The Kung Fu Controversy: The Story Behind the TV Series

Bruce Lee, undoubtedly the most iconic martial artist of the 20th century, left an indelible mark on Hollywood, martial arts, and global popular culture. While his on-screen roles like those in Enter the Dragon showcased his unparalleled prowess and philosophies, behind the scenes, a fascinating controversy was unfolding – that surrounding his involvement and subsequent removal from the cult classic 1970s TV series, Kung Fu.

The Birth of a Concept

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, martial arts began to gain traction in Hollywood. Seeing this trend, Bruce Lee pitched a television show concept titled The Warrior, which was about a martial artist in the American Old West. However, despite the exciting premise, the project didn’t immediately take off.

Fast forward a little, and Warner Bros. released a television show called Kung Fu, featuring David Carradine, a non-Asian actor, as the lead. The show revolved around a Shaolin monk named Kwai Chang Caine who wanders the American West, armed with his martial arts skills and philosophies. This plot sounded eerily similar to Bruce Lee’s concept for The Warrior.

The Controversy

The parallels between Kung Fu and The Warrior did not go unnoticed, and whispers began. You may have seen how some of this tension played out in the biopic, Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story. Was Kung Fu an original premise, timed coincidentally, or did it represent a pilfered version of Lee’s idea?

Several theories and arguments emerged surrounding this, including allegation of:

  1. Racial Barriers: One prevailing theory is that Hollywood executives didn’t believe American audiences were ready for an Asian lead, especially in a period when the entertainment industry was plagued with stereotypes and limited roles for Asians. By this argument, even if Lee’s concept was the inspiration, he was sidelined in favor of a more ‘palatable’ white lead.
  2. The Narrative Shift: Some insiders argue that while both concepts revolved around martial arts in the American West, the core narratives were different. They claim Kung Fu had unique elements, setting it apart from The Warrior.
  3. Lee’s Own Words: Bruce Lee, in interviews, expressed his frustration with Hollywood’s alleged racism. He mentioned that after discussing The Warrior concept with producers, he later found out about Kung Fu and its white lead, leaving him feeling betrayed. However, he also noted that such practices weren’t out of the ordinary in Hollywood.

David Carradine’s Role

David Carradine, the actor who played Kwai Chang Caine, found himself in the eye of the storm, not only for playing the role but also for not being particularly proficient in martial arts. His casting further exacerbated the idea that Hollywood was overlooking genuine talent (like Bruce Lee) in favor of fitting a racial mold.

Years later, Carradine admitted that Bruce Lee was undoubtedly cheated out of the role due to his race. However, he also pointed out that the controversy benefited him and Lee in the long run, as it kept their names in the headlines and furthered their respective careers.

The Aftermath of the Controversy

Although Bruce Lee never starred in Kung Fu, the entire episode spurred him to push for roles that broke Asian stereotypes. This determination eventually led to the creation of iconic movies that showcased his martial arts prowess and philosophy. The controversy also brought to light the implicit biases and racism in Hollywood. It sparked debates on whitewashing, a practice where white actors are cast in non-white roles, which still resonates in current times.

Importantly, decades after Bruce Lee’s passing, his vision was eventually realized, which provides some consolation. Warrior, based on his original concept, was produced by his daughter Shannon Lee and premiered in 2019 to critical acclaim, serving as a testament to Bruce Lee’s lasting impact.

The controversy surrounding Bruce Lee’s involvement and subsequent removal from Kung Fu is more than just a Hollywood anecdote. It’s a reflection of the racial barriers of the time and serves as a powerful reminder of the need for diverse representation in the entertainment industry. While Bruce Lee’s absence from Kung Fu remains a painful historical fact, his legacy continues to inspire generations, proving that genuine talent and vision can never truly be silenced.

You May Also Like

About the Author: Joshua Smith