Carradine was a second generation actor, his father John Carradine was one of the most prolific character actors in Hollywood history with a career spanning the 1930’s -1990’s and his brothers were all famous actors as well (Robert, Keith and Bruce). His nieces Martha Plimpton and Ever Carradine (Keith’s daughters) continue the family legacy (though many other members of the family have had varying levels of success in the acting field).
David himself had a long career, consisting of major and minor roles on stage, television and cinema, spanned over four decades. A prolific “B” movie actor, he appeared in more than 100 feature films and was nominated four times for a Golden Globe Award. The last nomination was for his title role in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill.
Upon leaving the Army (following a court martial for shop lifting), Carradine became serious about his acting pursuits. It was at that time that he was advised to change his name to avoid confusion with his famous father. In 1963, he made his television debut on an episode of Armstrong Circle Theatre. Several other television roles were to follow including appearances on Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theatre, and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. He made his feature film debut in 1964 in Taggart, a western based on a novel by Louis L’Amour.
His first “big break”, however, came with his second Broadway part in The Royal Hunt of the Sun, a play by Peter Shaffer about the destruction of the Inca empire by conquistador Francisco Pizarro. He said of this performance, “Many of the important roles that I got later on were because the guy who was going to hire me was in that audience and had his mind blown.” For that part, Carradine won a Theatre World Award for Best Debut Performance in 1965.
He returned to TV to star in the short-lived series Shane, a 1966, and he guest-starred opposite David McCallum in a 1971 episode of Night Gallery entitled “The Phantom Farmhouse.”
In 1972, he co-starred as ‘Big’ Bill Shelly in one of Martin Scorsese’s earliest films Boxcar Bertha, which starred Barbara Hershey, his domestic partner at the time. This was one of several Roger Corman productions in which he was to appear. It was also one of a handful of acting collaborations he made with his father, John.
Then came the role of his career, the one that would catapult him to global stardom – Kwai Chang Caine. For three seasons (1972-1975), David starred as a half-Chinese, half-Caucasian Shaolin monk, on the ABC hit TV series Kung Fu and was nominated for an Emmy and a Golden Globe Award for the role. The show, which took place in the Old West, helped to popularize the martial arts and Eastern philosophy in the west, and immortalized the character of Kwai Chang Caine, also referred to as “Grasshopper”, in popular culture.
Although the choice of a Caucasian to play the role of Kwai Chang Caine stirred controversy (originally it was intended for Bruce Lee), the show served as steady employment for several Asian-American actors in the U.S. In addition to Keye Luke and Philip Ahn, who held leading roles in the cast as Caine’s Shaolin masters, Robert Ito, James Hong, Benson Fong, Richard Loo, and Victor Sen Yung frequently appeared in the series. Kung Fu ended when Carradine quit to pursue a movie career, but he reprised the role of Kwai Chang Caine in 1986 in Kung Fu: The Movie. Brandon Lee, son of Bruce Lee, in his acting debut, portrayed his son.
In 1991, he reprised the role of Caine in a cameo appearance in the TV movie The Gambler Returns: The Luck of the Draw, in which Caine uses his Chinese friends to help the title character in 1903 San Francisco.
Early in the 1990s, Carradine once again reprised the role of Kwai Chang Caine in Kung Fu: The Legend Continues (1993–97) playing the grandson of the original character of the same name. Carradine starred in the program and served as executive producer and director. The program offered him the opportunity to recreate the character for which he was most widely recognized. The show was cancelled in 1997, after four seasons and 88 episodes.
Immediately following the original Kung Fu series, Carradine accepted the role as the race car driver Frankenstein in Death Race 2000 (1975), he said, to “kill the image of Caine and launch a movie career”. The Roger Corman exploitation film became a cult classic. It was based on Ib Melchior’s first science fiction work, a short story called The Racer.
In 1976, Carradine earned critical praise for his portrayal of folksinger Woody Guthrie in Hal Ashby’s Bound for Glory (1976) for which he won a National Board of Review Award for Best Actor. He was also nominated for a Golden Globe Award and New York Film Critics Circle Award for his role as Guthrie. Carradine worked very closely with his friend, singer-songwriter-guitarist, Guthrie Thomas, on the Bound for Glory film assisting Carradine in the guitar style of the period and the songs that had been chosen to be in the film itself.
Next came the role of the alcoholic, unemployed trapeze artist, Abel Rosenberg in The Serpent’s Egg (1977). Set in post-World War I Berlin The Serpent’s Egg, which also starred Liv Ullmann, is together with The Touch one of the two only English language films made by legendary Swedish director Ingmar Bergman. Bergman said of his leading man, “I don’t believe in God, but Heaven must have sent him.” Carradine said that he and Bergman had plans for further collaboration, but the director’s affection for the actor waned when the latter passionately protested a scene which included the butchering of a horse. The altercation caused Carradine to question the fate of Bergman’s soul while the director declared, “Little Brother, I am an old whore. I have shot two other horses, burned one and strangled a dog.”
When Bruce Lee died in 1973, he left an unreleased movie script that he had developed with James Coburn and Stirling Silliphant called The Silent Flute. The script became Circle of Iron (1978) and in the film Carradine played the four roles that were originally intended for Lee. Carradine considered this to be among his best work.
In 1980 the thespian appeared in The Long Riders (1980), with his half-brothers Keith and Robert Carradine. The ensemble cast included three other brother/actor groupings: Stacy and James Keach; Dennis and Randy Quaid, and Christopher and Nicholas Guest. The movie, which was about the Jesse James gang, gave Carradine, who played Cole Younger, one of his most memorable roles.
On June 4th 2009, David Carradine was found dead in his room at the Swissôtel Nai Lert Park Hotel on Wireless Road, near Sukhumvit Road, in central Bangkok, Thailand. Carradine’s funeral was held on June 13, 2009, in Los Angeles. His bamboo casket was buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Park. Among the many stars and family members who attended his private memorial were Tom Selleck, Lucy Liu, Frances Fisher, James Cromwell, Steve Railsback, and Chris Potter. His grave was marked on December 3rd 2009. The monument proclaimed him to be “The Barefoot Legend” and included a quote from “Paint”, a song he wrote and performed as the theme to Sonny Boy, as an epitaph.
Carradine once received an award for being the hardest working member of his profession in Hollywood, and at the time of his death still had approximately a dozen films in “post-production.” Most of these roles were cameos or small parts in independent, direct to DVD productions. Among them, a horror film, Dark Fields (2009); an action film, Bad Cop (2009); and a western, All Hell Broke Loose (2009).
Carradine also appeared in a small role in Yuen Woo-ping’s Chinese kung fu epic True Legend. Carradine and Yuen first met while filming Kill Bill. Yuen eulogized Carradine on the True Legend website, describing him as a “good friend”. Yuen said of Carradine, ” ‘He is among the first Hollywood actors to perform Chinese martial arts on the big screen. In real life he is also a genuine kung fu fan, and knows tai chi, qi gong and Chinese medicine. Same as I, people shall always remember his role as Caine, the grasshopper, in Kung Fu, in the ’70s, which was a really unforgettable performance. I feel both great honour and regret that True Legend is one of David Carradine’s last works.’ ”
In his last of many collaborations with producer Roger Corman, Carradine appeared in the Syfy Channel’s science fiction monster movie Dinocroc Vs. Supergator, over a year after he died.
His final released movie was the Cult Indy Film, “Night of the Templar”, directed by his friend Paul Sampson, in which David wielded a katana for the final time on screen. Almost like a foreshadowing, there are several peculiar and eerie references in the film that are coincidental to Mr. Carradine’s untimely passing which include; cross dressing and auto erotic asphyxiation. His last scene on screen ended in the following dialog: “Well, old friend, see you in the next life time … “Yeah, Old Friends, Old Soul Mates” … “Yes, we are.