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The actor: David Carradine, a member of a famous acting family and a veteran of TV and films both prestigious and pulpy. Currently, he can be seen in two movies on the pulpier side: the throwback biker picture Hell Ride, and the Spike TV movie Kung Fu Killer.
Hell Ride (2008)—Uncredited
DC: This was directed by Larry Bishop, who was wonderful in Kill Bill, where I got kind of friendly with him. He'd been trying to put this movie together for about two years, and I always said, "I'm there for you. If you find some moment for me, I'd love to be in your movie." And of course he did find a moment, and it was a pretty hot moment. All it cost me was one day of my life to do a four-minute monologue, and I managed to almost dominate the picture with one day's work, which was pretty cool. Only thing is, I would've loved to have been a part of their A-team. I mean, there aren't any good guys in this movie, but there is an A-team, and they get to ride the bikes and wear the leather and all that, and I wish I would've been one of those guys. But that wasn't the way it worked out. I'm the only guy in the movie that's wearing a suit. I look like one of the Men In Black, or one of the guys in Reservoir Dogs.
AVC: There's something inherently badass about a man in a black suit, don't you think?
DC: Well, all our presidents wear 'em.
Kung Fu Killer (2008)—"Crane"
DC: Daryl Hannah, China… kickin' ass, man. Killing 20 people. Lots of blood, lots of gore, lots of broken bones, and a certain amount of spirituality.
AVC: Did you get to know Daryl Hannah well when you worked on Kill Bill?
DC: I've known Daryl Hannah for 20 years. She's kind of a friend of the family. Anyway, I've been hot for her ever since Blade Runner. It was great working with her on this. She plays a torch singer, and she's actually pretty good at it. I think that's probably why she took the part, because she got to sing.
Kill Bill Vol. 1 (2003) & Kill Bill Vol. 2 (2004)—"Bill"
DC: Kill Bill was, what can I say, just an incredible experience. Quentin [Tarantino] is more fun than a barrel of monkeys. Actually, he is a barrel of monkeys. And he's just a great filmmaker, there's no doubt about that. He's a huge party guy, but making the movie, it's strictly business. Very serious about what he does. And he knows more about movies than anybody I've ever met. It was just an incredible joy working with him, and with Uma Thurman. Most of my stuff, I worked with Uma and Michael Madsen and that was about it, but I hung out with everybody, and we trained together for three months. Five days a week, eight hours a day for three months. I think that's more than you'd do for the Olympics. Can you imagine? We're talking about Uma Thurman, Daryl Hannah, Lucy Liu, I think a couple other ladies, and they're all in sweats or trunks or something, working out, and I get to do that with them. Eight hours a day, five days a week, for three months. That was almost better than making the movie.
AVC: How many days did you shoot on your monologue? Was it all in one day, or did you have to spread it out?
DC: No, a few days. We probably shot that whole sequence in two weeks, with the sandwich and the Superman speech and everything else. It probably took us two weeks to do that.
AVC: Is it hard to maintain the flow of a scene like that?
DC: No, not if you've done a whole lot of stage work where you do the same thing every day, day after day after day. You know, I've done 11 Shakespeare plays, a couple Broadway leads, all that… So that was not a problem.
North And South (1985)—"Justin LaMotte"
DC: That was kind of a bone that Warner Brothers threw me while we were developing a thing called Kung Fu: The Movie. It took an extra year, and I said, "Well, you've got to give me more of a holding fee." And they said, "We're all out of money." And then I said, "Well, throw me a bone. Just give me a part in one of your movies. I'd rather work than just collect money anyway." And so they gave me this part in North And South, which we shot for almost two years, because, you know, it's this 24-hour miniseries. And I made a ton of money, and apparently I stole the show, according to reviewers. They said I was the best thing in the picture. But then, I usually do that. [Laughs.] I had a lot of fun, and fell desperately in love with Lesley-Anne Down. I thought she was just the grandest lady I had ever met in my life. We were friendly for years. I was there when she had her baby, and when she had her wedding reception, and all that stuff. I'm not sure which came first, the baby or the wedding reception. These days, you never know, you know? But I love that project. I mean, working with Elizabeth Taylor and Gene Kelly… Robert Mitchum was in it. I got to hang out with all those people. That was pretty cool.
AVC: When it came out on video, it became sort of a cult hit among teenage girls.
DC: Who were they hung up on? Patrick [Swayze]?
AVC: Patrick, yeah.
DC: Yeah, right. Well, I don't know, me and Lesley used to call him "Shorty." [Laughs.] He was such a kid. But according to the critics, I stole the show from him. Just maybe not for the teenage girls.
The Long Riders (1980)—"Cole Younger"
DC: A lot of people say that it was so brilliant, the idea of casting brothers as the James gang, but actually, it was the brothers that cast the studio. Jim Keach wrote it and played Jesse, and when he told my brother Bobby about it, Bobby said, "Is there anything for the Carradines?" And he said, "Well yeah, there's three brothers, it's perfect." And they came to me and Keith and we put our name on it, and they went to Stacy Keach to play Frank. Then I brought in Randy Quaid and his little brother Dennis as the Millers, and we got the Bridges interested in being the Fords, but they dropped out because Jeff Bridges decided he didn't want to be the guy that killed Jesse James, so we got Nicholas Guest to replace him as Robert, and Christopher Guest to play Charlie. Then we got Walter Hill to direct, and he talked the guys at United Artists into doing it. And thereby lies the movie. As far as making it? Three months in Georgia and Texas and a few other places, hot as hell, and three months of riding horses, shooting off guns, drinking moonshine, and hanging out with a bunch of strippers they brought up from Atlanta, because I had these scenes in a whorehouse. These girls stayed with us for two weeks, and they were very friendly. That was fun. But mainly riding horses, hanging out with the brothers, shooting guns and drinking moonshine. Three months of that. It was an absolute pleasure. Anybody asks me to do that again, I sure will.
AVC: Do you get to hang out with your brothers much when you aren't together on a movie set?
DC: No, because we're always doing a movie, and rarely do we happen to be doing a movie together. We have done a few of them, but by and large… Keith is in Bulgaria and I'm in Bogotá. If I happen to be in Los Angeles, he probably isn't. And the same thing's true with Bobby, and any one of us. There's a lot of brothers involved in this family, and there's also all the nieces and nephews and daughters. I have a great-granddaughter, you know. There's tons of members of the Carradine family. It's more like a clan than it is like a family, and it's rare that we can get a bunch of them together. We do once in a while.
Circle Of Iron (1978)—"The Blind Man/Monkeyman/Death/Changsha"
DC: Well, that's one of those movies that's kind of a cult classic, but very few people even know about it. I mean, it's still a lot of people, probably a couple million or so that have watched it and love it, but on a planet that has 9 billion people, that isn't much of an audience.
AVC: You played four roles in that one? Was that tricky?
DC: No, I had it all planned going in.
AVC: Did you work with the director on setting up a schedule so you could shoot different parts on different days?
DC: Well, you don't really have that choice in movies, because you don't shoot in sequence, you shoot according to the availability of the sets and the equipment. So you just have to be prepared at any moment. Actually, I did all four characters in one day at one point. But I was prepared for that.
AVC: Does having different costumes and makeup help you get into character?
DC: Sometimes, but in that case, I already had a pretty clear idea of exactly what I was going to do before I even met the wardrobe people and the makeup people. It helped when they were changing my looks and everything, but really, what's the difference between Changsha, the guy in the desert who never wears a shirt, and The Blind Master? They're both just me. I'm doing a funny little accent as the guy in the desert, and my blowfish routine, where I'm able to expand my chest and look like I've got muscles. And then The Blind Master, you look at this guy and he's just skin and bones, right? He's just as soft as he can be, while the guy in the desert is rippling with muscles. And sometimes I'd play those two characters in a single day. It 's a question of posture, really.
The Serpent's Egg (1977)—"Abel Rosenberg"
DC: Difficult picture to watch twice. This is the only movie that Ingmar Bergman ever made outside of Sweden, and the only movie he ever made completely in English. And that was why I had to do it. I realized that there was no American actor that was ever going to get this chance unless I took it. It was almost a horror movie. Very dark, very difficult. You don't want to watch it twice, because it's very painful to watch, but I think it is a brilliant film. I'm not sure about my performance in it. I think I sustain it pretty well, but I always thought that I could have been better. I was kind of out of my element working with Ingmar, shooting in Munich, spending three and a half months living in Germany in the middle of the winter. Very cold and very dark. And so was the movie, very cold and very dark. But it seems to be an important movie. When I'm outside the country, even in someplace like Mexico, they're all used to seeing movies in another language on television, with subtitles. And they see a lot more foreign movies than we'll ever see in the United States, because we don't like looking at subtitles. And it's weird, because everywhere I go, people yell, "Grasshopper!" or "Bill!" but down there in Mexico or Colombia or anywhere in South America or most of Europe, people will yell, "Serpent's Egg!" And I'll go, "Wow, man, these people are really hip." I loved Ingmar and I kind of hated him at the same time. He's that kind of person. He generates a sense of… you'll do anything he asks you to do, because he's very kind, but he's sort of a monster at the same time. It's hard to explain. But needless to say, if he ever called me again, I would run to his side.
Bound For Glory (1976)—"Woody Guthrie"
DC: I always say that I had the opportunity to make maybe my best movie, and Hal Ashby's second-best movie.
AVC: Which is Ashby's best, do you think?
DC: Being There. I don't think there's any doubt about that. And it's also Peter Sellers' best movie. The deepest thing he ever did. But when I say that, people say, "Oh, you mean Coming Home," and I say, "No man, Being There." Coming Home is just okay.
AVC: What about The Last Detail, with Jack Nicholson and Randy Quaid?
DC: Yeah, that's one of the great ones. I still would say Being There is a better swan song. I'd want something like that to be my last movie, like it was Peter's. The Last Detail is a good interim movie, for me. Randy was phenomenal in it, and Hal's work was, as usual, just utterly brilliant. He made very few bad movies. Toward the end, he made a couple of turkeys, but by and large, every movie that Hal made was so specifically a Hal Ashby movie, and yet always different from every other film he ever made. He never made any two movies that were anything like each other. I don't know how the hell you do that. I mean, The Last Detail and Shampoo? How can that possibly be the same director?
AVC: And so close together, too. He made all his theatrical films over 15 years.
DC: Well, he had to. He wasn't going to live that long. Of course he didn't know that, but he always seemed to be in a hurry.
Death Race 2000 (1975)—"Frankenstein"
DC: I had just walked off Kung Fu. Kung Fu was never cancelled; I just left. I decided I had enough of it, and I thought I should do a movie right away, because I think when you leave a television series, it's important that you establish the fact that you're a movie actor really quickly, or you might never get that chance. So this Death Race 2000 thing came up, and the other thing I wanted to do was get rid of the image of the character I play on Kung Fu. And this character Frankenstein, who runs over people, would definitely do that. So I took the movie, and we shot it in three weeks. I had a lot of trouble with Paul Bartel, the director—I almost got fired off the picture at one point before we actually started shooting. We had a very difficult time choosing who was going to play my navigator, and we finally got Simone Griffeth, who was the most perfectly constructed human being I have ever had the opportunity to hang out with naked. That was kind of interesting. And we shot it in three weeks. The whole picture was shot in the hills of Los Angeles, even though it's supposed to be a cross-country race. And we shot the whole picture for $350,000. It was raining all the time, which you actually can't see, but it was always drizzling, which made some of the turns in our racecars a little scary with the wet roads. I had 9.3 percent of the producer's gross after break-even, which I didn't think would be worth anything on a little movie made in three weeks, but I made probably close to a million dollars. And I think I've got a lot more coming.
AVC: Do you have a piece of the remake?
DC: Well, that's the thing. Roger Corman sold it to Universal, and I haven't really discussed this very much with my lawyers, but that means I should have a piece of the grosses on the remake. Not just a piece of the price that Corman sold it to them for, but a piece of their box office. Anyway, here's this movie I thought was just something to do two weeks after I walked off Kung Fu, that I never thought would be an important film, and it turns out that I could probably retire on it. I'd have to change my lifestyle a little bit, but I probably could retire.
Kung Fu (1972-1975)—"Kwai Chang Caine"
DC: In 1967, the Summer of Love, I had just finished doing the TV version of Shane and was working on another TV show when the brother of the executive producer came up to me in the coffee area and said, "If you were to do a television series, what would it be?" And I said, "Look, I've already done a television series, and I don't want to do another one." And he said, "Well yeah, but if you did, what would it be?" And I said, "Okay, I'll tell you what it would be. It would be Cain, the first murderer, who's walking through the land of Nod, east of Eden, with the mark of God on him, and he's trying to atone for having killed his brother. And I'd set it in the old west." And the guy looked at me and said, "I'm talking about a commercial television series." And I said, "So am I," and he just waked away like I was insane, shaking his head. That was in '67.
Then in October of '71, I came back from doing Boxcar Bertha for Marty Scorsese, and lying against my door was a manila envelope. I opened it up and it was this script called Kung Fu, which seemed like exactly what I'd said would be the only television series I'd be willing to do, right? The guy's name was even Caine. And that's how it started. Jerry Thorpe, who was the producer of Kung Fu, took a chance doing it, because I was not very popular with the studios, so I'm grateful for his courage and his foresight. All I had to do was show up and figure out how to play the guy, which wasn't too hard. I figured I was enough of an acrobat and a gymnast and a dancer and everything else so that I could handle the kung fu, because it's just choreography. I didn't realize that I was going to become addicted to the art and that it was never going to leave me. I'm still doing it, as you probably know. I've written books; I've done videos. I teach it; I do seminars. It's just never left me. Very surprising. I thought when the series was over, that would be the end of it. But it just didn't work that way.
Boxcar Bertha (1972)—"Big Bill Shelley"
AVC: You got to work with your dad on that. Did that happen very often?
DC: A few times. Not as much as I would've liked. Boxcar Bertha wasn't the first time; I think the first time was a movie called The Good Guys And The Bad Guys. I might be wrong about that. But we talked about working together a lot. We really wanted to do more stage work together, though he did direct me in a production of Hamlet. I miss him.
AVC: He's been in so many movies and TV shows that you could probably turn on your TV at any given time and see your dad.
DC: Well, you know, so many of the old movies are dissolving. He made 514 feature pictures, according to his count, and I would think that close to 200 don't exist, because we are losing 200 movies a day, even though they're desperately trying to restore and preserve them. That's not only a reflection of how fast it's happening, but how many movies we've made. We've made millions of them. It's just amazing, and when we made them, we thought they were permanent, and we didn't realize that the material itself would literally dissolve or catch fire.
AVC: When you're working a movie, can you tell whether it's one that will stand up and be preserved?
DC: I think I can, but you won't know that for sure for 40 years. I might not even be there to check whether I was right. One thing I've noticed is that I can tell when a young actor or a young actress is going to become a huge star. Everybody else will say, "Oh come on, Michelle Pfeiffer, are you kidding?" and I'm pretty much always right about that. So maybe I'm right about the movies too. I don't know, but how would I know? I've got to wait for 40 years to find out if I'm right.
AVC: Is there any film of yours that you think is better than its reputation?
DC: I'm not sure if I could even answer that. I've made so many films, and so many of them have been under the radar, because my career has mainly been in independent films. Actually, I've got some movies that I've made very recently that I'm wondering, "Where are they? Why don't I see them? Why aren't they released?" Apparently they're having trouble finding distribution. But I think they're really pretty great films, and we'll just see what happens. But no, I can't pick one of my babies. What's the thing in Lear? The bastard son? They're all my children.