Sunday, June 28, 2009

Yin and Yang: Remembering *Both* David Carradines

David Carradine didn’t have to depart in a blaze of scandal and tragedy in Thailand; the actor was still racking up plenty of notoriety. One of Carradine’s final headline-making actions was a March appearance at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica for a screening of Bound for Glory – the 1976 film that earned him a Golden Globe nomination – which turned ugly. By all reports (and from the audio file floating around on the internet), Carradine ended up verbally brawling with the film’s cinematographer, Haskell Wexler, and members of the audience. Apparently at one point he threw a microphone that struck American Cinematheque publicist Margot Gerber.

And while this may seem like an unfortunate or embarrassing incident to some, it instead should be viewed as a late entry in Carradine’s legacy as a lovable Hollywood hellraiser. The actor’s 1995 memoir, Endless Highway, has him doing similar trouble-making in previous decades – running down streets naked and bleeding while hopped up on peyote, licking a dancer’s cleavage at a strip club and escaping from cops after wrecking his Ferrari 330GTS.

But will this bad-boy image (to say nothing of his schlockier film choices) forever overshadow and re-write the history of Carradine’s gentler side? After all, this was an actor who began working in Hollywood during the flower-powered late ‘60s and fathered a son named “Free” with his then-soulmate Barbara Seagull (that's Ms. Hershey, currently, to you).

And let us not forget – I literally mean that! – the beautiful films he directed in the 1970s. See, you can argue whether Carradine’s dramatic acting work for Scorcese and Bergman was more important to him than his action performances for Corman and Tarantino, but if you really want to get a feel for the guy, watch the pictures he directed! You and Me (produced in 1972 and never released in the U.S.) is about as sweet as a film can get and still be called a Biker Movie. And Americana (produced in 1973 and released in 1981) is the simple tale of a Vietnam vet who renovates a rusty carousel in a small town – not a karate chop in sight!

Carradine rehabbing a carousel in Americana and
being a (relatively) nice-guy biker in You and Me.

But why am I beating a drum for Carradine’s thoughtful side when even he seemed to want to suppress this? In a 1973 cover story for Esquire, Carradine boasted about reading only car and girlie mags (Oui and Penthouse are cited amongst his favorites), and the actor said he doesn’t give a crap about the Eastern mysticism practiced by his Kung Fu character, Kwai Chang Caine.

Nonetheless, he certainly possessed a sensitive creativity, and I hope he felt appreciated for it. Around the time of Kill Bill, The Man himself invited me over for a nice, long personal interview. I remember, upon my leaving, saying something like, “Mr. Carradine, I really do appreciate your artistry.” Although corny, it was a true statement, as I really had found an individual voice in his little-seen directorial efforts and his country-rock compositions (check out his song “Paint” from the film Sonny Boy).

But for some reason, my praise caused him to narrow his eyes and look at me suspiciously – as if I were putting him on. Sadly, I can only guess that after years of appearing in low-budget affairs (roughly his Evil Toons [1992] to Down’n’ Dirty [2000] period), he was unaccustomed to the word “artistry” being used in conjunction with his career. Sad.

But whatever his capabilities as an artist, the hell-raising outlaw image suited him. And he did it so well, with such cool.

I remember covering a celebrity autograph convention circa 2003 at which Carradine was scheduled to attend. Fashionably late, Carradine kicked the double doors open (or at least that’s how his entrance plays in my romanticized memory) and strode in with a large shaggy dog by his side. I was surprised they allowed pets in the room, but Carradine was much less concerned. The actor let his furry bull-in-a-china-shop run free through the convention hall, and the overzealously friendly beast jumped on someone’s video tripod, knocking an expensive camera to the floor. Did Carradine give a damn? Nah. He just sauntered over to his table, where he probably busied himself with his usual convention behavior: working a crossword puzzle until some pesky fan came by and bothered him for an autograph.

That was David Carradine. At least one of them.