High Times Greats: David Carradine

One of the few people who originally brought martial arts to the American mainstream.
High Times Greats: David Carradine
David Carradine by Dan Skye

David Carradine (1936-2009) called himself a “TV evangelist.” That’s because he helped propel the American martial-arts movement with the blockbuster TV series of the ’70s, Kung Fu. His long career had its ups and downs—in part due to his penchant for honesty. Here he is in a September, 2002 interview with Dan Skye, which we’re republishing in honor of Carradine’s birthday December 8.

For over 30 years, the name David Carradine has been synonymous with martial arts. Although he was originally trained in classical music, he was soon following in the footsteps of his legendary father, John Carradine, the most prolific film actor in history.

David Carradine first made a name for himself on Broadway, then moved to Hollywood and eventually wound up starring in one of television’s biggest sensations, Kung Fu. It was a historic landmark for TV, an hour-long spiritual departure from the dreck the networks had been serving up for a quarter-century. He played the soft-spoken Caine, wandering the Old West seeking harmony while pondering the lessons he had been taught by wise kung-fu masters in his youth.

The hit series also wowed viewers with exotic displays of ancient Chinese self-defense performed by a lithe, catlike Carradine, thereby launching an American martial-arts movement.

The series made Carradine a TV legend, but the man himself is a multitalented, ever-evolving artist and has starred in nearly 100 films. He is currently undergoing rigorous training, gearing up to film the new Quentin Tarantino martial-arts epic Kill Bill while also finding time to tour with his new band, the Cosmic Rescue Team. He is also the author of several books, including Spirit of Shaolin: A Kung Fu Philosophy and his recent autobiography, Endless Highway.

High Times caught up with Carradine one recent evening at his home outside Los Angeles. He spoke softly, assessing his colorful career with a mix of wit and wonder, far into the night.

What do you think the Carradine name means?

You’d probably have to ask somebody else.

Certainly, my father laid down a transcontinental railroad across the country. He did 504 feature movies, and I don’t think he even bothered to count the television.

But the name represents a dynasty. In order to have a dynasty, there have to be three generations. And there aren’t very many dynasties. You have the Hustons, the Barrymores, the Fondas and the Carradines. No one will catch up to the Barrymores, they go back so many generations. But it puts us in kind of a special position. We’re a work in progress. There’s a whole generation of Carradine actors after us. Martha Plimpton is Keith’s daughter, and Ever Dawn is Robert’s. Of course, none of us will ever catch up with Dad. They don’t make movies like that anymore.

You’re making a new film with Quentin Tarantino called Kill Bill, which requires more martial-arts training. What’s that about?

Yeah, we’re training with the same people who worked in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Actually, it’s not kung fu, it’s wu shu. We do a lot of stretching to start the day. Then we work on some combinations. It’s choreographed, all kinds of kicks. Some of it will be in the movie, others are just moves—part of the training. But we work on cardiovascular stuff and strength training, too.

Is Tarantino part of this whole process?

He’s actually training with us. He’s given himself a part in the film.

What are your feelings when you look back at the megasuccess of Kung Fu?

I remember reading the script for the first time and thinking, They can’t do this on television. When the series was bought, I realized that these people were actually going to make a show that basically was telling people: Stop watching television. Stop buying stuff irresponsibly. Turn away from this consumer thing. I couldn’t understand it. I remember asking a friend what he thought about it. He said, “Well, they must be making money”—which was even stranger to me.

When the original television movie aired, it was a hit, but a lot of people missed it because they didn’t know what kung fu was. So they scheduled it again, and they preempted it on the spot to show Richard Nixon shaking hands with Mao Zedong in China. When that happened, I remember thinking, Is this really a coincidence? Is this part of the master plan or something?

The show had a huge following. I mean it was number one, then number two or number four—whatever. I really didn’t know how big it had become until I left the show. I was just working fourteen hours a day.

People were addicted to that show. Girls wouldn’t take a date on Thursday nights. Teachers would give assignments on it and have students report on it the next day. An awful lot of people who did not watch television watched it. People who didn’t own televisions would gather someplace that had a television set so they could watch it. It was a counterculture phenomenon. And I was one of those people. I didn’t own a television set.

How skilled a kung-fu martial artist are you?

That’s hard to say. Put it this way, I’ve been studying more or less seriously for thirty years. I guess I know something. Kung fu is not just fighting, but I can kick ass if that’s what you’re asking.

Have you ever had to use it?

The fighting, you mean. A few times. Always successfully. It was easy. By and large, kung fu masters don’t attack people. Punks do that, and drunks. They’re easy. Plus the attacker is always at a disadvantage—physically, situation-wise and karmically.

But kung fu? I use it all the time. To improve the texture of my life. To feel good.

Does it bother you being so closely associated with a TV series?

Not really. So many American martial artists started training because they saw the show. I think what I am—what I’ve become—is a conduit for the martial arts. It’s certainly what I feel like. I’m a TV evangelist.

I hope Kill Bill will widen people’s awareness of just who I am, because I’ve done a lot of other stuff. I mean, if you think about it—two television series, Circle of Iron, a couple of other pictures—that’s out of ninety-nine feature movies, another twenty or so movies for television or miniseries, none of which had anything to do with Chinese philosophy, kung fu. Bound for Glory—what the hell does that have to do with kung fu?

But none of those things were blockbusters. Kung Fu was. I don’t have any doubt that Kill Bill will be some kind of blockbuster, and I think it will ease that for me.

Not that I’m complaining. People come up to me over and over again and tell me that watching the show changed their lives. It’s not exactly something to get bummed out about.

When you appeared on the Dick Cavett Show back in the ’70s, you were very disdainful of Kung Fu and dismissed the show as just another Hollywood concoction.

I was trying to create a proper perspective. I really didn’t think people should be getting that serious about a TV show. I remember once being visited on the set by somebody who told me that I was something really important on the planet.

I said, “Hey, look! You see that temple over there? It’s actually a set piece from Camelot, but we’ve redressed it with Chinese stuff. It’s all made out of plastic. I mean, get real!”

I think I was trying to do a little of that on the Cavett show. I also did not want to give people the impression that I was a martial artist who was doing a television series. My perspective was that I was an actor who trains. When I got asked back then if I really knew kung fu, I’d answer, “I know nothing”—which is something Caine would say.

On that show your wife at that time, Barbara Hershey, created a national furor by breastfeeding your son, Free, live on the air.

Well, we kind of asked for it. Free was backstage with a governess—l’d guess that’s what you’d call her—and he was crying and we could hear him, so Cavett asked, why don’t you bring him out. So we brought him out, and he was just wiggling and crying. It’s hard for a mother to refuse her baby. Cavett was totally shocked. They cut away to a commercial.

Did you guys laugh over the whole thing afterwards?

I really can’t remember, but I do recall that at the time I thought it was proper—proper to fly in the face of convention. I mean what could be more cool than a mother nursing her baby?

I think at that time Barbara and I were the benchmark for a hippie couple, but it wasn’t really true. Maybe it was true for Barbara, but I think she was just following my lead. I was really too old for it. Everyone thinks I was a hippie, but actually I was the last Beatnik.

How do you think you’re perceived in Hollywood?

Well, it’s changed radically. Because I did so many straight-to-video movies, I was kind of on a shit list. There was a period in my career when I simply took any job that was offered. I didn’t do anything that was odious, but I did exploitation movies. By that I mean cheap movies.

The reason I did Kung Fu: The Legend Continues, the second series, was because I just thought that doing all these independent movies is OK, but it’s gonna run out, and I wanted to keep working the rest of my life.

I knew I could get a sequel to Kung Fu on. One of the reasons I knew that I could was the fact that it wasn’t a cancelled series, I simply walked off the show back in the early ’70s. But it didn’t actually work. It was a hit series, but when I came back to town after four years in Canada doing it, people were asking, “What have you been doing lately?”

I guess this industry doesn’t watch syndicated television, or they don’t care about it.

Does your past drug use influence how you’re perceived?

Well, yeah. But you know, half the industry has a past of drug use or a present of drug use. As for the other half, they’re drunk—and I’ve been both. I think the fact that I made an issue out of it influenced things. I just don’t like to lie.

Most of us felt back then that drugs were one thing, but decent marijuana or psychedelics were actually an improvement in American life. I didn’t feel right about being secretive about it.

I remember they had a piece in People magazine when I did Bound For Glory—”After 500 acid trips, David Carradine finally has his shit together!” Something like that. And it showed a picture of me with an eight-day growth of beard from the movie, and I thought that was kind of a dirty trick, because you got the impression that’s what I looked like all the time.

About a week later, I went on Dinah Shore’s talk show to sing “This Land Is Your Land.” And she asked me if I had really taken 500 acid trips. And I said, “I don’t know where they get that stuff. I must have been high when I said it.”

I guess it’s things like that which have made me a very easy target for very straight people—or very closeted people—in the industry.

What do you regret?

Everything. Nothing. I’ve made a lot of mistakes—some of them tragic, some of them ruinous. I hesitate to second-guess any crossroads, because who knows where the alternate would have led.

How do you see God?

As a cosmic force, not out there, but inextricably woven into every being, every molecule of the cosmos.

Have you continued to remain as open about recreational drug use?

Well, I don’t really have any. At a certain point, the early ’80s I think, I was sittin’ in someone’s kitchen and a joint was being passed around, and I just didn’t take a second hit. And I never really noticed it happened. The feeling just went away. I’m not saying I won’t smoke. I have not taken a psychedelic in a long time. I don’t think I could handle it. Timothy Leary said: “When you get the message, hang up the phone.” I always thought the purpose of psychedelics was information, not entertainment.

I still believe some people should try drugs. In fact, some people should stay stoned all the time.

As far as pot is concerned, it just seems so harmless. It doesn’t create violence. You don’t steal or kill to get it. Even though it’s a so-called criminal act, it doesn’t create any other kind of violence.

Which of your movies are you proudest of?

Probably Americana, which I directed and won the People’s Prize at the Cannes Film Festival’s “Director’s Fortnight.” Didn’t get much of a release.

And then Bound for Glory, of course, the film biography of Woody Guthrie.

How about the great Jesse James movie, The Long Riders, in which you appeared with Keith and Robert?

The Long Riders was an ensemble picture. It’s one of the best pictures I’ve been in. I kind of dominated the picture. It was funny, because when we saw the first screening, Bobby came up to me and said, “Hey, you stole that picture.” And I said, “No, I didn’t, Bobby. I took it fair and square.”

My favorite line from that movie is one I repeat all the time. We’re on the run, and Bobby comes over to me and asks, “How long before the Pinkertons get here?” And I say, “Oh, they’ll follow us about ten miles and get tired. Then they’ll go home.” Bobby asks, “Then why are we standin’ guard?” And I say, “Because every once in a while I’m wrong.”

It’s a great philosophy.

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