Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2009

David Carradine

He made more than 100 films and his share of tabloid headlines, but nothing in David Carradine's life was as sensational as the way he ended it. The actor's naked body was found June 4 in a Bangkok hotel room, and Thai police said his death had been caused by autoerotic asphyxiation.

Yet if people concentrate on Carradine's work and not on his autopsy report, they'll find a lot to admire. He became a star in the '70s TV series Kung Fu, in which he played Caine, the philosophizing martial artist (a role originally planned for Bruce Lee). But he distinguished himself in film and theater as well.

The eldest son of character actor John Carradine, whose itinerant career he replicated, David won a Theatre World Award on Broadway as an Inca sovereign in 1965's The Royal Hunt of the Sun. In his Kung Fu decade, he starred in films for Martin Scorsese (Boxcar Bertha) and Ingmar Bergman (The Serpent's Egg), drove killer cars in Death Race 2000 and Cannonball and, in his fullest, most demanding role, folded his towering body into the pint-size frame of folk-music legend Woody Guthrie in Bound for Glory. Gutsy, exemplary films all.

In 2003 Carradine lent a pensive menace to the eponymous assassin in Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill. And when there were no good roles, he took bad ones; in his last years he graced such direct-to-nowhere films as Fall Down Dead, Homo Erectus and My Suicide. "It's a marathon, " he said of acting. "You can't quit. Even coming in dead last has honor." Life ended too soon for this powerful long-distance runner.

—Richard Corliss