Bruce Lee auditioned for the lead role in ABC’s Kung Fu TV series, but the part went to David Carradine instead. Here’s why Lee didn’t get the job.
Bruce Lee tried to get the lead role in ABC’s Kung Fu TV series, but was rejected, supposedly over issues regarding his race. The martial arts legend, known for his starring roles in five high-profile kung fu movies also had a career in television. Before getting into movies, Lee played Kato in The Green Hornet and tried to get involved in other TV shows as well.
One of the shows Lee had an interest in was Kung Fu, which aired on ABC for three seasons from 1972 to 1975. Set in the American Wild West, the show starred David Carradine as Kwai Chang Caine, a Shaolin monk born to Chinese and American parents. After being framed for murder, Caine traveled to America and became caught up in a number of disputes which forced him to rely on the martial arts skills he learned from his training at the Shaolin Temple. The show’s continued popularity led to a TV movie (also starring Carradine), and two reboots, one of which currently being in the works at the CW with a female lead.
Kung Fu was a unique addition to the prime-time television lineup, especially since its main character was Chinese-American. This, combined with the fact that it involved martial arts, caused it to grab the attention of Bruce Lee, who auditioned for Kwai Chang Caine. Lee was under serious consideration for the role, but in the end Warner Bros. executives chose to go with David Carradine (a white actor) instead, despite that at this point in Carradine’s career, he had no knowledge of kung fu, nor was he trained in any form of martial arts. Tom Kuhn, who was the head of the Warner Bros. TV division, defended the decision to cast Carradine over Lee by attributing the problem to Lee’s accent. Kuhn said he had difficulty understanding him [via Martial Journal]. There was a concern that audiences would have this same problem.
Kuhn has also made the argument that Lee, who normally plays aggressive characters, didn’t possess the “serenity” needed for a peaceful Shaolin monk like Caine. David Carradine himself has said that Lee had yet to prove that he was capable of “dramatic acting” [via South China Morning Post]. Despite these defenses and the fact that Kuhn said that they had worked hard to find the right Asian actor, this didn’t detract from the angry reaction from the Asian American community, who felt that Caine should never have been played by a white actor.
Unfortunately, Lee getting passed over for the starring role in Kung Fu added to the problems he faced as a Chinese man looking for big parts in Hollywood movies. Lee had previously pitched a TV show called The Warrior (very similar in concept to Kung Fu) to Warner Bros., but was turned down, allegedly because of his race. This had a lot to do with why Enter the Dragon was the only American-made movie where Lee played the main character. Lee was continuously frustrated by this, but at the same time, he said that he understood American studios’ dilemma, pointing out that he would have the same hesitation about casting a white lead in a Hong Kong production.
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