He was a member of an acting family that began with his father, John Carradine. His father's acting career, which included major and minor roles on stage and television, and in cinema, spanned over four decades. A prolific "B" movie actor, David Carradine appeared in more than 100 feature films in a career spanning over sixty years. He was nominated for four Golden Globe Awards, for projects such as the television series Kung Fu (1972–1975), the Woody Guthrie biopic Bound for Glory (1976) and the miniseries North and South (1985). His final nomination came in the category of Best Supporting Actor for portraying the titular character in Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill: Volume 2 (2004).
Films that featured Carradine continued to be released after his death. These posthumous credits were from a variety of genres including action, documentaries, drama, horror, martial arts, science fiction, and westerns. In addition to his acting career, Carradine was a director and musician. Moreover, influenced by his most popular acting role, he studied martial arts.
He was sometimes arrested and prosecuted for a variety of offenses, which often involved substance abuse. He died on June 3, 2009, in a hotel room in Bangkok, Thailand from auto-erotic asphyxiation.
Carradine was born on December 8, 1936 as John Arthur Carradine, in Hollywood, California, the oldest child of actor John Carradine and his wife Ardanelle Abigail (McCool). He was a half-brother of Bruce, Keith, Christopher, and Robert Carradine, and an uncle of Ever Carradine and Martha Plimpton, most of whom are also actors. Primarily of Irish descent, he was a great-grandson of Methodist evangelical author Beverly Carradine and a grandnephew of artist Will Foster.
Called Jack by his family, Carradine's childhood was turbulent. His parents divorced and repeatedly remarried; he was born to his mother's second marriage of three, and his father's first of four. At the time of Carradine's parents' marriage, his mother already had a son by her first husband, whom John adopted. John Carradine planned a large family, but after his wife had a series of miscarriages, he discovered she had numerous illegal abortions without his knowledge. This rendered her unable to carry a baby to full term. Against this backdrop of marital discord, Jack almost succeeded in committing suicide by hanging at the age of five. He said the incident followed his discovery that he and his older half-brother Bruce, who had been adopted by John, had different biological fathers. Carradine added, "My father saved me, and then confiscated my comic book collection and burned it – which was scarcely the point."
After three years of marriage, Ardenelle filed for divorce from John, but the couple remained married for another five years. Divorce finally came in 1944, when Jack was seven years old. His father left California to avoid court action in the alimony settlement. After the couple engaged in a series of court battles over child custody and alimony, which at one point landed John in jail, Jack joined his father in New York City. By this time, his father had remarried. For the next few years Jack was shuffled between boarding schools, foster homes, and reform school. He also would often accompany his father while the elder Carradine performed summer theater throughout the Northeast. The boy spent time in Massachusetts and even one miserable winter milking cows on a farm in Vermont.
Eventually, Jack Carradine returned to California, where he graduated from Oakland High School. He attended Oakland Junior College (currently Laney College) for a year before transferring to San Francisco State College, where he studied drama and music theory, and wrote music for the drama department's annual revues while juggling work at menial jobs, a fledgling stage acting career, and his studies. After he dropped out of college, Carradine spent some time with the "beatniks" of San Francisco's North Beach and southern California's Venice. During this time he collected unemployment insurance and sold baby pictures. He was also prosecuted for disturbing the peace.
Despite an attempt to dodge the draft, in 1960 Carradine was inducted into the United States Army, where he drew pictures for training aids. That Christmas he married his high school sweetheart, Donna Lee Becht. While stationed at Fort Eustis, Virginia he helped to establish a theater company which became known as the "entertainment unit." He met fellow inductee Larry Cohen, who later cast him in Q, The Winged Serpent. He also faced court-martial for shoplifting. In 1962, Donna gave birth to their daughter, Calista. Carradine was honorably discharged after a two-year tour.
Upon leaving the Army, Carradine became serious about his acting pursuits. It was at that time that he was advised to change his name to avoid confusion with his famous father. In 1963, he made his television debut on an episode of Armstrong Circle Theatre. Several other television roles were to follow including appearances on Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theatre and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. He made his feature film debut in 1964 in Taggart, a western based on a novel by Louis L'Amour.
His first big break, however, came with his second Broadway part in The Royal Hunt of the Sun, a play by Peter Shaffer about the destruction of the Inca empire by conquistador Francisco Pizarro. He said of this performance, "Many of the important roles that I got later on were because the guy who was going to hire me was in that audience and had his mind blown." For that part, Carradine won a Theatre World Award for Best Debut Performance in 1965.
With the closing of The Royal Hunt of the Sun, and the failing of his marriage, Carradine left New York and headed back to California. He returned to TV to star in the short-lived series Shane, a 1966 western based upon a 1949 novel of the same name and previously filmed in 1953.
Carradine guest-starred opposite David McCallum in a 1971 episode of Night Gallery entitled "The Phantom Farmhouse."
In 1972, he co-starred as "Big" Bill Shelly in one of Martin Scorsese's earliest films, Boxcar Bertha, which starred Barbara Hershey, his domestic partner at the time (see Personal life). This was one of several Roger Corman productions in which he was to appear. It was also one of a handful of acting collaborations he made with his father, John.
For three seasons, David Carradine starred as a half-Chinese, half-white Shaolin monk, Kwai Chang Caine, on the ABC hit TV series Kung Fu (1972–1975) and was nominated for an Emmy and a Golden Globe Award for the role. The show, which took place in the Old West, helped to popularize the martial arts and Eastern philosophy in the west, and immortalized the character of Kwai Chang Caine, also referred to as "Grasshopper," in popular culture.
Although the choice of a white man to play the role of Kwai Chang Caine stirred controversy, the show served as steady employment for several Asian-American actors in the U.S. In addition to Keye Luke and Philip Ahn, who held leading roles in the cast as Caine's Shaolin masters, Robert Ito, James Hong, Benson Fong, Richard Loo, and Victor Sen Yung frequently appeared in the series. Kung Fu ended when Carradine quit to pursue a movie career, but he reprised the role of Kwai Chang Caine in 1986 in Kung Fu: The Movie. Brandon Lee, son of Bruce Lee, in his acting debut, portrayed his son.
In 1991, he reprised the role of Caine in a cameo appearance in the TV movie The Gambler Returns: The Luck of the Draw, in which Caine uses his Chinese friends to help the title character in 1903 San Francisco.
Early in the 1990s, Carradine once again reprised the role of Kwai Chang Caine in Kung Fu: The Legend Continues (1993–97) playing the grandson of the original character of the same name. Carradine starred in the program and served as executive producer and director. The program offered him the opportunity to recreate the character for which he was most widely recognized. The show was canceled in 1997, after four seasons and 88 episodes.
Immediately following the Kung Fu series, Carradine accepted the role as the race car driver Frankenstein in Death Race 2000 (1975), he said, to "kill the image of Caine and launch a movie career." The Roger Corman exploitation film became a cult classic. It was based on Ib Melchior's first science fiction work, a short story called The Racer. Carradine was tapped to play Duke Leto Atreides in Alejandro Jodorowsky's aborted Dune adaptation in the late 1970s.
In 1976, Carradine earned critical praise for his portrayal of folksinger Woody Guthrie in Hal Ashby's Bound for Glory (1976) for which he won a National Board of Review Award for Best Actor. He was also nominated for a Golden Globe Award and New York Film Critics Circle Award for his role as Guthrie. Carradine worked very closely with his friend, singer-songwriter-guitarist Guthrie Thomas, on the Bound for Glory film. Thomas assisted Carradine in the guitar style of the period and the songs that had been chosen to be in the film itself.
Next came the role of the alcoholic, unemployed trapeze artist, Abel Rosenberg in The Serpent's Egg (1977). Set in post-World War I Berlin, The Serpent's Egg, which also starred Liv Ullmann, is together with The Touch one of the two only English-language films made by legendary Swedish director Ingmar Bergman. Bergman said of his leading man, "I don't believe in God, but Heaven must have sent him." Carradine said that he and Bergman had plans for further collaboration, but the director's affection for the actor waned when the latter passionately protested a scene which included the butchering of a horse. The altercation caused Carradine to question the fate of Bergman's soul while the director declared, "Little Brother, I am an old whore. I have shot two other horses, burned one and strangled a dog."
When Bruce Lee died in 1973, he left an unreleased movie script that he had developed with James Coburn and Stirling Silliphant called The Silent Flute. The script became Circle of Iron (1978), and in the film, Carradine played the four roles that were originally intended for Lee. Carradine considered this to be among his best work.
In 1980 Carradine appeared in The Long Riders (1980), with his half-brothers Keith and Robert Carradine. The ensemble cast included three other brother/actor groupings: Stacy and James Keach; Dennis and Randy Quaid, and Christopher and Nicholas Guest. The movie, which was about the Jesse James gang, gave Carradine, who played Cole Younger, one of his most memorable roles.
Throughout most of the 1980s and 1990s, David Carradine's acting career suffered a decline. Although he continued to amass movie and television credits, few of his roles garnered much attention. Most of his work was released straight to video. However, a few of his movies, such as The Warrior and the Sorceress (1984), Sundown: The Vampire in Retreat (1990) and Sonny Boy (1989), developed cult followings. In 1989, he starred in the low budget direct-to-video Swedish action movie The Mad Bunch directed by Mats Helge Olsson, making him one of three actors (including Heinz Hopf and Tor Isedal) who have starred in both an Ingmar Bergman movie and an Olsson movie. In 1997, Carradine was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The presenters played an April Fool's Day prank on him by first unveiling a star bearing the name of his brother, Robert. In 2000, he had a small part in the movie By Dawn's Early Light.
Carradine enjoyed a revival of his fame when he was cast in Quentin Tarantino's sequential Kill Bill movies, in 2003 and 2004. Among those who thought his portrayal of Bill, the assassin extraordinaire, would earn him an Academy Award nomination was Scott Mantz, of The Mediadrome, who said, "Carradine practically steals every scene he's in with confident gusto, and he gives a soulful performance that should all but ensure a spot on next year's Oscar ballot." Roger Ebert and Richard Roeper each had Kill Bill Vol. 2 on their top ten list for of Academy Awards predictions. Although the films received no notice from the Academy, Carradine did receive a Golden Globe nomination and a Saturn Award, for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of Bill.
Carradine also appeared as a mysterious martial artist, The Master, in the 2009 DVD premier Big Stan.
Carradine attracted notice in 1985 when he appeared in a major supporting role in North and South, a miniseries about the American Civil War, as the evil and abusive Justin LaMotte. He was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor for his performance. He also appeared in North and South, Book II, telecast in May 1986.
In addition, he was featured in a Lipton Tea commercial, which first aired during the broadcast of Super Bowl XXVIII. The advertisement paid tribute to The Three Stooges while satirizing his role in Kung Fu. In 1999, he made an appearance as the demon Tempus in the Season 1 finale episode of Charmed. In 2001, he appeared in the episode "The Serpent" of the syndicated TV series Queen of Swords as the sword-wielding bandit El Serpiente filmed at Texas Hollywood studios in Almeria, Spain, home of many spaghetti westerns. David also did a guest appearance in episode 11 of Lizzie McGuire as himself. David Carradine took over hosting duties from his brother Keith on Wild West Tech on the History Channel, in 2005. The same year he also played both himself and the ghost of a dead man for an episode of the NBC TV show Medium. By 2006, he had become the spokesperson for Yellowbook, a publisher of independent telephone directories in the United States. He also appeared as the ghost of time, Clockwork, in two episodes of the animated series, Danny Phantom. He also starred in the 2008 TV movie, Kung Fu Killer, in which he played a Chinese martial arts master very similar to his Kung Fu series "Caine" persona—his character in this movie named "White Crane", and mostly referred to or addressed as "Crand," frequently spoken with a sort of accent that minimized the R sound.
The actor, who once received an award for being the hardest working member of his profession in Hollywood, still had approximately a dozen films in "post-production" at the time of his death in 2009. Most of these roles were cameos or small parts in independent, direct to DVD productions. Among them, a horror film, Dark Fields (2009); an action film, Bad Cop (2009); and a western, All Hell Broke Loose (2009).
Carradine also appeared in a minor role in Yuen Woo-ping's Chinese kung fu epic True Legend. Carradine and Yuen first met while filming Kill Bill. Yuen eulogized Carradine on the True Legend website, describing him as a "good friend." Yuen said of Carradine:
He is among the first Hollywood actors to perform Chinese martial arts on the big screen. In real life he is also a genuine kung fu fan, and knows tai chi, qi gong and Chinese medicine. Same as I, people shall always remember his role as Caine, the grasshopper, in Kung Fu, in the '70s, which was a really unforgettable performance. I feel both great honour and regret that True Legend is one of David Carradine's last works.
One of Carradine's last leading roles was in the period drama Golden Boys, set in 1905. It had only a limited theater run, and received little critical attention. It was released on DVD shortly after his death.
His final released movie was the Cult Indy Film, Night of the Templar, directed by his friend Paul Sampson, in which David wielded a sword (katana) for the final time on screen. Almost like a foreshadowing, there are several peculiar and eerie references in the film that are coincidental to Mr. Carradine's untimely passing which include cross dressing and auto erotic asphyxiation. His last scene on screen ended in the following dialog: "Well, old friend, see you in the next lifetime" / "Yeah, Old Friends, Old Soul Mates" / "Yes, we are."
Carradine co-produced a full-length documentary about luthier Stuart Mossman, which has been identified as the actor's last film appearance. The Legend of Stuart Mossman: A Modern Stradivari, directed by Barry Brown, premiered at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, in February 2010. It featured David, Keith, and Robert Carradine performing their music on Mossman guitars. Mossman had appeared with Carradine in Cloud Dancer (1980), which Brown also directed, and in The Long Riders.
On the small screen, Carradine appeared in a guest spot on the television series Mental that was broadcast just days after his death. On October 3, 2009, Celebrity Ghost Stories premiered on the Biography Channel with an interview of David Carradine discussing his belief that his closet was haunted by his wife's deceased previous husband. The segment, which was described as "eerie," was filmed four months before his own death. In his last of many collaborations with producer Roger Corman, Carradine appeared in the Syfy Channel's science fiction monster movie Dinocroc Vs. Supergator, over a year after he died. Ken Tucker, writing for Entertainment Weekly, said the film was "impeccable" and "goofy fun all the way." At the time of this release, there were still four more unreleased films that credited David Carradine, including Stretch, which he was filming at the time of his death.
Carradine made his directorial debut on three episodes of Kung Fu. While still performing on Kung Fu, he tried his hand at directing some independent films of his own. Americana (1983), took ten years to complete due to difficulty in financing. It featured Carradine in the starring role and several of his friends and family members in supporting roles. The film won the People's Choice Award at the Director's Fortnight at Cannes, but failed to achieve critical support or adequate distribution. Other directorial attempts included You and Me (1975), and two unreleased productions: Mata Hari, an epic that starred his daughter, Calista; and a short musical called A Country Mile.
Carradine knew nothing of the practice of kung fu at the time he was cast in the role of Kwai Chang Caine; instead, he relied on his experience as a dancer for the part. He also had experience in sword fighting, boxing, and street fighting on which to draw. For the first half of the original series, David Chow provided technical assistance with kung fu. He never considered himself a master of the art, but rather an "evangelist" of kung fu. By 2003 he had acquired enough expertise in martial arts to produce and star in several instructional videos on T'ai chi and Qigong. In 2005, Carradine visited the Shaolin Monastery in Henan, China as part of the extra features for the third season of the Kung Fu DVDs. During his visit, the abbot, Shi Yǒngxìn, said that he recognized Carradine's important contribution to the promotion of the Shaolin Monastery and kung fu culture, to which Carradine replied, "I am happy to serve."
In addition to his acting career, David Carradine was a musician. He sang and played the piano, the guitar and the flute among other instruments. In 1970, Carradine played one half of a flower power beatnik duo in the season 4 Ironside episode "The Quincunx," performing the songs "I Stepped on a Flower," "Lonesome Stranger," and "Sorrow of the Singing Tree." He recorded an album titled Grasshopper, which was released in 1975. His musical talents were often integrated into his screen performances. He performed several of Woody Guthrie's songs for the movie Bound for Glory. For the Kung Fu series he made flutes out of bamboo that he had planted on the Warner Brothers lot which he played on the program. He later made several flutes for the movie Circle of Iron, one of which he later played in Kill Bill. Carradine wrote and performed the theme songs for at least two movies that he starred in, Americana and Sonny Boy. The first line from the Sonny Boy theme, "Paint," which he wrote while filming Americana in Drury, Kansas, in 1973, is engraved on his headstone. He wrote and performed several songs for American Reel (2003) and wrote the score for You and Me. He and his brother, Robert, also performed with a band, the Cosmic Rescue Team (also known as Soul Dogs). The band performed primarily in small venues and benefits.
Shortly after being drafted into the Army in 1960, Carradine proposed marriage to Donna Lee Becht (born September 26, 1937), whom he had met while they were students at Oakland High School. They were married on Christmas Day that year. She lived with him off-base in Virginia while he was stationed at Fort Eustis. In April 1962, she gave birth to their daughter Calista. After Carradine's discharge, the family lived in New York while Carradine established his acting career, appearing on Broadway in The Deputy and Royal Hunt of the Sun. The marriage dissolved in 1968, whereupon Carradine left New York and headed back to California to continue his television and film careers.
In 1969, Carradine met actress Barbara Hershey while the two of them were working on Heaven with a Gun. The pair lived together until 1975. They appeared in other films together, including Martin Scorsese's Boxcar Bertha. In 1972, they appeared together in a nude Playboy spread, recreating some sex scenes from Boxcar Bertha. That year, Hershey gave birth to their son, Free (who at age nine changed his name to Tom, much to his father's chagrin). The couple's relationship fell apart around the time of Carradine's 1974 burglary arrest, when Carradine began an affair with Season Hubley, who had guest-starred on Kung Fu. Carradine was engaged to Hubley for a time, but they never married.
In February 1977, Carradine married, in a civil ceremony in Munich, Germany, his second wife, Linda (née Linda Anne Gilbert), immediately following the filming of The Serpent's Egg. Linda is the former wife of The Byrds lead guitarist, Roger McGuinn. Her and Carradine's daughter, Kansas, was born in 1978.
Carradine's second marriage ended in divorce, as did the two that followed. He was married to Gail Jensen from 1986 to 1997. She died in April 2010, at the age of 60, of an alcohol-related illness. He was married to Marina Anderson from 1998 to 2001. By this time, Carradine had proclaimed himself to be a "serial monogamist."
On December 26, 2004, Carradine married the widowed Annie Bierman (née Anne Kirstie Fraser, born December 21, 1960) at the seaside Malibu home of his friend, Michael Madsen. Vicki Roberts, his attorney and a longtime friend of his wife's, performed the ceremony. With this marriage he acquired three stepdaughters, Amanda Eckelberry (born 1989), Madeleine Rose (born 1995), and Olivia Juliette (born 1998) as well as a stepson, actor Max Richard Carradine (born 1998).
In one of his final interviews, Carradine stated that at 71, he was still "in excellent shape," attributing it to a good diet and having a youthful circle of friends. "Everybody that I know is at least 10 or 20 years younger than I am. My wife Annie is 24 years younger than I am. My daughter asks why I don't hang with women my age and I say, 'Most of the women my age are a lot older than me!'"
By his own account, in the late 1950s, while living in San Francisco, young John A. Carradine was arrested for assaulting a police officer; he pleaded to a lesser charge of disturbing the peace. While in the Army (1960–1962) he faced court-martial, on more than one occasion, for shoplifting. After he became an established actor and had changed his name to David, he was arrested, in 1967, for possession of marijuana.
At the height of his popularity in Kung Fu, in 1974, Carradine was arrested again, this time for attempted burglary and malicious mischief. While under the influence of peyote, Carradine, nude, began wandering around his Laurel Canyon neighborhood. He broke into a neighbor's home, breaking a window and cutting his arm. He then bled all over the homeowner's piano. At some time during this episode he accosted two young women, allegedly assaulting one while asking, or demanding of her, if she was a witch. The police literally followed a trail of blood to his home. The burglary charges were dropped, as nothing was found to be missing, while Carradine pleaded no contest to the mischief charge and was given probation. He was never charged with assault, but the young woman sued him for $1.1 million and was awarded $20,000.
In 1980, while in South Africa filming Safari 3000 (also known as Rally), which co-starred Stockard Channing, Carradine was arrested for possession of marijuana. He was convicted and given a suspended sentence. He claimed that he was framed, in this case, by the apartheid government as he had been seen dancing with Tina Turner.
During the 1980s, Carradine was arrested at least twice for driving under the influence of alcohol, once in 1984 and again in 1989. In the second case, Carradine pleaded no contest. Of this incident, the Los Angeles Times reported: "legal experts say Carradine was handed a harsher-than-average sentence, even for a second-time offender: three years' summary probation, 48 hours in jail, 100 hours of community service, 30 days' work picking up trash for the California Department of Transportation, attendance at a drunk driving awareness meeting and completion of an alcohol rehabilitation program."
In 1994, while in Toronto filming Kung Fu: The Legend Continues, Carradine was arrested for kicking in a door at SkyDome while attending a Rolling Stones concert. When asked his reasoning, Carradine claimed he was worried about getting swarmed by people who recognized him so he wanted to get into the building
On June 3, 2009, at the age of 72, David Carradine was found dead in his room at the Swissôtel Nai Lert Park Hotel on Wireless Road, near Sukhumvit Road, in central Bangkok, Thailand. He was in Bangkok to shoot his latest film, titled Stretch. A police official said that Carradine was found naked, hanging by a rope in the room's closet, causing immediate speculation that his death was suicide. However, reported evidence suggested that his death was accidental, the result of autoerotic asphyxiation. Two autopsies were conducted, one involving the celebrity pathologist Pornthip Rojanasunan, and both concluded that the death was not a suicide. The cause of death became widely accepted as "accidental asphyxiation."
Immediately following his death, two of Carradine's former wives, Gail Jensen and Marina Anderson, stated publicly that his sexual interests included the practice of self-bondage. Anderson, who had plans to publish a tell-all book about her marriage to Carradine, said in an interview with Access Hollywood, "There was a dark side to David, there was a very intense side to David. People around him know that." Previously, in her divorce filing, she had claimed that "it was the continuation of abhorrent and deviant sexual behavior which was potentially deadly."
Photographs of Carradine at the death scene, as well as photographs of his autopsied body, were circulated in newspapers and on the Internet. His family, represented by his brothers, Keith and Robert, pleaded with the public and the press to let them mourn their loved one in peace.
Carradine's funeral was held on June 13, 2009, in Los Angeles. His bamboo casket was buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Park. Among the many stars and family members who attended his private memorial were Tom Selleck, Lucy Liu, Frances Fisher, James Cromwell, Steve Railsback, and Chris Potter. His grave was marked on December 3, 2009. The monument proclaimed him to be "The Barefoot Legend" and included a quote from "Paint," a song he wrote and performed as the theme to Sonny Boy, as an epitaph.
On the first anniversary of his death, Carradine's widow, Annie, announced that she had filed a lawsuit for wrongful death against the company that produced the film Carradine was working on at the time of his death. The lawsuit claimed that the company failed to provide assistance to the actor that had been agreed upon in his contract. "The suit alleges, the assistant left him behind for dinner on the night before the actor was found dead. The assistant and other film staffers apparently could not reach Carradine and decided to leave without him. Carradine called the assistant an hour later but was told the group was across town, and he would have to make his own arrangements that evening." Annie Carradine reached a settlement with MK2 Productions in August 2011. She was reported to be receiving about US$400,000 from the company for Carradine's death.
Also, in June 2010, Marina Anderson, Carradine's fourth ex-wife, published David Carradine: The Eye of My Tornado, a memoir that discusses intimate details of their marriage. She also claimed publicly that she had conducted her own investigation of his death and concluded that he was murdered.Saints Row (2006) – William Sharp (voice)
1966 Theatre World Award, Royal Hunt of the Sun
1974 TP de Oro, Spain. Best Foreign Actor, Kung Fu
1997 Gold Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Television
1998: Honoree — The 16th Annual Golden Boot Awards(along with brothers Keith and Robert)
2005: Action on Film International Film Festival Lifetime Achievement Award — First annual recipient
2005: Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films, Saturn Award, Best Supporting Actor, Kill Bill: Volume 2
2008 Honoree — Walk of Western Stars