Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Classic TV: Kung Fu (1972)

ABC's Movie of the Week proved to be fertile ground for developing new series for the network. We've previously referenced The Rookies, The Six Million Dollar Man, & Kolchak: The Night Stalker as series spun from the movie anthology series. Here's perhaps one of the most famous series to come out of Movie of the Week.

Kung Fu was not your ordinary Western, though it was set in the 19th century. The story begins in China, where a Shaolin priest, Kwai Chang Caine (David Carradine), had killed the emperor's nephew. He flees to America with a price on his head, looking to settle into the melting pot of our country's population, but his training and instincts kick in when he defends the less fortunate from ruthless land barons and other unsavory types.

Flashbacks took us back to Caine's early years as a youth (Radames Pera) and as a teenager (Keith Carradine), under the tutelage of Masters Po (Keye Luke) & Kan (Philip Ahn). The lessons imparted then were put into play by Caine as an adult. Kung Fu was also one of the first series to use slow motion photography during fight scenes, something also used on Six Million Dollar Man.

There has been some debate as to whether or not David Carradine was actually WB's 1st choice. There is an article that says that martial arts icon Bruce Lee (ex-The Green Hornet) had initially developed the concept, and his widow later alleged that WB "stole" the idea. Not so sure if that's really true, considering I'd read of this on Wikipedia.....! Carradine would be joined by father John and brother Robert in one episode, but I am not sure if this was one where Keith appeared in the flashback segments, which would've allowed for all three Carradine brothers to appear on the same show.

It can be said that Kung Fu ended too soon, especially considering the popularity of martial arts movies in the mid-70's, and the fact that in the show's final season, ABC added a Saturday morning cartoon, Hong Kong Phooey, which was more satirical than anything else, since the titular hero was a karate chopping bumbler more on the order of Maxwell Smart. Interestingly, co-star Keye Luke was working for Hanna-Barbera during Kung Fu's first two seasons, starring in The Amazing Chan & The Chan Clan.

There were two TV-movies in the 80's, the second of which starred Brandon Lee as the son of Kwai Chang Caine. However, in the 90's, David Carradine, this time playing the grandson of the original Caine, returned in Kung Fu: The Legend Continues, which lasted 4 seasons in syndication. We'll look at that another time.

Right now, let's take a look at a sample intro. In this particular episode, even though they don't share the screen, Luke's successor in the Charlie Chan movies, Benson Fong, is one of the guest stars.

Now, don't ya think this should be airing on cable somewhere?

Rating: A.


magicdog said...

I've heard the tales of Bruce Lee supposedly being cheated out of this role, and I'm not sure if that's entirely true. Perhaps he and wife Linda did come up with the idea and I wouldn't doubt some studio toadie claimed it was his. However, from what I do know, Lee was never offered the role (though his name came up in conversations) and that Carradine was supposedly the frontrunner all along. That's what happens when you have characters meant to be mixed race: no one is satisfied with who gets cast ("The Last Airbender" film being more recent proof of this). Either Bruce was too "Chinese" or Carradine was too "White".

It's been a long time since I'd seen the original series (I think I saw the pilot on cable about a decade ago!) and I remember enjoying it when it turned up in syndication (My dad enjoyed it as well - used to watch it during its original run).

I DID tune in for the syndicated series, "The Legend Continues" and it was entertaining enough. Carradine always put out a good performance no matter what he did. Too bad he let his kinks get the best of him and lead him to his demise.

Carradine also reprised his role as Cain for one of the "Gambler" TV movies ("Luck Of The Draw") - in that one, all surviving stars of classic TV westerns made appearances in character - Lucas McCain, Wyatt Earp, Bart Maverick, Cheyenne, and The Virginian all appeared! Boy was that fun!!

hobbyfan said...

That was one Gambler movie I missed. Have to see if I can score that on DVD.

I watched Legend Continues, too. Ended up on TNT, as I recall. Good stuff, ended too soon (again).