With the recent release of the series Warrior we should look at the original series… Kung Fu and it’s many incarnations.
Lets get this out of the way right now… Kung Fu was not stolen from Bruce Lee as is oft cited (how does that saying go… If you repeat a lie enough times it becomes fact?). Kung Fu was originally pitched to ABC executives (then called Warrior) by Bruce Lee, this is factual.
ABC was interested and when Lee wished to star in the series there were two problems.
Yes, at the time a Chinese lead in an American television series was going to be an issue, but this was not an insurmountable one.
ABC wanted to work with Lee but the big issue is that Lee, while fluent in English, had such a thick accent at the time that he was (to quote one of the ABC executives) “borderline unintelligible”. You can’t have a lead that you can’t understand.
Even years later in films such as Enter The Dragon Lee’s accent was incredibly thick so this lie that ABC (and eventual star David Carradine) stole the show from Lee are simple untruths and Lee’s wife has stated the accent as being an issue many times. So lets put aside that bullshit about how this is a stolen series and look at the franchise proper.
David Carradine would wind up in the role of Kwai Chang Caine, half Chinese/half American Shaolin priest and fugitive hiding out in the American West while evading bounty hunters both local and abroad.
Kung Fu came to American televisions in February of 1972 with a 90 minute pilot (technically just a TV movie titled Kung Fu: The Way of the Tiger, The Sign of the Dragon, but one that was hoped to be a pilot).
This TV movie was very popular and ABC quickly moved forward with a series.
A 15 episode first season hit the air in October of that same year and was a ratings hit.
The series was a major risk as it was a blend of two genres which, up to this point, had never been combined.
Kung Fu was obviously a martial arts show but it was set in the Old West, so this was a Kung Fu Western. This had a very huge chance of alienating an audience but was in fact was so unique that it instead enthralled them. The familiar Old West tropes and aesthetic of Old World China created something truly unlike anything on television.
Using a device of flashbacks in China to contrast the “modern” occurrences in the American West created novel storytelling devices. With Carradine as the lead and him having a large acting family a good chunk of his immediate family were all used at some point as past versions of Kwai Chang Caine in flashbacks.
With the Old West setting many subversions of the usual Western stories were able to be snuck into the stories and tales of racism, rape, child murder and many other such topics were shown for the first time in this setting.
Kung Fu was also ground for many a guest star, most before they were famous. Harrison Ford, Jodie Foster, James Hong, Leslie Nielsen, John Barrymore, Eddie Albert, Clu Gulager, Moses Gunn, Tim Matheson, William Shatner, LQ Jones, John Saxon and even future Dead Kennedy’s singer Brandon Cruz all had an episode or two to shine.
Kung Fu was a hit for it’s three seasons and ran in syndication for many years following it’s network run.
In 1986, seeing the success of the syndication run it was decided that perhaps Kung Fu could make some kind of a comeback for the 1980’s as a whole new generation has grown up watching the reruns.
Kung Fu: The Movie aired on February 1st 1986 on CBS to pretty good ratings.
This time a noticeable time jump has happened, as while it is still the Old West, more than 20 years have taken place since the series.
This allows for Caine to be hunted down by the son he never knew he had (near the end of the series Caine was raped by Po Li to which she bore his child, a child born of hate and anger).
Caine’s son Chung Wang was played by none other than Brandon Lee, the real life son Bruce Lee.
Things had kind of come full circle.
Kung Fu: The Movie was a modest hit and so CBS decided it was time to try a Kung Fu series again… but this time actually set in modern day 1987.
Kung Fu: The Next Generation never made it past a pilot but it is still an important part of the Kung Fu franchise as a whole. David Carrdine declined to participate in this incarnation of the series but now the narrative was that every generation a new Kwai Chang Caine would be born. All the Kung Fu series and movies share a singular continuity so there are multiple generations of Caine’s out there all meant to be the fathers and grandfathers of one another.
David Darlow takes over as the current Kwai Chang Caine along with his son is Johnny Caine played by Brandon Lee. Johnny Caine is a delinquent who wants nothing to do with his family legacy and considers his father completely out of touch. In the pilot Johnny learns that his father is not some simpleton and that perhaps embracing his legacy may be his key to salvation.
CBS ended up passing on Kung Fu: The Next Generation and the pilot aired one time as part of a the burnoff series CBS Summer Playhouse.
Having only aired once Kung Fu: The Next Generation was mostly forgotten until bootleg copies started hitting the internet. It was a rough pilot and even if it had gone to series it would not have had the staying power of the original series nor what comes later.
You can’t keep Kung Fu down and next time we shall look at how the 1990’s handled the Caine’s and Kung Fu.