David Carradine starred as Caine in Kung Fu from 1972 to 1975.
Today's topic is the 1970s television phenomenon Kung Fu. Kung Fu aired on ABC from October 1972 to June of 1975 and never once made it into the Top 25 shows, but it was nominated for two Golden Globes and was undoubtedly a cult TV favorite for children and teens in the 1970s. Kung Fu had everyone Kung Fu fighting!
I believe Kung Fu was popular with the masses for a number of reasons. First, the art of Kung Fu was popular at that time. Chinese American martial artist Bruce Lee, instructor, philosopher, filmmaker and actor dominated Hollywood with his powerful on-screen presence and intense physical appearance and performances. Just as skinny teens in the 1950s wanted to be Charles Atlas, the man who never allowed anyone to kick sand in his face, young men in the 1970s wanted to be Bruce Lee, who played Kato in The Green Hornet, fighting crime, kicking butt and asking questions later. The emphasis, of course, was taking care of oneself, and defending the oppressed.
Kwai Chang Caine (David Carradine), the star of Kung Fu, is the child of a Chinese woman and American sea captain. He is raised in a Shaolin temple to be a monk, but in the pilot episode he is forced to flee his temple family when he kills the Chinese Emperor's nephew, an act of revenge for the murder of his mentor and elder, Master Po (Keye Luke), a man of peace who was shot with a gun, an issue that Caine often struggles with throughout the show. Caine manages to escape to America where he searches for his half brother, Danny Caine, in the American West while constantly on the run from Chinese government agents.
Keye Luke plays Master Po in Kung Fu.
In each episode, Caine flashes back to his childhood experiences growing up in the temple and the teachings of Master Po as he searches for answers to his current problems (young Caine is played by Radames Pera). In these flashbacks, Master Po refers to young Caine as "Grasshopper." The fact that Caine is Chinese and in the Old West is a problem in itself as the Chinese were forced to endure tremendous prejudice, particularly when they were hired by the railroads to work for lower wages. Caine does not limit his use of Kung Fu to defend the Chinese, though. He will protect anyone who is threatened or in danger. Unfortunately, this means he is constantly on the move to avoid retaliation.
David Carradine as Caine, a man of peace, in the television cult show Kung Fu.
Life in the West is even more difficult for a man raised to be a monk as Caine's life quest is to find peace. He lives for truth and goodness. He is patient and shows great humility. He will only kill if forced to defend himself or someone who is victimized from death, only with great reluctance. In the words of David Carradine, quoted in Cult TV, "Caine has a great "reverence for all life." It is these qualities that made him so appealing to the Flower Children of the 1960s and early 70s. Kung Fu was also positive education for children in the 1970s because Caine fought for the weak, the victimized, the oppressed, and he always won. More importantly, Caine taught children self-control and the advantages of living a peaceful life.
David Carradine and Chief Dan George in Kung Fu, 1973.
In fact, I believe Caine was adored by children who developed a Kung Fu style of communication in the 1970s. Schoolchildren across America would reply to their friends and parents by placing their palms together in front of their chest and saying, "Of course, Master." The appropriate way to respond to a question was to ask a question. "Do you hear the wind, Grasshopper? Do you hear the water rushing in the stream, Grasshopper? That is your answer." Everyone was a "Grasshopper." Kung Fu talk was great fun! As a teen, I had a secret crush on Caine. I never missed an episode of Kung Fu. If Caine were a man, I would marry him. (Insert sigh here.)
David Carradine, who plays Caine in the show, comes from a family of famous film and television stars. His father, John Carradine, made a career out of playing mad scientists in Hollywood horror films, but he also made appearances on numerous television anthologies, such as Love, American Style, Night Gallery, and even played a preacher in an episode of Kung Fu.
John Carradine, father of David, Keith, and Robert Carradine, in a trailer screenshot from Blood and Sand. John Carradine started the Carradine acting dynasty.
John Carradine had three sons: David, Keith, and Robert, all famous actors in their own right. Not surprisingly, the equally skilled actress Martha Plimpton is his granddaughter, daughter of Keith Carradine. Each of these actors has their own style and appeal, and are equally successful in film and TV. When the producers chose David Carradine for this role, they not only chose a star with the perfect personality and skill to carry this role, they also cast his family name.
The Mystery of the Origin of Kung Fu
In her memoir, Bruce Lee: The Only Man I Knew, Bruce Lee's wife, Linda, claims Paramount stole the idea for Kung Fu from her husband. In fact, she presents such a convincing argument that I feel uncomfortable listing Warner Brothers on my source list!
Actor, director, instructor, and Kung Fu expert Bruce Lee.
Bruce Lee first mentioned his idea for a remarkably similar show during a 1971 interview with Pierre Berton. He said that he wanted to play a warrior in the Old West, but he was having trouble convincing Paramount or Warner Brothers to buy the show. The show was eventually produced by Warner Brothers, who denied any connection with Bruce Lee's suggested project and also denied rumors that Lee was their original choice to play Caine. Tragically, Bruce Lee died in 1973, when the series was at its peak.
- Javna, John. Cult TV. St. Martin’s Press. New York: 1985.
- Kung Fu. Creator: Ed Spielman. Perf. David Carradine, Radames Pera, Keye Luke. Warner Bros. Television. Running Time: 60 min.
- Winship, Michael. Television. Random House. New York: 1988.