Question: Here's what might sound like a silly question, but how did David Carradine go from having a full head of hair to bald and then back again on Kung Fu? Did they shoot all his flashback scenes with his head shaved and then have him wear a wig, or what? Thanks. Tony P., Bemidji, Minn.
Televisionary: Actually, it was the opposite, Tony. When playing the adult fugitive Kwai Chang Caine in America's old West, Carradine acted with his natural hair visible. When shooting flashbacks to the character's Shaolin training days, he donned a plastic scalp that was pulled down tight over his real hair and cemented in place, then blended in with makeup and dotted black to give the appearance of stubble.
Aside from that bit of trickery, however, Carradine resembled his character in thought and lifestyle to a remarkable degree while shooting the ABC series, which ran from October 1972 to June 1975. In fact, the press usually had a field day with the actor, with some accounts playing up his counterculture ways and others wondering if much of it was an act.
Carradine frequently showed up to industry meetings and events in torn jeans and bare feet. When a TV Guide reporter interviewed him at home in 1972, the writer first had to climb rickety steps through thick brush to get up to the actor's house in Laurel Canyon, which was far from any road. There he was introduced to Carradine companion (and mother of Carradine's son Free) Barbara Hershey, who at the time had legally changed her name to Barbara Seagull after, she believed, the spirit of a departed gull entered her. ("She feels the gull intensely. It's there, a fact," Carradine said at the time. "You can call me bizarre a wild man if you like. But kindly don't make jokes about Barbara's belief.")
Carradine's friends at the time said his biggest problem was that he was completely uninhibited and truthful. "Since many people can't accept his philosophy, he's branded as a freak," said one. Maybe, but I'll give him credit for speaking his mind about the medium that paid his bills for nearly three years. "Television can't sink much further," he said in the 1972 interview, conducted when Kung Fu was merely a three-episode project and not yet a series. "You see a good sign here and there. When they first brought me the Kung Fu script, I couldn't believe the policy makers would dare something as discerning and aesthetic as this." Later, he explained why he had no TV in his house. "I can't get any pleasure watching it. Last one I owned I gave away several years ago. TV's like heroin it gets to you and ruins your energy."
The audience who got caught up in the Kung Fu craze sure didn't think so. People went wild for the philosophical musings of Caine and his teacher, Master Po (the old Charlie Chan movies' former "No. 1 son" Keye Luke), who offered such questions as, "Does not the pebble, entering the water, begin fresh journeys?" Even though a UCLA professor said the show's spiritual offerings were "about as profound as what you find inside fortune cookies," teachers across the country sent letters to Warner Bros. telling of how they'd tape the philosophical segments of the show to use in their classes. Warner's record division released a Kung Fu album featuring the philosophies and music of the series and fans ate up novelizations of the scripts.
All that because a writer named Ed Spielman sold a kung-fu script to the studio and it was discovered years later by former pro hockey player and former Untouchables executive producer Jerry Thorpe, who came up with the idea of lowering the violence level and raising the philosophy quotient. Of course, it wasn't quite that smooth a development process. First the producers had to cast the Caine role, which involved figuring Carradine out (and passing over genre star Bruce Lee, who'd helped develop the series).
"I'll never forget the day David first came to see us," Thorpe said in 1974. He arrived, seething with rebellion and accompanied by his dog, Buffalo, who is part Great Dane, part Labrador, plus a lot of other breeds, and who has one brown eye and one blue eye. David didn't say two words in that first interview. There were six of us on one side of the room and David and Buffalo on the other side of the room, and no communication between us whatsoever. Finally David left and I got the idea that he was putting us on sort of a slap at the Establishment. So I called his agent and asked if David and Buffalo would come back and see me alone. They did, and this time man and dog were totally cooperative... When I asked David why he had been so resistive the first time, he said, 'Your brown office and your brown Mercedes outside the window turned me off.'"
You find that odd? Then, as Carradine said to the TV Guide reporter who wrote the 1974 story, "You just don't understand the spiritual essence, man."