Remember that scene in Pulp Fiction when Samuel L Jackson and John Travolta are sitting at the diner and Jackson explains his life dream? He Said that he wants to just walk the earth like Caine’s character in Kung Fu – to walk from place to place, meeting different people and getting into all kinds of adventures.
Kung Fu undeniably had an impact on Quentin Tarantino who even incorporated various themes from the hit 1970s show into his martial-arts inspired feature film, Kill Bill.
For example, Bill himself was played by David Carradine, who was the star of Kung Fu. He even sported the same look, flute and all, as his iconic transient wanderer Kwai Chang Caine. Pai Mei, Kill Bill’s master also conjured up the memory of Caine’s trainer, Master Po. The similarities abound.
Kung Fu had far-reaching influence. When it premiered in 1972, it was one of the very first martial arts-themed shows to find success in American popular culture. It didn’t hurt that the series was basically a western set in the old wild west in the mid 19th century.
Even today, martial arts retain their popularity on the TV screen. Let’s dig a little deeper and take a reflective peek at show that helped define the genre.
Facts Verse Presents: The Real Reason Kung Fu was Canceled
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Kung Fu was a family affair
At least for David Carradine that is. He got a chance to work on set with many of his family members. His little brother, Keith, showed up in flashbacks as a much younger, not to mention bald Caine. His youngest brother Robert who you might remember from Revenge of the Nerds, showed up in an episode entitled ‘Sonny Jim’.
David’s dad, John Carradine, took on the recurring role of Reverend Serenity Johnson. So when it came to the Carradine family, they really kept it all in the family.
The Shaolin Temple set looked pretty familiar
In fact, it was recycled from a famous musical that you might have seen. It took a little bit of tweaking to turn King Arthur’s home into an epicenter of the martial arts, but the Chinese temple was modified from a set used in 1967 for the musical film Camelot.
That film was in fact based on the stage play by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe which in turn was based upon a novel by T.H. White called The Once and Future King.
So the set could be said to be an adaptation of another adaptation. It’s funny how all of that plays out.
William Smith Tried Out For The Lead Role
Macho-Man Smith had become quite notorious in Hollywood for appearing in a half-dozen or so biker flicks. No one could pull off the rough and tumble biker brawler aesthetic quite convincingly as he could.
Smith had actually put together an 8-minute screen test of himself playing Caine. He had really hoped to land the role. So much so that he even wore specialized eye make-up to appear more Asian. Obviously today, this wouldn’t score him any points but back then it impressed the network and they had planned on including him in the cast.
The shows lead creator and producer however had different plans. Jerry Thorpe, found Smith to be too beefy and intimidating for the part. That wasn’t the end of the line for William however. He did get the chance to appear in one episode of Kung Fu. In “The Chalice”, he got the chance to take Caine on in a melee that including smith wielding a chain.
Later on, he would become the last “Marlboro Man” to appear in the tobacco companies’ advertising.
John Saxon Was Also In The Running For The Role Of Caine
You probably recognized John from Enter the Dragon where he played the part of Roper. Interestingly, William Smith also was offered that role.
Saxon went on to play law enforcement characters in films like Argento’s Tenebrae, Black Christmas, and A Nightmare on Elm Street. He’d finish up his career in minor and supporting roles in movies like The Appaloosa and From Dusk Till Dawn – speaking of Quentin Tarantino, the two were actually buddies.
Bruce Lee Also Had His Eyes Set On The Role
Since we already touched on Enter the Dragon, it only makes sense that we take a lack at Bruce Lee’s connection to Kung Fu.
There is actually quite a deal of controversy surrounding Lee and the origins of the series in question. Bruce Lee’s family insists that the concept was stolen from an idea of Bruce’s, The Warrior.
You can find out more about this claim in the 1993 biopic film Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story.
In the book The Kung Fu Book of Caine, which bills itself as the quintessential guide to the classic TV show, author Herbie Pilato adamantly denies this allegation. He claims that Ed Spielman was the definite creator of the Kung Fu series. He went on to state that any claim contrary to this fact is both an injustice to Spielman and wholly factually incorrect.
Spielman briefly considered taking legal course against Bruce Lee and his estate for these claims. Furthermore, the Network turned down Bruce Lee for consideration in the role because they felt that his English wasn’t up to snuff at the time. Of course, Bruce Lee would prove otherwise in The Green Hornet. No one was more qualified for the role than Bruce Lee.
Carradine Had No Martial Arts Training Prior To Playing Caine
Not only did Carradine come from a family full of actors and performers, but he had already established himself as a seasoned actor both on Broadway and in Hollywood before he landed the role of Caine in Kung Fu.
He had starred in one of Martin Scorsese’s earliest films Boxcar Bertha as the character Big Bill Shelly the year before.
But he had no formal martial arts training before coming to the Kung Fu set. He was hired for the job because he had experience as a dancer on Broadway, and that was enough to impress the network execs.
Once he got the role however, he became an ardently devout student of the martial arts. From the early 1970s till his death in 2009, he practiced tai chi and kung fu with an almost religious passion.
Carradine Refused To Cut His Hair Until The Series Ended
Carradine started off on Kung Fu with a shaved head. In flashbacks, featuring his brother, of course, we are reminded of this fact. As the show progressed, his hair got longer and longer eventually reaching Jesus length by the second and third seasons of the series.
In his personal life, Carradine took his role very seriously, and he never touched a pair of scissors or clippers to his locks to stay true to the aesthetics of his on-screen persona. Thus, you can pretty much identify which era of the series you are watching by the length of his hair.
Of course towards the end of the show, he shaved all of his hair off again – so you have to account for that as well if you are using his hair length as the only way of dating an episode.
Star Trek And Star Wars Converged On Kung Fu
Fans of Star Trek: The Original Series should be on the lookout for their boy William Shatner when he plays a sleazy sea captain in the episode “A Small Beheading” in 1974. His shaggy character went by the truly remarkable name Brandywine Gage.
Later on in that same season on the episode “Crossties”, A very young Harrison Ford aka Han Solo makes a surprise appearance.
The Show Was Canceled Due To Injuries, Not Falling Ratings
The show did quite well, pulling in high ratings throughout its entire run on screen. It was David Carradine that finally pulled the plug on the show.
He had felt as if he had sustained too many injuries to go on. This decision actually meant great things for the shows final season.
Some shows get canceled and are never given a fitting or ceremonious ending. Questions go unanswered and fans are left feeling cheated.
David’s decision to move on gave the show’s producers the chance to tie up all the loose ends and finish up the story arcs between Caine and his brother thus resulting in a satisfying ending.
There Were Sequels – And One On The Way
The first bit of fanfare we got following the show’s finale came in 1986 in the made-for-TV movie Kung Fu: The Movie. Brandon Lee, son of Bruce, played the role of Caine’s son. Lee played Caine’s great-grandson in 1987 in the series Kung Fu: The Next Generation.
In 1993, Kung Fu: The Legend Continues debuted starring Carradine once again in the lead role. This time however He is Caine’s grandson. If you think all of this is confusing, that’s because it is.
The show ran in syndication for 4 seasons before it was canceled in 1997 when the production company responsible for the show tanked.
Another reboot will debut on The CW in 2021, this time featuring a female in the lead role and will take place in the present day. A young Chinese-American woman is forced by personal issues to leave college and make the journey to a monastery in China. There, she learns martial arts and Shaolin values. When she returns to her hometown of San Francisco, she uses these newfound skills to fight crime and corruption instigated by the Triad in addition to avenging the death of her Shaolin mentor who was assassinated.
Well, it’s that time again. We’ve arrived at the finish line of this particular video – but don’t worry there will always be more. But as always, that also means it’s time to let your voice be heard.
What do you think about the new reboot series? Do you think it will live up to the original series or do you think it’s going to be a total flop? Let us know what you think in the comments section.
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