David Carradine did not have a glittering career, but it was certainly one of a kind. That was a distinction the actor, who was found dead yesterday in his Bangkok hotel room, would have appreciated. Carradine was an American original – a Beat era music theory student from the 50s who became a television star on Kung Fu in the 70s and, finally, an iconic screen presence as the titular star of Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill: Vol. 1 and Vol. 2.
Carradine was in Bangkok to begin shooting a new film, Stretch. The 72-year-old was found hanged in the closet of his hotel room, although there's been no official announcement yet on whether it was suicide or an accident. Off the screen he'd had a tumultuous life: five marriages and long standing problems with alcohol, as well as drug use, were all things he'd experienced. Over the last decade, however, the martial arts practitioner had been sober and working at an often furious rate.
“[My career has] been rich and it's been varied,” Carradine told me in 2003 upon the release of Kill Bill: Vol. 1. “If I had taken the road more travelled and done just studio pictures, I might have worked once or twice a year. What the hell do you do the rest of the time? When I'm working I'm alive.”
Christened John Author Carradine, by his father John, who was a notable character actor on film and later television, David Carradine grew up amidst the foothills surrounding Hollywood. To one side loomed the studios lots, the desert to the other. The conflicting lure of both – celebrity versus solitude - would draw him back and forth for much of his life.
“There was once a book about acting called Masks of Faces,” he recalled. “My father was a Mask guy, I'm a Face guy. I remember having a discussion with him once where he said the character should be so complete that you can't see the actor at all. I said, 'No, the character should be so transparent that you can look all the way into his eyes and down to his soul'.”
Stillness on screen became a Carradine trademark, as did his straight talking off it. He left the very successful Kung Fu after only three seasons because he felt the role was demeaning because it asked so little of him. In latter years he did far too many direct to video, and later direct to DVD, action flicks with generic titles (Armed Response, Fatal Secret, Crime Zone, Future Force…), but he did have some worthy credits.
He starred in an early Martin Scorsese feature, 1972's Boxcar Bertha...
...and appeared with his brothers Robert and Keith in Walter Hill's 1980 western The Long Riders.
In 1977 he joined legendary auteur Ingmar Bergman in Munich (Bergman was in self-imposed exile from Sweden) to make The Serpent's Egg.
“One of the reasons we made the picture was so that Ingmar could arrange to get together with Liv Ullman without having to invite his wife,” noted Carradine, with an ornery laugh. “It was not the most pleasant experience. Ingmar is not an easy man – he's very dark and a control freak. Being in an Ingmar Bergman movie is a lot like being a character in an Ingmar Bergman movie: he thought I should be alone and totally unhappy to help the picture.”
He had nothing but kind words for Quentin Tarantino, but Carradine could often be pugnacious. At a recent Los Angeles screening of 1976's Bound For Glory, for which his portrayal of folk singer Woody Guthrie earnt him one of his four Golden Globe nominations, Carradine heckled during the session and then argued strongly with fellow participants such as cinematographer Haskell Wexler during a post-screening Q&A.
“Sometimes I think my life has hardly started,” he explained in 2003, looking back on his deeds. “But I have to really hurry now.”