The story of the ‘Grasshopper’ | Sunday Observer

The story of the ‘Grasshopper’

26 September, 2021

Names of some actors disappear from the memory of audiences from the time the movie or drama is over. But some names continue to live among audiences long after the movie or drama is over. David Carradine or Kwai Chang Caine or ‘Grasshopper’ of Kung Fu is such a name which is so strongly etched in the memory of audiences that it never becomes blurred. The character Kwai Chang Caine became a cult idol among people during the time that television movie Kung Fu was being aired. Sri Lankan television viewers also remember the name David Carradine due to the iconic character he played in the Kung Fu tele series broadcast on Rupavahini during the early 80s. However, what is strange is that it is very little people know about him.

Who is David Carradine?

Carradine is an Irish-American, born on December 8, 1936. He comes from one of Hollywood’s acting dynasties as his father, John Carradine, was a star of screen and stage dating back to the golden era of Hollywood – he is considered to be a grand old man of Hollywood who claimed to have appeared in more movies than any contemporary of his. David Carradine was born in Hollywood and named John Arthur Carradine. He took the name David to distinguish him from his actor father John Carradine. David has three younger brothers namely Bruce, Robert and Keith Carradine, and all of them are actors representing the second generation of an Hollywood actor family.

Carradine attended San Francisco State College, and after leaving it he became a soldier, a commercial artist and a stage actor. He first landed in Shakespearean rep and on Broadway. His first leading role on Broadway is in The Deputy. Then, he portrayed the Inca chief Atahualpa in the Royal Hunt of the Sun (1965), another Broadway play. There he starred opposite Christopher Plummer, and he was named’ Most Promising New Personality’ by Theatre World for this role.

Kwai Chang Caine

Carradine started mainly in westerns, playing the title role in a series based on the hit film Shane in 1966. From the early days, he played a variety of races, and his counter-cultural credentials were established with roles in Martin Scorsese’s first film, Boxcar Bertha (1972), and (uncredited) in the director’s celebrated Mean Streets (1973) as a memorable drunk in a ruckus in a bar. The first and the biggest of his career peaks came with the television series Kung Fu (1972-75) – he was 36 when it began to be aired. Kung Fu was a huge cult hit, mixing western action with eastern philosophy - a long and abiding interest for the actor - in a way that was novel at the time. The protagonist, Kwai Chang Caine, was a Shaolin monk mastered in martial art, and there was a tug of war between Carradine and Bruce Lee for portraying this character which ultimately Carradine won. Originally, Kung Fu was a TV movie of 46 episodes. Then, in 1986 it was adapted to the silver screen as Kung Fu: The Movie. Because of its huge popularity, it was next reproduced as another TV movie titled Kung Fu: The Legend Continues during1993 -97 which tells the story of grandchildren of Kwai Chang Caine. Carradine joined this as a co-producer as well. The character, Kwai Chang Caine, earned him several Emmys, and he once said of the role, “Every day, at least six people will come up to me and say ‘Your show changed my life’.”

Movie life continues

Other memorable movies in which Carradine played include Robert Altman’s radical reworking of The Long Goodbye (1973, again uncredited), and the lead in the exploitation film Death Race 2000 (1975), also starring Sylvester Stallone. Then, he played Woody Guthrie in Bound for Glory (1976) which also showcased his abilities as a singer, and it earned him nomination for a Golden Globe award. In 1977, he acted in Ingmar Bergman’s The Serpent’s Egg (1977), but his star waned after the 1970s, assisted by a gonzo reputation. In 1989 he served 48 hours in jail for drunk -driving.

In 1982, a movie titled Q: The Winged Serpent (1982) gave him a rare interesting part, and he appeared in 12 episodes of the TV mini-series North and South (1985-86), which brought him another Golden Globe nomination. The actor also turned his hand to directing, initially on the Kung Fu series and in three other feature films, You and Me (1975), Mata Hari (1978) and Americana (1983). But his career had been in the doldrums for some time when the celebrated occupation-reviver Quentin Tarantino cast him in the title role of Kill Bill, Vol 1 and 2 (2003-04). Finally, it became such a popular character that people started to embrace it as Kwai Chang Caine in Kung Fu.

Through the 45 years of his professional career, Carradine appeared in 118 films, 32 plays, 27 television movies of the week, mini series and dramatic specials, 35+ guest appearances in various series’s and the star in three series.

Other Talents

David Carradine is also a producer, director, a composer, musician, singer and a writer. He released the albums Grasshopper and As Is, as well as singles, including You and Me, Troublemaker and Walk The Floor. As a writer, he wrote his autobiography, Endless Highway, and then wrote a book titled The Kill Bill Diary, a day-to-day journal of his experience on the film set and beyond. Two martial arts related instructional books, named David Carradine’s Tai Chi Workout and The Healing Art of Chi Gung, are also to his credit. And he has produced and starred in a series of martial arts workout videos, beginning with David Carradine’s Kung Fu Workout, and a number of others on Tai Chi, Chi Gung, Cheng Tai Chi Meditation and Kung Fu Kick Boxing.

Marriage and Death

David Carradine’s first partner was Barbara Hershey, a co-star in the movie Boxcar Bertha (1972). This was considered to be a hippie affair – during this time she changed her name to Barbara Seagull. Though they never married, they had a child named Free. After that, Carradine married four times and there were two other children and four divorces before his final wife, Anne Bierman. He is survived by Annie, two daughters, Calista and Kansas, by his first two wives; and Free, later known as Tom.

David Carradine’s death is one of most tragic incidents in Hollywood. On June 4, 2009, his naked body, hanging in the closet, was found by Thai Police at the luxury Swisso tel Nai Lert Park Hotel in Bangkok. He went to Thailand to shoot his latest film, Stretch. The police initially said it was a suicide resulting from hanging himself: police found a cord wrapped around his neck and genitals. But then they ruled it was an accident resulting from dangerous sex practices – a lone sex practice known as autoerotic asphyxiation. Meanwhile Carradine’s fourth wife (from 1998 to 2001), actress Marina Anderson, claimed in a new book that the actor “never flew solo” and the autopsy and other details of his death “just don’t fit.” She said with evidence that the death has to be a murder, while admitting to her husband’s kinky sex life.

However, once a cult idol, David Carradine departed life very tragically as against all the principals depicted in the character Kwai Chang Caine, the Shaolin monk, in Kung Fu. Writing on his death, Rob Mackie, an American journalist said “It was a sad irony that Carradine was to die in the Buddhist centre of Bangkok, Thailand, in what is believed to be a suicide.” But is it a correct conviction? Is it a punishment which he received in real life for breaking the ‘Shaolin values’ his character observed in the movie? Anyway, the world lost one of the best actors who entertained fans for four long decades.