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David Carradine: Ode to an Existential Hero

When we talk about an actor being “hip,” it’s often subjective: He or she embodies what we’re not but on some level long to be. To me, David Carradine was the apogee of hipness: not my favorite actor, not even in the top 50, but my existential hero, and a man who looked like he got laid a lot — a sort of B-movie Jack Nicholson. His vaguely Asian physiognomy made him suited to kung-fu and Zen masters, and his acting had that same alert detachment. You rarely got the sense that his roles cost him emotionally: Unlike his brother, Keith, who has been known to take risks, David had an inviolable sphere of privacy. But he never condescended to his material, even when it was risible, and his amusement was contagious. Like his dad, John, he made his mark in a socially conscious epic (The Grapes of Wrath for the father, Bound for Glory for the son), then settled contentedly into B and C genre pictures. (He never dropped to the D level of his dad, who ended up making scores of movies like Astro Zombies, but he might not have minded that so much: His old man worked until the end, reportedly with no complaints.) David Carradine didn’t seem given to advance planning, career calculation, control. He was the anti–Tom Cruise.

I close my eyes and see him striding through Death Race 2000 wearing a ridiculous cape and a straight face; popping into Mean Streets to get murdered (he’d been crucified in Martin Scorsese’s Boxcar Bertha); gamely stepping into Larry Cohen’s giant-bird picture Q at the last minute with little idea of his character and getting by on cool; and, most of all, as one of the Younger brothers (alongside his own brothers, Keith and Robert) in Walter Hill’s The Long Riders, telling Frank James (James Keach) he’s thinking of writing his memoirs and giving a tiny smile when Frank asks for a freebie: “You gotta pay, Frank. [Beat; quietly] You gotta pay.”

I don’t have the expertise to speculate about David Carradine’s death — whether it was suicide, murder, or autoeroticism gone disastrously wrong. I didn’t know him well enough — as I felt I knew Heath Ledger, feverishly perfectionistic, always trying to prove he was more than an amiable slab of Aussie beefcake. No matter how it turns out, I’ll try to think of David Carradine going out like Bill in Kill Bill: quietly accepting the absurdity of his fate, making himself presentable, getting centered, and walking tall into he knows not what.