Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

Making of a killer

What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most
Katy Perry prevented from buying California convent for $14.5m after nuns sell to local businesswoman instead

No grace of God for Katy Perry as sisters act to stop her buying convent

Archdiocese sues nuns who turned down star’s $14.5m because they don’t approve of her
Ajmer: The ancient Indian metropolis chosen to be a 'smart city' where residents would just be happy to have power and running water

Residents just want water and power in a city chosen to be a ‘smart’ metropolis

The Indian Government has launched an ambitious plan to transform 100 of its crumbling cities
Michael Fassbender in 'Macbeth': The Scottish play on film, from Welles to Cheggers

Something wicked?

Films of Macbeth don’t always end well - just ask Orson Welles... and Keith Chegwin
10 best sun creams for body

10 best sun creams for body

Make sure you’re protected from head to toe in the heatwave
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon files

Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games
Women's World Cup 2015: How England's semi-final success could do wonders for both sexes

There is more than a shiny trophy to be won by England’s World Cup women

The success of the decidedly non-famous females wearing the Three Lions could do wonders for a ‘man’s game’ riddled with cynicism and greed
How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

One day to find €1.6bn

Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

Historians map out untold LGBT histories

Public are being asked to help improve the map