This is a dark day. David Carradine, the great character who became a cultural icon with his work on the show Kung Fu and lent extraordinary gravitas to Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill films, has left us too early.
According to BBC News, Carradine was found in his Bangkok hotel room this morning sitting naked inside a wardrobe with a chord around his neck and other parts of his body. The Thai police are yet to establish a cause of death, but the Thai newspaper The Nation reported that preliminary investigations show that the actor took his own life.
If you know anything about me, you know that I consider great character actors to be the most precious of commodities for the film business. Guys like David Carradine, who spent their careers taking risks and doing different things, are the ones we must truly be grateful for; their grace and intelligence are invaluable treasures when it comes to the pursuit of great art.
Carradine leaves behind him a career of great diversity and distinction, having accumulated more than 100 films and countless television appearances. Aside from Kung Fu, Carradine also appeared in such shows as Gunsmoke, Partners in Crime, and Matlock. He later made appearances on such shows as Alias, Charmed, and Titus.
His career in film never brought him the same success that it did his father, John Carradine, but he definitely had great moments, among them roles in Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets and Boxcar Bertha as well as Hal Ashby’s classic Woody Guthrie biopic Bound for Glory. I remember him fondly from 1989′s Mel Gibson-Goldie Hawn comedy/thriller Bird on a Wire, where he played a corrupt DEA agent hot on the trail of fugitive Gibson, the only one that can expose him for wrong doing. He personified evil for me in that film. Truly vivid, unflinching work.
And then came Kill Bill. What can I say that hasn’t already been said? Tarantino wrote the role of Bill originally for Warren Beatty, but when he declined, Carradine, lesser known but with just as powerful a screen presence, stepped in. Tarantino made the kickass decision not to show Bill’s face at all in the first film, and its a credit to Carradine that his voice was so chilling that he didn’t need to. It created killer anticipation for the moment in Volume 2 when you knew he would appear.
Tarantino built the character up to such a mythic degree that it must have been hard for Carradine to live up to it, but he fulfilled all expectations. His performance in Volume 2 is tender but menacing, never as outwardly evil as he could be but fully capable of cutting anyone’s throat in the room. The great manifestation of this is the scene where Bill explains to The Bride, who has just discovered that her daughter in not dead, an incident involving her daughter’s dead goldfish as he makes bologna sandwiches. Watch the care that Carradine takes in that scene. The way he uses the butcher knife that he has no business making a sandwich with. Watch the way he licks his fingers. The way he pronounces his words. He’s terrifying and benevolent at every turn. It’s truly great work.
Kill Bill, Vol. 2 earned Carradine a Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actor, which was richly deserved. In the years following, he didn’t capitalize on his newfound popularity the way I thought he would. Obviously still a great screen presence, I saw him in all the great old guy, thriller roles as biting superior. Despite the nomination, Hollywood may have just thought his moment had passed. He hadn’t aged as well as he could have and Kill Bill was another example of Tarantino taking a chance on a once popular screen figure of the 70s; just because QT is a fan doesn’t mean everyone else is.
If Carradine’s cause of death is confirmed as suicide, I’m greatly saddened by his decision to leave us early. At 72, he’d lived a fuller life than most of us could ever dream of, but I believe he still had great work ahead of him. He had already gotten the comeback part over with. Regardless though, he leaves behind a great career full of shining moments. All my condolences go out to his family and friends.