David Carradine: A slice of the action

Clint Eastwood watch your back! Since his part in the 1970s cult television series 'Kung Fu', David Carradine has been honing his skills - in dozens of straight-to-video films. Luckily for Quentin Tarantino, he was free to play Uma Thurman's nemesis in 'Kill Bill: Volume 2'. Nick Compton meets the man who likes to be known as 'The Legend'

Sunday 04 April 2004 00:00

Harvey Weinstein, the legendary co-founder of Miramax Films, calls it a renaissance. The actor himself prefers the word resurgence. The unkind might describe it as an exhumation. Whatever way you slice it, David Carradine, 66 years old and with 102 mainly straight-to-video films behind him, has finally got his big movie break.

Harvey Weinstein, the legendary co-founder of Miramax Films, calls it a renaissance. The actor himself prefers the word resurgence. The unkind might describe it as an exhumation. Whatever way you slice it, David Carradine, 66 years old and with 102 mainly straight-to-video films behind him, has finally got his big movie break.

In Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill: Volume 2, opening this month, Carradine is Bill, the target of Uma Thurman's fatal intent. As such he is, in his own words, "all over the movie" (he was a presence in Volume 1, but his face was never seen). Given Tarantino's revitalising powers, this is seen as a career-rebranding role for Carradine. John Travolta's last movie before Pulp Fiction was Look Who's Talking Now, the third installment of the comedy in which the pets start talking. His turn as Vincent Vega restored studio trust that he could carry a movie rather than drag it into dirt.

But making a mature leading man of Carradine would be a rather more remarkable achievement. Travolta was at least a bona fide movie star, even if his career trajectory was suffering terminal droop. Few could name any of Carradine's 102 film roles. For most of us (of a certain age), Carradine is still Kwai Chang Caine, the shaven-headed Shaolin monk seeking redemption and his brother in the television series Kung Fu. Like Spangles and spacehoppers, Carradine is remembered as a bit of fun in a dreary age. This makes him perfect Tarantino material; the director's trick - and it's a good one - has been to ignore the Raging Bull, Easy Rider cannon of great early-1970s US cinema and instead reference the pulp, the cult and the plain fantastic. A collusion between Carradine and Tarantino has the air of inevitability.

The pair met at the Toronto Film Festival in 1996. Carradine had been told that working with a "Generation X" director would do wonders for his career (the advisor guessing that somewhere out there was a committed Carradine fan with power). "I called Quentin at his hotel," says Carradine. "He told me he had seen 99 of my 102 movies. He was lying, but he's certainly seen a bunch of them." Not only was Tarantino Carradine's biggest fan, he was also intrigued by Carradine the man. "He had read my autobiography, Endless Highway," says Carradine, "and he was thinking of writing a character based on me. So there was a natural fit."

The pair would meet occasionally over the next six years with Tarantino - unbeknown to Carradine - using these meetings as extra material for the creation of the character who would be Bill. Tarantino finally completed the Kill Bill script and offered Carradine the role he had inspired; Bill's character was further Carradinised during production.

"We were always talking and he continued to write even when we were shooting and beyond. There's a whole monologue at the end of the movie that is pulled out of a conversation we had at a cigar lounge," says Carradine proudly. And Carradine says Bill comes pretty close to the mercurial majesty of the real thing. "Well, I'm not saying he's like me, he's like Quentin thinks I am. He's literate, he's funny, he's charming, he's a badass," Carradine says with his lisping, lizardy voice. "And he's a fool for blondes. Which is not too far off." (For the record Carradine doesn't have a lot to offer on the glacial blonde after his blood in Kill Bill: Volume 2. "Uma's her own lady, you know. Our on-camera chemistry is quite remarkable but we talked hardly at all during filming. Put it this way, between shots she went and knitted and I'm certainly not knitting.")

Carradine has just seen the film for the first time the night before we meet in LA's Four Seasons restaurant. Untypically, he is unsure about his own performance. "I've always known whether I'm great. Or not." And with an actor who once called himself possibly the greatest of his generation, you can be sure, by his personal reckoning anyway, the greats outweigh the not greats. "But I think I'm too close to it. I just can't read it." Still, other Hollywood insiders who saw this early showing think he's great. Which is what really matters.

Carradine appreciates the risk Tarantino took in casting him. But the last man to doubt Carradine has what it takes to play in the big league is Carradine himself. "I always knew that all it would take was for the right director to put me in a movie." That's all he needed. And when that happened, what had been denied him would become clear.

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"The one thing about doing all those movies and all that television is I know what I'm doing. And I can do what Sean Connery can do. I can do what Clint can do. People even say I look a little like Clint." He shifts his long, gaunt face and the fairy lights of the restaurant's garden catch him just so. And he does indeed look a little like Clint. "But that's just because I'm skinny and tall and old. With a receding hairline. And we can kick ass and look like we can kick ass.

"But I have a range so I'm not limited to the kind of roles that Charles Bronson did. Or Anthony Hopkins does. He has a lot of range but there are certain things he can't do. But I can. And I can do him too. A few years ago, Hopkins said he was going to quit. Well fine, get out the way Anthony, I can do those parts. Those guys can't do every movie, right?!

"There will be room for me to show my stuff, I'm sure. And seeing as I show pretty much all of it in Kill Bill, it will become obvious that I can do it." Carradine, born of Hollywood, has finally got to show his stuff.

David Carradine is the eldest son of John Carradine, an actor who starred in The Grapes of Wrath and The Ten Commandments before becoming a first-call movie villain and an even more prolific B-movie actor than his son.

Acting duties meant that father-son rituals were strictly rationed. "With my father there was one baseball game, one football game, one fishing trip. You got one of everything. And that was all you got. It was enough, though, and I adored him. He was a god to me."

At seven, Carradine's parents divorced and he was sent from California to various boarding schools in New York. "I didn't really know what a family was. I had my moments with my father and moments with my mother but I was basically raised by housefathers and wardens." (Oddly, or not, Carradine has, just like his father, been through four failed marriages and sired and helped to raise a large brood of siblings, half-siblings and step-siblings.)

He was a bright kid but soon ran into trouble. "I got beat up a lot because I was ahead of myself, so I was smaller than the other guys in the class. And my father was famous. And he played villains. Kids don't understand that that's an art. They just think your dad must be a bad guy." Carradine started bunking off (eventually ending up in a reform school) and using his lunch money to watch movies. But acting was not his first calling.

He studied music theory and composition at college in San Francisco as well as ballet and tap. His original plan was to write operas. "I thought it was an open field. I mean who the hell was writing American operas then? There was this atonal shit but no one was taking popular American forms and putting tragedy to them. I was going to be surrounded by tenors and sopranos and musicians and artisans of all sorts. And I was going to get rich too."

Then Carradine discovered a passion for performing and decided he was going to be a "song and dance man" before realising that demand for such a thing was waning. So he tried acting and swung a role in Romeo and Juliet with a San Franciscan Shakespeare company. "I did Tibalt and it all became clear to me. It was a great way to get chicks as well." (Carradine has said that as a child he was "sexually precocious and mystically inclined". And sex and mysticism have remained key concerns in his life.)

He did a brief stint in the army and, on his return to New York, he got the lead in a 1965 production of Peter Shaffer's The Royal Hunt of the Sun on Broadway, alongside Christopher Plummer. Then he returned to LA.

Things began promisingly. He landed the lead in a short-lived television version of Shane, opposite Barbara Hershey, and then Martin Scorsese cast him in his first film, Boxcar Bertha, also opposite Hershey. Returning from filming in Arkansas, Carradine found a script for a new television show leaning against his front door. It was called Kung Fu and it was about a Shaolin monk who leaves China for the US after killing a man. Carradine liked the sound of it.

"The weird thing was that during the summer of 1967 I'd been doing a TV show with Mia Farrow. And the producer said if you were to do a TV programme what would it be. I said it would be about Cain, the first murderer, * walking in the land of Nod, East of Eden, with the mark of God upon him, trying to atone for having killed his brother. And I would set it in the Old West. And he looked at me like I was stone crazy. He said: 'I'm talking about a commercial television programme.' And I said: 'So am I.' He walked away shaking his head."

In 1972, Carradine began filming the first of three series of Kung Fu. And his Caine character will forever wander the desert just as William Shatner's James T Kirk will forever boldly go. The programme is now watched by 150 million people worldwide. Caine is a folk myth; a TV hero become legend. But unlike, say, Leonard Nimoy, forever trying to shake Spock, Carradine remains proud of Caine. "I don't think even Harvey Weinstein understands what a huge fan base I have. There are a whole bunch of people who watched the series when they were growing up. And there are a whole bunch of young guys who caught on to it later. They call me 'The Legend'. That role was so important, not just to me but to the rest of the world."

Kung Fu quickly developed into an appealing mix of cryptic Taoisms - spoken in the perfect but halting English Carradine used for Caine - and martial arts, which Bruce Lee was just making popular. (Rumours have long abounded that the show was developed as a vehicle for Lee, but Warner Brothers, the studio behind the programme, decided Middle America wouldn't take to a Chinese lead. Carradine insists that no one apart from him was ever considered for the part. The fact that he turned up for the first meeting with a shaven head might have helped.)

Kung Fu also had both a whiff of patchouli and a respect for the wisdom of the East. "There was this spiritual search, this spiritual background. And the fact that he can kick ass," is how Carradine sums up the show's appeal. A peacenik vibe also became a feature of the show. "One of the things I was doing were these fight sequences and I would kill people and then it would go to the Federal Communications Commission and they would make us cut it out. And it would look lame. So we had this meeting and I said, 'Look, they are cutting this shit out after we shoot it. And we're working really hard to get it done, so why don't we just stop doing that. Why don't we just make that the point, that he won't kill anybody.' Then the network said, 'OK you have to be real peaceful.' And we became the token peace show."

At a time when the Vietnam War was coming to its nasty conclusion, a show about a yellow man (even played by an American) kicking cowboy butt while preaching a message of peace was a radical proposition. But it was also a popular one. In its first season, the show pulled in 30 million viewers and won nine Emmys, including one for Carradine as best actor.

"My first indication that this was not a little TV show was a cover of Esquire magazine which had me in karate gear kicking the Lone Ranger off his horse. It said: 'A new kind of hero has arrived'. And so I never felt I was a TV star. I never felt like a movie star either. I felt I was simply a phenomenon, like a rock star."

Indeed, Carradine sees the show as a fitting full-stop to the 1960s experiment. "The 1960s began in August 1963 and ended when I walked off the series. I might have kept it going for a while." But after three series, Carradine had had enough. Kung Fu came to an end in 1975.

Carradine has done some good work since Kung Fu. He played Woody Guthrie in Hal Ashby's Bound for Glory and picked up more cult credentials in Roger Corman's Death Race 2000. But things were slowly unravelling. A six-year relationship with Barbara Hershey ended the year Carradine quit Kung Fu and he didn't take it well. (Children of the era, they had a son called Free, now renamed Tom. Hershey also once changed her name to Seagull after accidentally killing one and feeling its spirit enter her body.)

Carradine began drinking. Heavily. There were drugs involved. By all accounts, especially those of his many brothers and half-brothers, Carradine was not a particularly good drunk. He was rude, overbearing, a sharp wit dulled.

For a while he still managed to bag some decent roles. He starred in Ingmar Bergman's Serpent's Egg in 1978, but he was becoming drawn more and more into cheap and cheerful quick-turnaround productions, considered too much trouble by the big studios but always able to add some cult kudos to whatever indie production he ended up in. Carradine says he was also drawn to quick-fix independent movies because he wanted to fund his own directorial effort, Americana, the tale of a Vietnam vet restoring a merry-go-round. He started it in 1973 and didn't complete it until 1981. "There was one period when I made 19 movies in 18 months. I got an award for being the hardest-working actor in Hollywood. But the reason I was doing that was because I was financing my own movie which is kind of expensive."

In the early 1990s, Carradine made a follow-up series to Kung Fu - Kung Fu: The Legend Continues - and he finally quit the booze in 1996. Then he met Tarantino. But he is resistant to the idea that Tarantino has rescued him from oblivion. And he is suitably Zen about what the future may hold. "You know, I'm not a different guy because Quentin hired me. I knew that, if I lived long enough, this thing with Quentin was going to happen. In the meantime I had other fish to fry. I wasn't hanging around waiting."

For all the boasting and bravado, Carradine is an affable and likeable old cat with a Keith Richards death-rattle laugh. A great talker (he tells a long and impressively shaggy tale of getting thrown into jail in apartheid-era Johannesburg after daring to drink publicly with Tina Turner), he is stewed by time and liquor, but in a good way. He is also cool and calm about what lies ahead and has few regrets about what has been. "I don't think I've ever been bitter and resentful. Everyone is responsible for what happens to them, you can't blame outside forces. And hey, I was having a good time. I've always lived in a great house, had really sexy women around me, lots of kids, dogs, horses, always eaten well and I live in southern California. There's not much to complain about."

You could view Carradine's film career as a tragedy in itself, but the only thing he regrets is that not enough people saw him do good work in difficult conditions. "The only thing I felt during that period is that I would really like people to see the work I was doing. When you are doing things that go straight to video, hardly anyone ever sees them."

Who knows where things will go now for Carradine. He may, with a sweet irony, end up the stock villain of summer blockbusters, like his dad. And he might yet emerge as a super-annuated leading man, next in line for the roles that Eastwood, Connery and Hopkins pass on. As he puts it himself: "I can't play Romeo, I'm too old for Hamlet. I'm getting real close to Lear. But things are going to open up for sure. And if now is the time, now is the time..."

'Kill Bill: Volume 2' opens nationwide on 23 April

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