By his own count, David Carradine has appeared in 102 movies and 166 hours of television, most famously as Kwai Chang Caine, who wandered the Old West in the early-’70s chopsocky series Kung Fu, kicking the occasional ass and dispensing mystical nuggets of wisdom. But as he pads barefoot around the Tarzana, Calif., home he shares with his girlfriend and her four kids — silver hair slicked back, black shirt half-unbuttoned — he can’t point to much memorabilia: a bamboo flute here, a fake samurai sword there.He’s been married four times, and he explains, ”I lost an enormous amount of stuff in every one of my divorces.” He figures he’s earned and blown through three fortunes in his 67 years. But, like his TV character Caine, Carradine has never cared much about material things anyway. ”I walk away from memorabilia all the time,” he says. ”Every 10 years or so I just move out of the house and walk down the road. Just take my dog and what I can fit in my car.”
Lucky for him, Quentin Tarantino believes in saving anything he’s cherished — and there’s nothing he cherishes more than a neglected ’70s lunchbox icon like Carradine. In Pulp Fiction, Tarantino paid homage to the actor with Samuel L. Jackson’s much-quoted soliloquy about his plan to ”walk the earth…. You know, like Caine in Kung Fu.” Now Tarantino has saved Carradine from two decades of mainly low-budget schlock by casting him as Kill Bill’s titular archvillain. As with John Travolta pre-Pulp, Tarantino recognized that, while Carradine may have misplaced his stardom, he never lost his cool.
In Vol. 1, Bill was an unseen menace, the demonic version of Charlie from Charlie’s Angels — a silky voice on the phone, a hand stroking the handle of a sword, the finger on the trigger of the gun that shot Uma Thurman’s Bride. But in Vol. 2, Bill is revealed to be a man of knotty contradictions: a ruthless assassin with a hypnotic air of old-school elegance and romance, a doting father who delicately slices the crusts off his daughter’s bologna sandwich just before trying to slice off her mother’s head. It’s a role, Carradine says, that’s as close to him as any he’s ever played (minus the killing part) — closer, certainly, than that old Zenned-out kung fu monk. ”If I was like Caine,” he snarls, ”I’d be sitting on top of a f—ing mountain in Tibet.”
Tarantino and Carradine first met in 1996 at a film festival and then bumped into one another occasionally, always trading assurances that they’d work together when the time was right. ”Quentin said, ‘It’s got to be a home run,”’ Carradine remembers. ”He wanted it to be a revelation to the world that would show me like people don’t know me.” It wasn’t until Tarantino began writing Kill Bill that a suitable part began to take shape. He drew some of the inspiration for Bill directly from Carradine’s 1995 autobiography, Endless Highway, a 647-page picaresque saga dedicated ”to the god, Apollo.” ”The result,” Carradine says, ”is that Bill has a lot of my character in it — or at least a lot of what Quentin thinks my character is.”