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David Carradine: Always the ‘Kung Fu’ Fighter

It must be challenging to spend a big part of your life being known as something you're not.

That happens with actors who create iconic roles, of course. And it certainly happened with David Carradine, who was found dead in a Bangkok hotel room.

Carradine, 72, had many roles in his life, of course, and was a member of one of the grand old families of American acting.

But he's best known, and mostly remembered, as Kwai Chang Caine from the 1970s series "Kung Fu." To television fans of a certain age, Carradine made such an indelible impression that he wasn't an American actor born in Hollywood. He was a half-Chinese drifter skilled in martial arts (who used them only when all peaceful options have been exhausted) who searched the American West for his half-brother.

Did anyone else stage kung-fu fights in the front yard, spend hours trying to snatch a pebble from a friend's hand or bug parents to find rice paper so you could try to walk across it without tearing it, as Caine so memorably did?

The show lasted only three seasons, but there was something about it so different from what was on TV at the time — at any time, really — that it stuck in our memories. It was an exotic notion for TV, but the cultural staying power was also due to Carradine's portrayal. Has any lead role ever consisted of fewer lines? Carradine did most of his acting through his eyes, his body language — very much the reluctant hero — and, of course, his feet and his fists.

Once you've become so strongly identified with a character, it can be hard to break away from it. Carradine would go on to play nearly 200 roles over the next 30 years, including parts in "Death Race 2000," ''The Long Riders" (with his brothers) and the "Kill Bill" films. Yet Caine would never be left behind. Carradine revived an older version of the character in the show "Kung Fu: The Legend Continues" in the mid-90s, and he played a version of it in commercials for online phone books.

Carradine was in Bangkok filming a movie; he had completed filming on at least seven films at the time of his death.

If none eclipse Caine, well, that's no surprise. To some it may seem stifling to be so associated with one achievement. On the other hand, how many of us achieve anything so lasting in popular culture?

In that regard, then... well done, Grasshopper.

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