A chat with David Carradine, An interview with David Carradine, Kung Fu Killer, Kung Fu, Kill Bill

Although he’d been acting in film and on television since the early 1960s, it wasn’t until 1972 that “Kung Fu” made David Carradine into a full-fledged star. Since then, Carradine’s career has, like most actors, done the ol’ ebb-and-flow routine, but after years of solid acting performances (including several re-visitations of his most famous character, Kwai Chang Caine), he received a major boost in street cred in 2003 when he starred as Bill in Quentin Tarantino’s epic “Kill Bill” films. Currently, Carradine is appearing in the new Spike TV miniseries, “Kung Fu Killer,” where he’s re-teamed with one of his “Kill Bill” co-stars, Daryl Hannah. We spoke to the man formerly known as Grasshopper about how he chose to walk away from “Kung Fu” when it was still riding high in the ratings, what brought him into “Kung Fu Killer,” why he ended up appearing in a Jonas Brothers video, and why he groaned when the film “Q” was brought up.

Bullz-Eye: Good to talk to you, David. So, wow, a lot’s being made of the fact that you’re working with Daryl Hannah again for the first time since “Kill Bill.”

David Carradine: I am!

BE: It’s certainly not the first time you’ve teamed up with one of your “Kill Bill” co-stars, though. You and Michael Madsen have turned up in the same film a couple of times since then.

DC: Many times, actually. You know, I’ve done probably five movies with Michael, but rarely have we been in the same country at the same time! We never seem to have scenes together, but we have made movies together…theoretically.

BE: (Laughs) You two must’ve forged quite a friendship. I’ve heard that you were married at his home.

DC: Um…

BE: Reportedly…?

DC: Well, in his back yard, anyway. Which is actually the ocean.

BE: Was that a bond that was formed on “Kill Bill,” or had you known each other prior to that?

DC: I’d say it gelled there. I had known him a little bit before, but on “Kill Bill,” we actually became kind of soul brothers, no doubt about it. And he would say the same thing.

BE: What was it like working with Daryl again?

DC: Well, working with Daryl is one of the most pleasant experiences you can possibly have. She’s a little bit taller than I am and utterly beautiful and just the sweetest person imaginable…and, y’know, I’ve kind of had the hots for her ever since “Blade Runner.” We don’t have a romantic thing in this movie, but I’m sort of her protector, which is fun.

BE: I spoke to Barry Bostwick the other day, who did a “Guys Movie” for Spike, and he said that two of the biggest reasons for him taking that part were that they offered it to him and that it keeps him acting. What was it that tempted you about “Kung Fu Killer”?

DC: Well, it was (producer) Robert Halmi, actually, who talked me into it. He said he wanted to do five movies on this particular character and subject. (Crane is) a historical figure; the guy actually existed. And I knew about the guy. Somebody had sent me some literature about him a few years back, and so I just kind of jumped to it. There wasn’t any question of me saying, “No.” I said, “Yeah!” And not just because I need work, because I don’t, but just because…this guy is bad. You’ve seen the movie, right?

BE: Yeah.

DC: So you understand that this guy is rarely in a good mood. I just thought it would be really great to do somebody who was the good guy but is so bad. I relate it to the guy in “Unforgiven,” or the guy in “Payback.” But the other thing was wearing all those 1920s clothes and the Humphrey Bogart hat, and doing a movie where we’ve got a torch singer…all that film noir stuff. It’s really a gangster movie, isn’t it?

BE: It looks very classy, too.

DC: Yeah, and I got a kick out of it. Every idea that I could think of that related to this movie was a “yes.” I mean, I couldn’t find a “no,” so I had to say, “Yes.”

BE: Where was it filmed?

DC: Heng Dian, China.

BE: Had you been there before?

DC: Yeah, I did this movie, “Son of the Dragon,” there. It was during “Son of the Dragon” that Robert Halmi told me about this one.

BE: Given that you’re in your early 70s now, how long do you think you’ll feel comfortable playing a complete bad-ass like you do here, as Crane?

DC: Well, it’s almost a vanity of mine that I can still do this stuff when I’m 70. I think I can probably still do it when I’m in my 80s, but we’ll have to see. But I don’t really feel like I’m getting any older. I don’t know what that’s about… (Laughs) …but I’m happy about it!

BE: Oh, yeah, and I don’t have any hesitation about saying that you pull it off successfully. I was really just wondering on a personal level how you felt about it.

DC: Well, y’know, look, I don’t hurt, I don’t much get tired, there doesn’t seem to be much that I can’t still do, and there are even some things that I didn’t used to be able to do that I can do now. I actually seem to be getting stronger, and I have more endurance and everything. I don’t know, I can’t explain it.

BE: I know you have a personal interest in martial arts, but do you ever get tired of doing kung-fu-themed projects?

“(‘Kill Bill’) was pretty much a collaboration. For instance, the whole Superman speech was actually a conversation (Quentin and I) had over a couple of cigars in a hotel in Beijing when we were in pre-production. Six days later, there was a rewrite of the script, and our whole conversation was dumped into my mouth as a monologue!”

DC: I don’t really do that many. I don’t do enough of them to get tired of them. Of the 132 movies that I’ve made, I’d say that no more than six or seven of them have had anything to do with martial arts, so it’s really more of a joy when the opportunities arise.

BE: Perhaps I misstated that a little bit. I guess I mean that you fall back on the kung-fu image. For instance, you’ve done commercials, you’ve made appearances here and there…

DC: One commercial. Not commercials. Just one. And appearances…? I don’t even know what you’re talking about.

BE: Well, you played a martial arts instructor on a sitcom with your brother, Robert.

DC: Oh, yeah, that was “Lizzy McGuire”! But that was just a lark. You do that stuff as a joke. If I can’t make jokes about myself, I might as well shoot myself in the head!

BE: On a related note, did you enjoy doing the video for the Jonas Brothers’ “Burnin’ Up”? (Writer’s note: He played a Kung fu master there, too, so, c’mon, am I so wrong to see a recurring theme?)

DC: Yeah! I wasn’t sure I was going to do it, because I didn’t know who the hell the Jonas Brothers were, but my 13-year-old went, “Oh, the Jonas Brothers! Oh! Oh, you’ve gotta let me go to the set!” And so I realized that maybe they are somebody and maybe I should do it. I still haven’t heard any of their music. People tell me that they’re the new Beatles, but my answer to that is, “Come on, there’s no such thing as a new Beatles.”

BE: That’s funny. Sir George Martin said something similar the other day when that comparison was made. Basically, he said that there will never be a new Beatles.

DC: No. No, that was one of a kind, and it will always be one of a kind.

BE: How much fun was “Kill Bill” to do?

DC: More fun than you can possibly imagine.

BE: Quentin Tarantino seems like someone who’s all business when he’s making a movie, but I just imagine he was quizzing you mercilessly about stuff you’ve done in the past when you were between takes.

DC: Well, the other thing is that it was pretty much a collaboration. We would talk..not even between takes as much as between shoots, hanging out in the hotel, smoking a cigar. For instance, the whole Superman speech, that was actually a conversation we had over a couple of cigars in a hotel in Beijing when we were in pre-production. And, then, six days later, there was a rewrite of the script, and our whole conversation was dumped into my mouth as a monologue! So that made me kind of a collaborator, really. We talked a lot, and it turns out that Quentin and I have an enormous amount of stuff in common. We’re completely different people, but there are so many connection points that it’s ridiculous.

BE: What are your thoughts about the fact that they’re remaking “Death Race 2000”?

DC: I don’t really have any thoughts about it. I mean, I’m in it…as a voiceover. They have my character, Frankenstein, who gets killed within the first two or three minutes of the movie. I did the voice of Frankenstein, because he’s wearing a mask the whole time, and I think they just did that as a nod to the old friends, saying, “Well, David Carradine is in this movie!” And…I don’t know. The movie’s…I’ve seen a lot of it, and it’s essentially a cartoon. It’s only vaguely related, even, to “Death Race 2000.” It’s not a remake, it’s not even an adaptation. It’s just a completely different idea, with people who think that there’s a modern viewpoint that’s different somehow. It doesn’t have any of the humor, which I think was the point of “Death Race 2000,” that it was funny. I don’t care about the action. The other thing was the moralistic aspect of it. That’s what it was. Roger Corman said, “I intended to make a movie that was mainly action, secondarily it was a moralistic film, and thirdly it would’ve been a comedy. And what I got was comedy, action, moral.” But he said, “You can’t argue with these grosses!” And I made a lot of money off that picture! I had a piece of the action, and I’m getting a big piece of whatever Universal makes off it, for that matter.

BE: Nice.

DC: So I suppose that should make me happy! But I don’t understand why they remake movies that were successful in the first place. If you’re going to remake a movie, I’d say take the dogs and do a remake and make it a good one. But why remake something that was already iconic? I don’t understand that. But on the other hand, I think it’s a pretty good movie. I don’t know what it’s gonna do. I don’t know how people are going to respond to it, though, because it doesn’t have the humor, or maybe even the humanity, that the original had. And I know you can’t just remake the original just like it was, because today it would be really corny. But, y’know, my answer to that is, “Let’s just not do it.” But I’m not Universal.

BE: After you did the original “Kung Fu,” were you surprised that it became the cult hit that it did, or did you always suspect it would have staying power?

DC: No. No, I had no idea. I didn’t understand what people were talking about when they were talking about what a big hit it was. I didn’t even know it was a hit, actually, until almost right before the time I walked off the series. Right towards the end, when I said, “I’m leaving now.” Because it wasn’t ever canceled. I just walked. And they said, “What are you doing? It’s #2 in the Nielsens right now! Last week it was #1!” And I said, “Yeah? What do I care? I’ve got other things to do.” But it wasn’t until towards the end that I realized it was a hit. I just took it because I thought it was a good part, and I thought I could play it well. I had no idea it was going to change the world…which it kind of did.

BE: Was it hard for you, then, to be convinced to revisit the character several years later?

DC: Well, I guess I was hard to convince. The thing is, people on the street were always coming up to me on the street and asking, “Are you going to do any more of those ‘Kung Fu’ things?” And I said, “I don’t think so.” And they’d say, “Well, I wish you would.” And finally I realized, “I guess I should!” But I had to talk Warner Brothers into doing it…and it wasn’t an easy talk. It took me about a year to be able to do the movie of the week that I did with Brandon Lee, and then it took another year to talk them into doing the sequel – sort of – that we did in Canada, “Kung Fu: The Legend Continues.” Warner Brothers is…it’s hard to talk them into anything. But, on the other hand, I think they always continue to be pissed off with me because I walked off that series. You know, I’ve made them God only knows how many millions of dollars, but they’re still pissed off.

BE: We did a piece recently on our favorite cinematic siblings, and we referenced “The Long Riders,” figuring that, at the very least, it deserved an honorable mention because there were so many real-life brothers in it.

DC: It actually started that trend. You know, the “Young Riders” and “Young Guns” and everything else were pretty much clones of that idea. But it was also a great movie. I mean, Walter Hill is a really great director, and, actually, there have been magazines and critical bodies or whatever that have called it one of the ten best Westerns ever made. I don’t know even know how you can do that! What about all of the Westerns by John Ford and Howard Hawks? Or Sergio Leone? There’s just so many great Westerns that it would be hard to name the ten best Westerns. Is it “Once Upon a Time in the West,” or is it “Red River”? I know a lot of people say “High Noon,” but I don’t even consider that a Western. It’s a movie about a clock!

BE: If memory serves, you did a made-for-TV sequel to “High Noon.”

DC: (Dryly) Yeah. Right. I don’t think that really qualifies.

BE: (Laughs) On a possibly related note, what would you say is the project you’ve worked on that didn’t get the love it deserved?

“Right towards the end (of ‘Kung Fu,’), I said, ‘I’m leaving now.’ It wasn’t ever canceled. I just walked. And they said, ‘What are you doing? It’s #2 in the Nielsens right now! Last week it was #1!’ And I said, ‘Yeah? What do I care? I’ve got other things to do.’”

DC: Any one of my projects! I’ve rarely…except for “Kill Bill,” I don’t think any of the movies that I’ve been a major actor in have returned their investment the first time around. “The Long Riders” didn’t. “Bound for Glory” didn’t. “The Serpent’s Egg,” which I did with Ingmar Berman, didn’t. And my own directorial projects all lost me a lot of money. They won awards and everything, but in release, nothing much happened. It’s actually rare that I’m in a movie that…actually, I don’t think I’ve ever been in a blockbuster? Do you count “Kill Bill” as a blockbuster?

BE: I think so.

DC: It does qualify? Well, okay, then, I’ve done one. (Laughs) But even “Bird on a Wire,” with Mel Gibson and Goldie Hawn, that did not return its investment. I think we shot a lot better movie than was released. The committee at Universal pablum-ized that movie after we shot it.

BE: Does “Lone Wolf McQuade” qualify as a hit?

DC: Yeah, actually, it does. Not only that, but it’s probably the closest to being a real movie that Chuck Norris ever made.

BE: Yeah, I can see that.

DC: It really has some status as something as real as, say, a James Bond movie or something. It’s also pretty much the basis of his TV series! He ripped the entire TV series off of that movie! What’s the name of that? I can’t remember it.

BE: That would be “Walker: Texas Ranger.”

DC: Yeah! That’s the same character. He got so close to it that...I think he’s in the middle of a bunch of lawsuits over that, actually, from the director and the producer and the writer and everybody else. But those lawsuits are never-ending. I did not want to join into it. I do have a piece of that picture and its profits. In other words, whatever profits “Walker: Texas Ranger” has are actually part of the 7.5% of the producers’ share that I own of “Lone Wolf McQuade.” So I could be part of the lawsuit. But, y’know, I’d rather make a movie than win a lawsuit, so I didn’t join with the guys. But, yeah, that was a decent movie, and it was, I think, as major as anything that Chuck Norris ever did, as far as actual movies go.

BE: And there’s one last film I wanted to bring up. I was just wondering what your recollections were of “Q,” because that’s one I really have a soft spot for.

DC: (Groans) Well, I don’t know why!

BE: (Laughs) Probably because I first saw it when I was 10 or 11!

DC: Well, I was in the Army with Larry Cohen, and he was a real close buddy of mine, and we always wanted to make a movie together. And one time, I was at the Cannes Film Festival, and I got a telegram that said, “Show up on June 14th in New York with clothes for a New York detective.” And I thought, “That sounds really cool!” And I hadn’t read the script or anything, so I showed up, and they gave me the script, and they said, “You’re not working tomorrow,” and I said, “Okay, then I’m not going to read it tonight.” And then the next morning I read it, and I said, “Oh, my God, it’s a monster movie. I don’t do these things!” But I thought, y’know, I’ve made the commitment, so I have to do it. And I thought that if he had left the monster out of it, between me and Michael Moriarty, there was a real great story there between the detectives and the sleazebag heroin addict / petty thief character. That’s where the power in the movie is…and not in the chicken that ate New York! But that’s Larry. Larry has to have a chicken that eats New York in every one of his movies. You know, “It’s Alive” and all that.

BE: Hey, you’ve gotta have a gimmick.

DC: I do love the guy, though, and it turns out that “Q” became a cult classic. Not on the level of “Death Race 2000,” but in that direction. But, still, the most powerful part of the movie is whatever me and Michael Moriarty are doing together. That’s where the heart of it is. It was actually Claymation, by the way, that bird. It wasn’t even CGI. It was Claymation!

BE: Ah, early ‘80s technology. Well, it’s been a pleasure speaking to you. Good luck with the movie, and I hope it does well for you.

DC: I’m sure it will. All right, man, take care!