How does one begin when speaking of someone as dynamic as David Carradine? The man stood out as a powerful presence, known as an avid fan of J.R.R. Tolkien among his friends and fellow film artists. I am struck by his passing.
We originally met David among the crowds of Dragon*Con in Atlanta. I believe it was 2001, but the memory is not an exact science these days. The team of us were putting together a list of luminaries and Tolkien supporters that we thought would like to speak on camera for a project we had called RINGERS: Lord of the Fans, and we walked up to David just as any other engaged fan would come to an autograph table — slightly nervous yet pleased to have a handshake with a performer of such stature.
I mean, come on. This man was Kwai Chang Cane himself……
I have such tender early memories of David’s soft spoken power and shiny shaved head, and those flowing monk’s robes. Kung Fu was a favorite show when I was just a wee lad — preferred Father & Son TV time, we would sit together and watch in our living room. The show impressed my young mind: one shining hour of Eastern morality and meditative thought, dressed up as an Old West-style actioner with plenty of martial arts fighting. I never could have guessed that I would meet Mr. Carradine as an adult, with him eagerly accepting the invitation to speak about Hobbits and Aragorn, of all things.
He was extremely warm and energized when we invited him to share his memories. You see, David was on the original cusp of American fandom, during the raucous changeover from 60’s to 70’s youth culture. In a California that would be reeling with the Summer of Love in the Haight-Ashbury, the drug culture, the psychedelic music. David was there in the center of Tolkien’s groundswell of popularity among the youth. They shared copies of LOTR books passed around this artist commune-type atmosphere — amid clouds of smoke, bright fabrics and tee-pees on his lawn. It was what the cool kids were reading. It struck such a chord in their lives, David would later tell us; truly the cultural gateway through which Professor Tolkien would reluctantly pass on his way to adoration by all America.
David was very generous with his stories. It was the one of the most intense interviews I ever had.
David spoke openly, and rather brazenly, about his efforts to land a role with the first Ralph Bakshi-helmed LOTR film that United Artists was putting together in the late 1970’s. We had no idea this stuff had happened. David let fly with all the juicy details and just blew us away. He petitioned Bakshi to let him play Aragorn, Strider, the dirty Ranger with the secret past. Where did Sean Young learn to campaign against a studio so she could get cast as Tim Burton’s ‘Catwoman’ (with a novel, viscerally “Vaya Con Huevos” approach)? Well, I daresay she learned it from David Carradine. I could just imagine him walking in to tell notorious hot-head Bakshi that the animation approach was “ALL WRONG” and the whole thing should be rethought as an epic live-action with he, David, as the romantic lead…. what cajones!! What a story!
That’s what any actor often must do: fight for the role they really want. It was wonderful to hear his first-person account of how his love of “The Lord of the Rings” made him thirst for the part. David knew how important it was to a generation of young people. He knew it was a golden chance.
We are left to wonder about the “might have been” scenario, the tangent in history that didn’t happen. If only the outcome had swung the other way. If only David’s persuasive meeting had gone slightly a few degrees different….. we would have seen him carry the mantle of Gondor with stern pride and grim resilience. That peculiar and powerful energy found in all of David Carradine’s performances would suited Aragorn perfectly. It would have been a role for all time, a long shadow under which Viggo Mortensen would have a walked.
I am so saddened by David’s awful departure, and must remember the power and dignity he brought to his craft. He was an electric man. He was a symbol to me of self-contained strength and Shaolin Teachings, brought to our country from afar. How I admired him. How the passion for Tolkien burned in him. I’ll never forget how David’s work made me think– just for a fleeting slant of time — that this violent, complicated world we inhabited could somehow be understood and made clean if only we could snatch the pebble from our Master’s hand….
Time for you to leave, Grasshopper.
Much too hasty,