Classic TV Revisited: Kung Fu

Remember way back in the 1970’s when everybody was kung fu fighting and wearing table tennis balls on their eyes? Western meets martial arts series Kung Fu tapped right into that. David Carradine starred.

Caucasian male who looked vaguely from the Far East wandering around the Old West in a padded jacket, playing the flute, philosophising and occasionally battering others in slow motion.

Sounds like top company for a night in front of the box?
The show was indeed excruciatingly slow-paced at times and had aspirations of being profound, but the fight scenes were knock-out.

That’s foreign in’it?
Most insightful, honourable friend. The show took its name from the martial art honed in China but was set in the Wild West.

A sort of East meets West affair?
A chop suey Western is how some wags have described it. The original idea was developed by martial arts movie legend Bruce Lee.

But Lee got the chop?
TV chiefs feared a foreign hero may be a turn-off for US audiences. David Carradine got the job.

What was it about?
Shaolin monk Kwai Chang Kaine flees to the land of the free from China after avenging the death of his teacher at the hands of imperial forces. Pursued by bounty hunters, he wanders around looking for his long-lost brother.

Giving people the occasional slap?
After much meditation, looking thoughtful, he would finally get down to some scrapping. His foes would look foolish as he cast them aside with a rain of slow-motion blows.

Tell me more about this Shaolin business?
Lots of “Confucius, him say” statements uttered during flashbacks to the hero’s temple days. His guru was Master Khan who had what looked like ping pong balls for eyes.

An accident during a tournament?
No, just blind and deeply profound. A little like Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars, he would challenge the hero to “Snatch the pebble. When you snatch the pebble from my hand, then it will be time for you to leave.” Deep.

Who was in it?
Moon-faced actor David Carradine took the lead. Shakespeare was his great love and he tried to play the role like Hamlet – constantly soul searching. He walked out after three series to pursue a film career, including Karate Kop in ’91.

Any other big names?
Members of his large acting family all appeared at some point. But some major stars of today also passed through, including Harrison Ford, Jodie Foster and William Shatner no less.

Was it popular?
Not hugely but its novelty factor meant it became a talking point. Utter “grasshopper” in an appalling attempt at a Chinese accent to anyone over 40 – and they will instantly know what you’re talking about.

Some claim to fame?
Its slow motion fight scenes and use of flashbacks did win critical acclaim. Episode Eye For An Eye earned Jerry Thorpe an Emmy for direction. The show also inspired a global craze for martial arts.

Any prospect of a return for the Kung Fu kid?
US audiences were treated to a revival in 1992 with Kung Fu: The Legend Lives On. How original. David Carradine returned but as the grandson of the original hero Chang Caine. The standard urban cop drama was redeemd by some martial arts moves.

Do say?
“Grasshopper. Snatch the pebble.”

Don’t say?
“Two chicken chow meins and a Bombay duck, please mate.” and “Oi, ping pong ball-eyes.”

Not to be confused with?
Hong Kong Phooey – the cartoon hound who was a number one super guy but hopeless at the martial arts.

Alastair James is the editor in chief for Memorable TV. He has been involved in media since his university days. Alastair is passionate about television, and some of his favourite shows include Line of Duty, Luther and Traitors. He is always on the lookout for hot new shows, and is always keen to share his knowledge with others.