DAVE DAVIES, host:
We learned this morning that actor David Carradine has died in Bangkok, where he was shooting a film. Thai police said he was found dead in his hotel room. He was 72. Carradine appeared in more than a hundred films, including "Bound for Glory," where he played Woody Guthrie, the Quentin Tarantino films, "Kill Bill," volumes one and two, and "The Long Riders," where he appeared with his brothers, Keith and Robert. David Carradine was the son of actor John Carradine.
He rose to fame in the 1970s, when he starred in the ABC series "Kung Fu." He played Caine, a half Chinese/half American who was brought up in China in a Shaolin monastery, where he learned kung fu as part his training. The series followed Caine's adventures as he wandered through the American West, using kung fu on the bad guys and passing on ancient wisdom.
Terry spoke to David Carradine in 1991, when he'd written a book called "The Spirit of Shaolin" about the "King Fu" TV series and the history of the martial art. She asked him what role "Kung Fu" had played in his life off camera.
Mr. DAVID CARRADINE (Actor): Well, it's had certainly an affect on me. It's not always easy to say exactly what. But it's changed my road, for sure, and since it's not over yet, I can't tell you where the path is going to lead. But it's made me concentrate on things that maybe I wouldn't have in the first place. You know, I began as a Shakespearean actor, and the directions I thought I would go in turn out not to be the directions I am going in. But I think that's true of anybody's life.
GROSS: You spend part of your new book talking about things that happened behinds the scenes in the TV series "Kung Fu." Did they do anything to try to make you look part Chinese?
Mr. CARRADINE: Yeah. They put a little tiny corner at the inside of my eyes. It made my eyes look slightly more Oriental, and they painted me yellow.
GROSS: Oh really?
Mr. CARRADINE: And also I bent my legs a little bit most of the time so I didn't look so tall.
GROSS: Huh. How tall are you?
Mr. CARRADINE: I'm 6'2.
GROSS: Uh-huh. When "Kung Fu" was first on, I was taking Taekwondo lessons. Taekwondo is a Korean form of karate. And in our Monday class our teacher would always make some comment about the previous episode of "Kung Fu," about how the fights were just so improbable that you wouldn't be able to stay alive through one of those fights. You'd have so many broken limbs, you wouldn't be able to function and come back for more. I'm wondering what you think.
Mr. CARRADINE: Well, you know, right in front of you I wouldn't want to tell you that your master doesn't necessarily know what he's talking about. But we were looking for realism. We were looking to more illustrate the possibilities of the various forms of kung fu than we were actually trying to just simply show you a fight. I mean you might say on the other hand, you know, this is a form of entertainment, that the fights were closer to the fights that you see in, say, "West Side Story" than what you would see in an arena. But I think, you know, the modern things that you see now with Van Damme and all those people are even more so in that way, that any one...
GROSS: Oh yeah.
Mr. CARRADINE: ...of those punches would, you know, crack your clavicle or break your skull or something like that, knock all your teeth out. But I really think, really, in "Kung Fu" that we stressed the softness more than we stressed anything else. I think Bruce Lee's version of it, or you know, these modern guys is much more, much more unbelievable in terms of people getting hurt. You know, we basically tried to show that Kwai Chang Caine was not trying to hurt people. He was just trying to stop the violence. A lot of that had to do with the fact that the FCC said that they didn't want me to kill people, and we had to make...
GROSS: Yeah, well...
Mr. CARRADINE: ...some kind of adjustment.
GROSS: Yeah. Let me bring up here something I found very interesting, that the FCC used to limit the number of minutes per show that you could fight. And they, what, they objected to you killing people on the show too?
Mr. CARRADINE: Yeah. See now, we didn't really have an attitude ourselves. We just thought we were doing a good show, and we hated the fact that we'd do these great fights and then the FCC would say, well, you got to cut this out and cut that out and all that.
And some of the things that are the absolute identifying characteristics of the show were reduced as a result of these things. For instance, the slow motion created a softer look and the FCC would be more happy about it. And that's also why we went to so many training sequences, because that way we could do the moves and it would not be thought of as violent.
GROSS: You not only did the "Kung Fu" TV series, but you did a lot of films in which you performed martial arts. I'm wondering if over the years a lot of people have come up to you on the street and tried to pick a fight with you just to test themselves against your skills.
Mr. CARRADINE: Well, a few. Yeah, that's happened. I never got in any real trouble, but there were certainly some people who try to give me some. One of the convenient things about "Kung Fu Master" is that, real Kung Fu masters are very unlikely to try to pick a fight with you, it's usually punks more or less. But there were a couple of times when the numbers were really kind of large, you know. If you got nine rednecks walking across the street to pick a fight with you that does kind of get formidable.
GROSS: So, tell me what happened in that instance and what you did?
Mr. CARRADINE: Well, you get out of it anyway you can. You know, the first rule when faced with a superior opponent is run away. And I did some of that.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. CARRADINE: And sometimes I was able to make a couple of moves that were impressive enough so that people backed off and some people - sometimes I was able to - just change it from a confrontation to something like an autograph session.
GROSS: You write that the reason why you were able to perform the Kung Fu parts on TV so well was that you love dance and you had the body and the flexibility to really do this kind of stuff. You loved dance as a child but you say, your father, the actor John Carradine, wouldn't let you take dance classes. Why not? What kind of problem that you have with dance?
Mr. CARRADINE: Well, the way he put it was he said no son of mine will make his living with his feet. And that just shows you that destiny is inescapable because what I ended up doing instead of tapping around was kicking people.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: Did you sneak in dance lessons behind his back?
Mr. CARRADINE: More or less, yes.
GROSS: What kind?
Mr. CARRADINE: Well, I studied ballet, and I studied tap and I studied a lot of ethnic forms as well.
GROSS: How close did you get to performing that kind of dance? Any of those that…
Mr. CARRADINE: I performed it a lot.
GROSS: Musicals or…
Mr. CARRADINE: Yeah. Musicals and ballet and, you know, just - well, I had a band for a long time where I performed on stage and one of the numbers was I would tap dance down into the audience and around on tables and stuff like that.
GROSS: Did seeing the example of your father and his acting career make you want to act or did that give you reservations about becoming an actor?
Mr. CARRADINE: Both. I had reservations. I saw how much pain is involved and how much artifice and how much of it - how much of the business part of it, I would probably never understand because I saw my father going through these problems. Also part of the reason why I went in to an acting career was to finish the job he started because he always felt he didn't go as far as he could. And as a matter of fact it was kind of a revenge motif that started me out in it. I wanted to get even with these guys for not giving my father what he wanted. And to a certain extent I guess I've accomplished that and to a certain extent I haven't. But then, you know, that's part of the story we were always trying to tell was that, you know, revenge doesn't work. It belongs to the Lord.
GROSS: I - you know, I read all these things about the people I'm interviewing and I never know what's true and what's not. But I read somewhere that you shot yourself accidentally with a Colt 45 while shooting a scene…
Mr. CARRADINE: Sure did.
GROSS: …in a film. Was it - did you shoot yourself with a blank or with an actual bullet?
Mr. CARRADINE: No, you don't use actual bullets in movies unless you're completely insane.
Mr. CARRADINE: Which - by the way certain people are. Henry Hathaway did a picture once, a war movie, in which he had - he wanted to have tracer bullets. But by and large you don't do that. But point blank range a blank can actually kill you. It didn't kill me, I have a tough groin.
Mr. CARRADINE: I mean, I was shot in the groin but I - it did ruin a perfectly good tattoo.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: So you have a scar in the middle of the tattoo?
Mr. CARRADINE: The butterfly now has a rather ragged wing, let's put it that way.
GROSS: All I can say is if you shot yourself in the groin and the tattoo was the worse of the problems, you are really lucky.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: How did you - how do you do scenes now with guns differently than you did that time you were hurt? Was there a lesson that you learned about handling a gun?
Mr. CARRADINE: Well, I've always been pretty good at handling a gun. The problem was we were in a real hurry. And the way I was using the guns - well, I had to repeat what I'd done in an earlier scene and it was dangerous. We all knew it was dangerous. You take a lot of chances in movies. Look in these Kung Fu movies, I have broken or dislocated virtually every finger and every toe that I have. I've crushed my ribs. I've smashed my shoulder. I've destroyed a ligament in the knee. I could go on.
Acting is a dangerous profession. And when you consider I've made 68 features plus all the television and everything, you just got to expect that I'm going to hurt myself now and then. It's sort of like being a football player or something.
GROSS: Well, David Carradine, I want to thank you a lot for talking with us.
Mr. CARRADINE: Well, hey I want to thank you a lot for allowing me to.
DAVIES: David Carradine speaking with Terry Gross in 1991. Carradine has died in Bangkok where he was making a film. He was 72. Coming up, Maureen Corrigan on the debut novel of the New York Times scent critic Chandler Burr. This is Dave - this is FRESH AIR.
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