Jim Kelly, an actor and martial artist best remembered as one-third of the starring triumvirate of Enter The Dragon (1973), has died at the age of 67. Kelly was a high school athlete and played football for the University of Louisville before dropping out of college to study karate in 1964. After getting his black belt in 1969, Kelly set his sights on a film career. As he recounted in a 2010 interview, “What I had to do was become world karate champion and use that as a stepping stone and maybe get into the movies. Maybe by the time I did this, they wouldn’t be doing John Wayne fights anymore.”
Kelly made his debut in a small role in 1972's Melinda, on which he served as karate trainer for its star, Calvin Lockhart. The next year, he was cast as the high-living, high-kicking, and highly quotable (“Ghettos are the same all over the world—they stink.”) Williams in the first Hong Kong martial arts movie made with Hollywood money, Enter The Dragon. It was a true lucky break. Kelly was a last-minute replacement for Rockne Tarkington, who had dropped out days before shooting started. And although the film was a starring vehicle for Bruce Lee, and Kelly’s character didn’t make it to the final battle, audiences loved seeing the laidback, Afro-sporting Kelly gliding through the drive-in James Bond shenanigans, and chiding the villain for behaving as if he were “right out of a comic book.”
The attention that Kelly garnered from Enter The Dragon led to a string of starring roles in blaxploitation films such as Black Belt Jones (1974), the Western Take A Hard Ride (1975), and One Down Two To Go (1982)—all of which co-starred Jim Brown and Fred Williamson; Golden Needles (1974), with Joe Don Baker, Ann Sothern, and Burgess Meredith; Black Samurai (1977); and Al Adamson’s Death Dimension (1978), which co-starred the least popular James Bond, George Lazenby, Harold “Odd Job” Sakata, Aldo Ray, and Terry Moore (a.k.a. Mrs. Howard Hughes).
Despite the opportunities such films provided for Kelly’s autograph book, the budgets for his vehicles kept getting smaller and the productions tackier, as both martial-arts films and action films starring African-Americans returned to the grindhouse ghettos from whence they came. By the early 1980s, Kelly was all but officially retired from the screen. In his later years, he appeared with LeBron James in a Nike commercial that affectionately teased the memory of his old colleague Bruce Lee, and remained a big draw at fan conventions. There he often testified that, as was true for many, Enter The Dragon still had a special place in his heart as “one of the best experiences of my life.”