10 hard-hitting facts about 'Kung Fu'

Long before 'Iron Fist,' 'Daredevil' and 'Into the Badlands,' there was Caine.

At the end of Pulp Fiction, Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta sit in a diner. "I'm just going to walk the Earth," Jackson's character Jules tells his partner. "You know, like Caine in Kung Fu — walk from place to place, meet people, get into adventures."

Kung Fu would have a profound influence on director Quentin Tarantino, who mined several elements of the 1970s TV series for his martial-arts epic Kill Bill. For starters, Bill himself was played by Kung Fu star David Carradine, sporting the same look (and flute) as his iconic wanderer Kwai Chang Caine. Kill Bill's master Pai Mei also brought to mind Caine's trainer, Master Po. We could go on. 

Yet Kung Fu had far sweeping influence. Kicking off in 1972, it was one of the first major martial arts hits in American pop culture. It helped that the series was largely a Western, set in the Old West of the middle 19th century. 

Today, martial arts are popular again on the small screen. Let's take a look back at the original sensation.

1. 'Kung Fu' was a Carradine family affair.

David worked alongside much of his family. His younger brother, Keith, appeared in flashbacks as a younger, bald Caine, while youngest brother, Robert (Revenge of the Nerds), popped up in an episode as "Sonny Jim." Father John Carradine had a recurring role as Rev. Serenity Johnson.

2. The Shaolin Temple set was recycled from a famous movie musical.

A little redressing converted King Arthur's home into a mystical martial arts training center. For the Chinese temple, the production used the castle set from 1967's Camelot, the cinematic adaptation of the classic Lerner and Loewe musical.

3. Burly cult actor William Smith screen tested for the lead role.

Tough-guy Smith made a name for himself in numerous biker flicks. No actor was better suited for a rough bar brawl. According to the book Tales from the Cult Film Trenches, Smith filmed an eight-minute test pilot for Kung Fu, in which he played Caine, unfortunately wearing prosthetic makeup around his eyes to make him appear Asiatic. The network reportedly wanted Smith for the role, however creator-producer Jerry Thorpe found the actor to be too burly and menacing. He did appear in one episode, "The Chalice," in which he fights Caine with a chain. Later, Smith became the final "Marlboro Man" in advertisements.

4. John Saxon was also considered for Caine.

Another actor reportedly considered for the lead role was John Saxon, who is best known as Roper in legendary Enter the Dragon. Coincidentally, William Smith was offered the role of Roper in that martial arts masterpiece, according to Tales from the Cult Film Trenches.

5. Bruce Lee justifiably wanted the lead role.

Speaking of Enter the Dragon, it is impossible to talk Kung Fu without discussing Bruce Lee. There is some controversary around the icon's role in the genesis of the series. The Lee family has claimed the series was taken from an idea of Lee's, The Warrior. This scenario is depicted in the 1993 biopic Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story. However, Herbie J. Pilato, author of The Kung Fu Book of Caine, avows, "Ed Spielman is the creator of the Kung Fu series. Any claims to the contrary are incorrect, and an injustice." Spielman even considered legal action. The network purportedly felt Lee's English skills were too lacking at the time for role. Of course, as he proved on The Green Hornet, no actor was better suited for the role. Duh. He's Bruce Lee.

6. Carradine had no martial arts training before the role.

Carradine was cast for his skills as a dancer. However, during the course of production, the actor became a devoted student of martial arts. After beginning his studies in the early '70s, Carradine practiced tai chi and kung fu until his death.

7. Carradine never cut his hair until the end of the series.

Carradine begins Kung Fu with short hair, which continues to grow to Kevin Sorbo length throughout the series. (Of course, he has a shaved head in the flashback scenes.) Thus, you can roughly discern which point in the series you are watching by his locks. Late in the third and final season, he shaved his head again.

8. Beloved heroes of 'Star Wars' and 'Star Trek' appeared on the show.

Yes, that is William Shatner, appearing as a shaggy ol' sea captain (wonderfully named Brandywine Gage) in "A Small Beheading." Harrison Ford can be seen in the season two episode "Crossties."

9. The show was ended due to injuries, not ratings.

The show had solid ratings throughout its run. However, Carradine felt he had sustained too many injuries on the show and could not go on. Thus, Kung Fu ended after three years.

10. There were sequels.

The first sequel to Kung Fu arrived in 1986 with the TV movie Kung Fu: The Movie. In this continuation of the tale, Brandon Lee, the son of Bruce Lee, portrayed the son of Caine. The movie aired on Lee's 21st birthday. Lee then played the great-grandson of Caine in 1987's Kung Fu: The Next Generation. Finally, in the syndicated 1990s series Kung Fu: The Legend Continues, Carradine played the grandson of Caine. Yes, it is all a bit confusing.


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