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Actor David Carradine, Star Of 'Kung Fu,' Dies


David Carradine has died. He was found dead in a Bangkok hotel. Local police say it appears that he committed suicide. Carradine was 72. He appeared in more than 100 films. But NPR's Felix Contreras remembers best the three years Carradine played a half-Chinese martial artist who roamed the American West in the TV show "Kung Fu."

FELIX CONTRERAS: I was 14 in 1972 when the fall television season kicked off. "All in the Family" was popular with my family. "Adam 12" was a favorite with my brothers and I. But that September, I was exposed to Eastern philosophy for the first time - or what passed for Eastern philosophy on television - by way of Kwai Chang Caine, David Carradine's character in "Kung Fu."

(Soundbite of music, "Theme from Kung Fu")

CONTRERAS: Looking back, it was a pretty bold step for ABC to feature a story about a young, mixed-race Chinese boy learning martial arts from Shaolin masters.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Kung Fu")

Mr. KEYE LUKE (Actor): (as Master Po) Quickly as you can, snatch the pebble from my hand. When you can take the pebble from my hand, it will be time for you to leave.

CONTRERAS: Pretty soon, my friends and I were trying to snatch pebbles out of each other's hands to show off our own powers of concentration. And the lessons of the show's Shaolin masters offered pearls of wisdom that appealed to me at 14.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Kung Fu")

Mr. DAVID CARRADINE (Actor): (as Kwai Chang Caine) Master, I am puzzled.

Unidentified Man #1: That is the beginning of wisdom.

CONTRERAS: The simplicity of the television lessons helped me navigate my way through impending science exams, athletic tryouts and budding romances.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Kung Fu")

Mr. CARRADINE: (as Kwai Chang Caine) We are taught discipline.

Unidentified Man #2: The purpose of discipline is to live more fully, not less.

CONTRERAS: The lessons had the flavor of Buddhism, but they were also generic enough to fit into any outlook on life. For better or worse, David Carradine had been associated mainly with this character. He was often mistaken for Asian-American, while, in fact, he was the son of veteran Hollywood actor John Carradine. As an adult, I read that he didn't really know anything about martial arts or Eastern philosophies while he was on the show. I was a bit disappointed to learn those lessons I put so much stock in as a kid were mostly another bit of Hollywood smoke and mirrors.

It's been almost 40 years since I played the pebble game with my friends, but I still incorporate many of Kwai Chang Caine's lessons in my life.

Felix Contreras, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Felix Contreras is co-creator and host of Alt.Latino, NPR's pioneering radio show and podcast celebrating Latin music and culture since 2010.