The legacy of the 1970s television show Kung Fu and the connection to Bruce and Brandon Lee
Kung Fu was one of the most popular television shows of the early 1970s. It ran for three seasons and started with a full-length ninety-minute film of the week as it’s opening episode.
The story follows a Shaolin monk, Kwai Chang Caine played by David Carradine, as he travels through the American Old West looking for his half-brother, Danny Caine. As he travels across the land, all he has to help him is his spiritual training and his skill with martial arts.
Being born in the late 1970s myself, I do recall this show appearing on television here in the UK, including the shows flashbacks to Caine’s old master, Chen Ming Kan, who refers to his student as Grasshopper.
Originally, I was going to detail how Bruce Lee had created this show and his anger at discovering the studios had taken his idea and created Kung Fu with no credit to his name.
David Carradine as the Shaolin Monk, Kwai Chang Caine.
However, after a little research, it transpires this is not the case. My knowledge of the events had come from the entertaining biopic, Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story. I’ve since discovered that the true events had been twisted slightly for dramatic effect.
Revealed in a televised interview in December of 1971, Bruce Lee told how he was creating a show entitled The Warrior in which a martial artist travels through the Old West.
Unfortunately, Warner Brothers and Paramount wanted to modernise the idea but Bruce wanted to keep the Old West setting. Both studios passed on the concept. Kung Fu as we know it began broadcasting the following year with David Carradine in the lead role.
According to Linda Lee Cadwell, she claims the studios stole Bruce’s ideas and created Kung Fu without any credit attributed to Lee.
Warner Bros denied this and the documents prove that the show was in fact created by Ed Spielman and Howard Friedlander. Bruce wasn’t cast for the show partly due to his ethnicity but more so due to his strong accent.
Bruce even agreed with Warner Bros decision,
“They think that business wise it is a risk. I don’t blame them. If the situation were reversed, and an American star were to come to Hong Kong, and I was the man with the money, I would have my own concerns as to whether the acceptance would be there”
In an alternate universe, they’re could’ve been a version of Kung Fu with Bruce Lee but as you can see, it was never likely.
Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story (1993)
This brings me back round full circle to Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story which was released in 1993. When one of Kung Fu‘s creators, Ed Spielman, saw the film, he was furious about the dramatised events that show Bruce creating his television series.
He called in his lawyers to create a lawsuit against all the parties involved, but he realised that at the end of the day, this burden would fall on Bruce’s widow, Linda Lee Cadwell. She had already lost her husband Bruce and had just lost her son, Brandon, that same year.
Ed realised this wasn’t fair on Linda and called off his lawsuit. He commented that the paperwork clearly states he created Kung Fu and it was there if anyone decides to research the fact.
Kung Fu, as already stated, was a huge success but the series ended in 1975. Someone decided there was still interest in the show and in 1986 a television movie was broadcast entitled, Kung Fu: The Movie.
David Carradine returned to portray Kwai Chang Caine and was joined by his son Chung Wang played by Brandon Lee who was making his acting debut with this film.
The following year in 1987, a pilot show was created to try and continue the legacy of Kung Fu. This new show, Kung Fu: The Next Generation, centred on the grandson of David Carradine’s character and was also named after him, Kwai Chang Caine. That’s one way to keep the same name running after all those years I guess.
Brandon Lee also returned to play Johnny Caine, the grandson of the new Caine. The show wasn’t picked up for series.
However, this didn’t stop the executives from trying again to recreate Kung Fu’s original success. In 1993, Kung Fu: The Legend Continues started a successful four season run.
David Carradine returned once again to play a Shaolin monk with Chris Potter as his police detective son, both of them trained in kung fu.
You can watch the unsuccessful pilot for Kung Fu: The Next Generation with Brandon Lee below.