K is for “Kung Fu”

“Kung Fu” was an American action-adventure, martial arts, Western drama television series. Created by Ed Spielman, directed and produced by Jerry Thorpe, and developed by Herman Miller, the series aired on ABC from October 1972 to April 1975 for a total of 63 episodes. Kung Fu was preceded by a full-length  feature television pilot, an ABC Movie of the Week, which was broadcast on February 22, 1972. “Kung Fu” became one of the most popular television programs of the early 1970s, receiving widespread critical acclaim and commercial success upon its release.

The show followed the adventures of , a Shaolin monk, played by David Carradine, who traveled through the American Old West, armed only with his spiritual training and his skill in martial arts. Kwai Chang Caine was the orphaned son of an American man, Thomas Henry Caine (Bill Fletcher), and a Chinese woman, Kwai Lin, in mid-19th-century China. After his maternal grandfather’s death he is accepted for training at a Shaolin Monastery, where he grows up to become a Shaolin priest and martial arts expert. Keye Luke (as the blind Master Po) and Philip Ahn (as Master Kan) were also members of the regular cast.

Although it was his intention to avoid notice, Caine’s training and sense of social responsibility repeatedly forced him out into the open, to fight for justice or protect the underdog. After each such encounter he had to move on, both to avoid capture and prevent harm from coming to those he had helped.

There was some controversy around the show based upon the notion that the series’ idea was “stolen” from Bruce Lee, but also in the fact that he wasn’t cast for the leading role, and that that decision had racial connotations. In an interview, Lee stated that he had developed a concept for a television series called “The Warrior,” meant to star himself, about a martial artist in the American Old West but that he was having trouble pitching it to Warner Brothers and Paramount.

At the time, George Takei (Sulu from Star Trek) and the Association of Asian Pacific American Artists (AAPAA) filed a formal complaint for unfair hiring practices. They wanted an Asian actor in the leading role. But the studio decided to go with Carradine, an American actor in the role of Kwai Change Caine, believing that an American actor would be more acceptable to American audiences.

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30 thoughts on “K is for “Kung Fu”

  1. eschudel April 13, 2021 / 6:48 am

    Definitely racism at work – Asian Americans still are discriminated against in the television industry.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Marleen April 13, 2021 / 7:05 am

    Well… I didn’t know all that. I liked the show.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. J-Dub April 13, 2021 / 5:01 pm

    “Snatch the pebble from my hand”.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. timsbrannan April 13, 2021 / 8:04 pm

    I remember watching, and enjoying, it as a kid. Only later did I hear about the underbelly and how Bruce Lee was treated.

    The new Kung Fu on the CW looks fun, but I have not seen any episodes yet.

    Tim Brannan, The Other Side: 2021: The A to Z of Monsters

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Carol anne April 13, 2021 / 9:28 pm

    I’ve never seen this show! I’ve never even heard of it! ❤

    Liked by 1 person

  6. leigha66 April 17, 2021 / 10:57 am

    I hadn’t heard it was a stolen idea. I always wondered why there was not an Asian actor in the role.

    Liked by 1 person

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