KUNG FU (1972-5) 63 EPISODES
Every once in a while some ‘genius’ comes up with a concept in the entertainment industry that goes against all expectations and becomes a hit. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was one such concept and Kung Fu was another. Just when westerns had clearly dropped from favour, having been milked to death for two whole decades, creators Ed Spielman and Herman Miller hit upon the idea of a Shaolin Monk wandering around in the Old West armed with nothing but his skill in Kung Fu. Who could possibly find such a concept interesting for three seasons and sixty-three episodes? Answer? Just about everyone. Furthermore, if the series star David Carradine had not walked away from it, the show would almost certainly have continued on its merry, winning way! He had sustained too many injuries during filming, however, and felt he was unable to go on.
According to the widow of martial arts legend Bruce Lee, it was her husband who came up with the concept anyway, not Spielman and Miller. It was supposed to be his series, she said, but then the network decided that American audiences were not quite ready for a series starring an Asian leading man, so David Carradine was picked to replace him. That is the story if you accept Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story (1993) as gospel. The show’s producers vehemently deny this, claiming that Spielman and Miller conceived the series and that Carradine was always intended to portray Kwai Chang Caine. The fact that Carradine had no formal martial arts training, whatsoever, particularly aggravated Lee when he learned he had been turned down in favour of an actor unversed in Kung Fu. There is no concrete evidence to support the lady’s claim, however.
Caine is the orphaned son of an American man and a Chinese woman in mid-19th century China. Following the death of his maternal grandfather he is accepted into the Shaolin Monastery where he grows up to be a priest and a martial arts expert. When his beloved mentor and elder, the blind Master Po, is murdered by the Emperor’s nephew, the outraged Caine avenges him by killing the nephew. With a price on his head, Caine flees to America in search of his family roots and his half-brother, Danny Caine. Throughout the series there are flashbacks to Caine’s childhood and his mentor, Master Po, who refers to him as ‘grasshopper’.
Throughout the three seasons of Kung Fu many prestigious guest stars put in appearances. These included Harrison Ford, Jodie Foster, Jose Feliciano, Leslie Nielsen, Lew Ayres, Nancy Kwan, William Shatner, Eddie Albert, Pat Morita, Don Johnson, Stefanie Powers, John Drew Barrymore, and scores of others. In May 1973, it became the # 1 show on American television, drawing a regular twenty-eight million viewers!
Even Carradine himself was amazed by the popularity of the series, although not at first. ‘Man, I read that pilot script and flipped! But I never believed it would get on TV. I mean, a Chinese western, about a half-Chinese/ half-American Buddhist monk who wanders the gold rush country but doesn’t care about gold, and defends the oppressed but won’t carry a gun, and won’t even step on an ant because he values all life, and hardly ever speaks. No way!’
LANCER (1968-70) 51 EPISODES
Another ranch family battling to make ends meet. Andrew Duggan portrays the patriarch, Murdoch Lancer, with Wayne Maunder as his older son, Scott, a veteran of the Union Army during the Civil War. James Stacy is the younger gunslinger son known as Johnny Madrid Lancer. Lovely Elizabeth Baur plays Murdoch’s ward, Teresa O’Brien. The fifty-one hour-long episodes were shot in colour but westerns were a genre on the way out by then, plus there were already several series focused on ranch families. For instance, both the Lancer spread and The Big Valley spread were set in the San Joaquin Valley, virtually occupying the exact same stretch of land. Timing is of the essence when it comes to the creation of television series and, unfortunately, this quality series arrived on the scene a tad late. Even a half dozen years earlier would more than likely have seen it prove most successful. It has been likened by some to Bonanza but it was far more serious than that. The lead characters were more human; they each had character flaws which made them decidedly more interesting and easier to identify with.
Off-screen, James Stacy’s life was a turbulent one. In 1963, he married singer/actress Connie Stevens but they divorced three years later. Marriage # 2 was to Kim Darby in 1968. A year later, she played Mattie Ross opposite John Wayne in True Grit (1969) but divorced Stacy in June of that same year. They had one child together. Tragedy struck when Stacy lost his left arm and left leg in a terrible motorcycle in 1973; an accident that claimed his girlfriend’s life. Medical bills bankrupted him but his ex-wives and friends helped him by organizing a benefit.
In 1991, he retired from acting altogether but in November 1995, after pleading ‘no contest’ to a charge of molesting an eleven year-old girl, he flew to Honolulu and attempted suicide. After consuming a pint of whiskey, he leapt from a 1,200 – foot (370 m) cliff but a ledge fourteen metres down stopped his fall and he survived. In March 1996, he received a six-year prison sentence which he served in full at Chino. Stacy died at seventy-nine in 2016.
LARAMIE (1959-63) 124 EPISODES
Unbelievable as it might seem, this series took off like a house on fire in Japan of all places! When its star Robert Fuller visited Tokyo in 1961, about 100,000 fans greeted him at Haneda Airport. Even the Beatles did not receive such an enthusiastic welcome when they first went to Japan in 1966. Fuller was even invited to dine with Prime Minister Ikeda. Perhaps, the fact that the two stars of the show, Fuller and John Smith, were not ‘family’ at the ranch, but hard-working hired hands, gave the series an air of authenticity that other ‘ranch’ shows lacked? Interestingly, the first episode was shown in colour although the remainder of season one was broadcast in black and white. Full colour transmissions were re-introduced for season three and thereafter.
As of October 2020, there are only two stars of western series that began in the 1950s still living – Bob Fuller (87) and Clint Eastwood (90). Eastwood played Rowdy Yates in Rawhide (1959-65). In Laramie Fuller played Jess Harper and his co-star John Smith played Slim Sherman. Smith was born Robert Van Orden in 1931, but changed his acting name to John Smith, in order to be ‘the only one in the business’. When Laramie was cancelled at the last minute in 1963, he was offered the starring role in a new detective series but turned it down. In 1964, John Wayne recruited Smith to play the supporting role of Steve McCabe in his upcoming film Circus World, after Rod Taylor amicably walked off the picture because he felt the role was smaller than he had been led to believe. Smith and Fuller remained close off-screen friends for over forty years until John succumbed to cirrhosis of the liver at 63 in 1995.
I am not a fan of western s as you know, Alan, but I LOVED King Fu. It seemed pretty far fetched but had charm because of David Carradine’s performance. I never cared for the fight scenes, just enjoyed the plot, especially the teachings from the master. My dad and I used to make up our own master\student philosophies! It’s forty years since I’ve seen it and wonder how I’d react to it now but I have very fond memories. It aired late at night in pre video times and my dad and I stayed up to watch it! The bonding with my dad (who loved westerns) is probably why I loved it so much.
You can usually tell how popular a series is (or was) by the legacy of references to it decades later, Cat. So many people use the accolade, ‘Grasshopper’, when talking to or referring to someone they consider to be wise? Carradine was perfect in his role, too. Great series.
Alan, did you know that they tested one of my all-time favorite actors, William “Big Bill” Smith, for the role of Caine for Kung Fu?
Bill played Texas Ranger Joe Riley on the terrific TV western show Laredo which ran from 1965~1967. He became quite famous as the brutal Falconetti on the TV mini-series Rich Man, Poor Man.
Bill was a bodybuilder, amateur boxer with a 31-1 record, martial artist, skier, motorcycle racer, stuntman.
The producer decided against hiring Bill for the Caine role because Bill looked too menacing even though he was playing a hero.
Much as I admire Bill, I have to agree that he would have been wrong for the Caine part because no one looked any fiercer or intimidating than Big Bill Smith. That’s why 90% of the movie and TV characters he portrayed were very bad dudes. Bill sis show up as a rough, tough mercenary on Kung Fu in the episode “The Chalice.”
I’ve also heard and read the stories about legendary Bruce Lee having created the premise for Kung Fu, and then having the rug pulled out from under him by not being the lead on the show. The truth of it all, who knows now all these years later?
I’m a fan of Kung Fu. The show was an original and fresh take on the TV western which had once dominated television.
The series was beautifully written as it gave us insights into eastern philosophy and lifestyles.
Of course, we loved the confrontation scenes where Caine used his martial arts skills that he learned from his time in China’s Shaolin temple.
Unfortunately those fight scenes have dated poorly. As you point out, David Carridine had no martial art background when he performed the Caine role.
So the show would shoot these action scenes of Caine’s fights by resorting to stunt doubles, slow motion camera work, clever editing.
It worked fine at that time, and truthfully, what else could they done since they had a non-martial artist as the lead who was supposed to be a superb martial artist?
However, while I easily accepted that back then, it now has an air of fakeness to it nowadays.
It’s not the show’s fault but the reality is that we have had so many martial artists who were genuine—including the late, great Bruce Lee—do a plethora of films and TV that we have a real visual understanding of what a true martial artist looks like when doing their thing.
And those movies and TV shows only serve to show how “staged” the action scenes are on Kung Fu. Now this does not take away at all from the marvelous writing the show had, or guest stars, or David’s wonderful performance.
When the show first aired I would view it to especially see the fighting scenes first and story second. Today I watch to take in the plot because the fights aren’t as satisfying to me.
I always felt that if you could combine David’s acting talent with Bruce’s phenomenal martial art skills they’d have had one hell of a series.
Truth was that Bruce was not near the actor that David was, and David was never in the same league as Bruce regarding martial arts.
I also wondered that had Bruce done the show would he have played Caine anything like David?
Caine was a man of non-violence who always wanted to avoid a fight if he was able. His demeanor to westerners was one of humbleness, gentleness, meekness.
From what I have read about Bruce, and I say this respectfully, he was none of those things. I don’t mean that he was some kinda arrogant blowhard by any means. However, the man had a healthy ego, could be somewhat cocky, and wasn’t about to step aside from any man.
I realize that Caine is a character and not meant to be a real person, but I never thought that Bruce would have been delighted playing such a passive-like individual. Just not his nature.
So was he a good enough actor to do it? Would he have repressed his real dislike for playing such a character because it would have been his big break? Who can say?
I was not a huge fan of Lancer even though like you, Alan, I love the western genre. When I did catch episodes here and there I could see that it was a very well produced show and entertaining.
The problem with Lancer, and my favorite western series, Laredo, was that both came along at the tail end of the TV westerns popularity.
Westerns on television were huge in the 1950s and early 60s, but were dying out by the mid-60s unfortunately. That shift would end up causing Lancer, Laredo, and other TV western shows have all too brief runs. Both shows deserved more seasons and had more stories to tell we fans. Sadly they never got that chance.
I agree, Bill Smith would have been a difficult choice to sell to the public as Cain, Michael. Like trying to convince viewers that Leo Gordon would make a great apostle. Like you, I find phony martial arts ‘experts’ pretty transparent these days, but I enjoyed ‘Kung Fu’ back then. It was refreshingly different. ‘Lancer’ never made it here to Western Australia, and by the time ‘Laredo’ got here the genre had all but run its race. Oddly enough, I still watch old westerns whenever I feel like a dose of nostalgia. Old habits die hard I guess. Good to hear from you Michael.