Thursday, June 4, 2009

R.I.P. David Carradine

Like many of his generation, David Carradine may well have thought he'd die before he got old. And yet the uber-cool Hollywood maverick of the 1960s and '70s stuck around long enough to come back into fashion, enjoying a late-career resurgence jump-started by his titular role in Quentin Tarantino's 2003/2004 Kill Bill: Vol.1 and Kill Bill Vol.2. That he should have died at the age of 72, an apparent suicide in a Bangkok hotel room (a spokesperson has described his death as "accidental"), makes me sadder than I can say.

My grandmother always counseled that it wasn't for us to decide whether someone had died before his or her time, and far be it from me to contradict someone who lived as long and as well as she did. But I still can't believe this was Carradine's time.

Perhaps alone among members of my generation, I had zero interest in Kung Fu, the so-of-its-time TV series that catapulted Carradine out of TV and movie bit parts and into the spotlight. For me, he was still the son of the legendary John Carradine, co-star of Hollywood classics like The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939), Stagecoach (1939) and The Grapes of Wrath (1940), and star of more b-movies and exploitation quickies than I could name.

Paul Bartel's Death Race 2000 (1975) changed all that for me: Carradine's performance as hideously scarred race-car driver Frankenstein -- reigning champion of the brutal Transcontinental Death Race, future America's bread-and-circuses solution to keeping the public pacified -- was a revelation. It was a real performance, not a campy lark, and Carradine's low-key seriousness made the ultimate reveal (and no, I'm not going to spoil it) truly affecting. Other people may have been surprised by just how good he was as Woody Guthrie in Bound for Glory (1975), but I already knew.

David Carradine made some spectacular exploitation movies: His performance as Pearl in the elusive Sonny Boy (1989) is so mind-blowing I don't even know where to start; just trust me and do whatever it takes to see it. He also made plenty of crap; everyone has bills to pay, and that's how actors pay theirs. I was genuinely happy to see him get a new lease on professional life with the Kill Bill movies, and I'm truly sorry it ends here.

No comments: