David Carradine, who died Thursday in Bangkok, Thailand under circumstances that are still under investigation and subject to conflicting reports, will be mourned and eulogized this week with sadness and eloquence, and remembered for his understated work in films like Bound for Glory and Kill Bill Volume 2, and of course for his role as Kwai Chang Caine in the popular early ‘70s TV series Kung Fu. He appeared in Boxcar Bertha, alongside one-time partner Barbara Hershey, for Martin Scorsese, and had a cameo in the director’s signature breakthrough film Mean Streets. And Carradine’s last, most memorable performance may not have even occurred on film (though parts of it undoubtedly exists somewhere as pixels on a digital camcorder or cell phone)—his testy wrangle with cinematographer Haskell Wexler on a panel after a screening of Bound of Glory this past spring at the American Cinematheque in Hollywood was legendary from almost the minute it concluded. (The dust-up was well and entertainingly documented by Chris Willman.)
But for as many of these memorable roles as Carradine could claim (and as many roles in routine or even terrible films that he might have liked to have forgotten, as many of us probably already have), two in particular will always define Carradine the actor in my mind. First, the unmovably cynical Frankenstein in Death Race 2000 (1975), carrying out a covert political revolution while literally playing the establishment game of televised road rage, was a nice twist on the Zen-infused Caine persona and a chance for the actor to play a little looser (all things being relative) with his acting style. But most important for me is Carradine’s contribution to the century-and-a-half-old work-in-progress that is the legend of Jesse James, as Cole Younger in Walter Hill’s elegiac, muscular and lyrical western The Long Riders (1980). Never an uptight actor, Carradine seemed to really enjoy inhabiting the melancholy of Hill’s vision with customary sly humor and straightforward grace. It was a role that allowed him to highlight his lithe physicality— the knife fight with James Remar as Belle Starr’s Indian boyfriend is a spectacular bit of choreographed hand-to-hand violence in which the adversaries are kept within slashing proximity by clamping a belt between their choppers— as well as his extraordinary and enveloping sense of comfort with his fellow cast members. Much was made at the time of the movie’s release about the casting of the real-life Keach, Carradine, Quaid and Guest brothers as the familial pillars of the Jesse James legend, but I think just as memorable are Carradine’s scenes with Belle Starr, played by Pamela Reed with a sense of strong-willed sexual entitlement and a world-weariness to match. The two of them luxuriate in their physical encounters, yet are remarkably frank in assessing and understanding their roles—especially Belle’s—in a post-Civil War social order still largely defined by the masculine prerogative. Their brief scenes together, highlighted below, are one of the many things that makes Hill’s movie remarkable, and Carradine, in Cole Younger’s skin, seemed particularly lived-in. The actor deftly mixed vulnerability, paranoia and even an edge of imperiousness with a surprising grace that perfectly complements the emblematic richness of Hill’s amoral vision just as did the long flowing dusters worn by the James-Younger gang, or even Ry Cooder’s beautiful score, itself haunted by the same ghosts of the Confederacy that pervade the movie. Yes, it is his Cole Younger that I treasure most from David Carradine, and remembering the joy I’ve taken from that performance over the 20 or 25 times I’ve seen the movie since its release in 1980 has been great comfort in the days since his death was revealed.
David Carradine and Pamela Reed in The Long Riders (1980)