What Really Happened to Kung Fu Star David Carradine?

Known as a prolific “B” movie actor, David Carradine appeared in more than 100 films throughout his 60-year career. As a member of the Carradine family of actors, he starred in the hit ‘70s series Kung Fu and the Kill Bill films, but there was something off about Carradine.

David Carradine / David Carradine / Annie Bierman, David Carradine / David Carradine.
Source: Getty Images

When the actor was found dead in the closet of a Bangkok hotel room, the police deemed it a suicide. However, Carradine’s family and friends refused to believe that. After his death, his ex-wife revealed details about Carradine’s private life that made her conclude it was murder and that the killer was still out there.

A Turbulent Childhood

Born John Arthur Carradine Jr. in Hollywood, California, Carradine was the eldest child of actor John Carradine and Ardanelle McCool. It was his mom’s second marriage and his father’s first. At the time of their marriage, McCool had a son, Bruce, from her first husband, whom John adopted.

A portrait of David Carradine.
Photo by Paul Harris/Getty Images

His father wanted a large family, but McCool couldn’t carry a baby to term. He discovered that she had had several abortions which prevented her from having more children. It caused his parents to fight constantly and led to their divorce. Carradine’s parents went on to marry multiple times.

He Tried to Take His Life

Against the backdrop of marital discord, Carradine tried to take his life when he was only five, and he almost succeeded. After finding out his older brother Bruce had a different father, Carradine didn’t want to live, but John saved him before it was too late. He was then punished for the act.

David Carradine attends an event.
Photo by Toni Anne Barson/WireImage/Getty Images

Instead of comforting the troubled child, Carradine’s father took away his comic book collection and burned them. The books had nothing to do with his attempted suicide, but that didn’t matter to John. He thought the comic books had corrupted Carradine’s young mind, pushing him to make a bad decision.

His Life Was Unstable

After a lengthy five-year court battle, Carradine’s parents finally settled their divorce when he was seven. Carradine decided to move to New York with his father, who was already remarried. However, life with his father wasn’t pleasant. He spent the next few years in boarding schools, foster homes, and reform schools.

A promotional shot of David Carradine in Kill Bill: Vol2.
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When Carradine was with his father, they moved around a lot so John could work. Eventually, they settled in Oakland, California, where Carradine graduated high school and attended San Francisco State College to study drama and music theory. But he dropped out because it was too much to juggle with work.

Trying to Escape the Draft

During the ‘60s, men were still obligated to draft into the army. Despite an attempt to dodge the draft, Carradine was inducted into the U.S. Army in 1960, where he drew pictures for training aids. That same year he married his first wife and high school sweetheart, Donna Lee Becht.

A portrait of David Carradine at the time.
Photo by Archive Photos/Getty Images

Carradine’s army service was fairly simple, so he had time to establish a theater company that became known as the “entertainment unit.” He still managed to get into trouble for shoplifting and was honorably discharged after two years of active duty. Meanwhile, his wife gave birth to their daughter, Calista.

Getting Serious

After leaving the army, Carradine became serious about acting. He decided to change his name to avoid being confused with his famous father, so he started going by David. His father encouraged him to pursue acting and gave him lots of advice.

A publicity portrait of Carradine for the television series Shane.
Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

The first gig he had was in a production of Romeo & Juliet. Carradine’s father came from Los Angeles to San Francisco to see the play, and Carradine said he was very proud. He always wanted to be like his dad, and that approval was very special.

His Big Break

Carradine made his TV debut in 1963, appearing in an episode of Armstrong Circle Theatre. He had many small roles in various TV shows and signed a contract with Universal Pictures. They gave him two feature film roles, but his big break came on the stage.

A dated picture of Carradine on Broadway.
Source: Pinterest

His second Broadway role in The Royal Hunt of the Sun was Carradine’s shining moment. It was a solid hit that ran for 261 performances. Carradine said, “Many of the important roles I got, later on, were because the guy who was hiring me was in that audience and had his mind blown.”

Trouble With the Law

While it might seem like Carradine was too busy for anything but work, he still managed to get into trouble with the law several times during his career. In the 1950s, Carradine was arrested in San Francisco for assaulting a police officer.

A photo of Carradine attending an event.
Photo by Toni Anne Barson/WireImage/Getty Images

The arrest was the first of many as he was apprehended again in 1967 for possession of marijuana. He was always doing something to get in trouble and even faced court-martial for shoplifting while he was in the army. Carradine had no problem being a bad boy.

A Western Man

During the early years of his career, Carradine was in demand as a supporting actor, mostly in Westerns. Between 1969 and 1970, he appeared in five Western films. He also took more stage roles but became unhappy playing villains.

David Carradine is in a scene from the motion picture The Serpent's Egg.
Photo by John Bryson/Getty Images

Carradine decided to take a year off from acting before being cast in the musical, The Ballad of Johnny Pot. However, he was fired two days before opening night on Broadway. He was going through a difficult time as he and his first wife divorced.

Kung Fu Master

In 1972, Carradine was cast as the Chinese-American Shaolin monk Kwai Chang Caine in the ABC series Kung Fu. Along with Bruce Lee films, Kung Fu helped popularize martial arts, and Carradine’s character brought the term “grasshopper”(referring to an apprentice) into pop culture.

A still of Carradine in an action scene from Kung Fu.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/ Copyright: Warner Bros.

While he faced controversy for being a non-Asian actor playing a half Chinese character, the show provided steady jobs for many Asian-American actors. After three seasons, Carradine decided to quit the show to pursue a movie career instead.

His Relationship Fell Apart

After his first marriage, Carradine started dating his co-star, Barbara Hershey. They appeared in Heaven With a Gun and Boxcar Bertha together. The couple also did a Playboy spread, recreating scenes from Boxcar Bertha. In 1972, she gave birth to their son, Free (now known as Tom).

Hershey and Carradine attend an event.
Photo by Frank Edwards/Archive Photos/Getty Images

However, the couple’s relationship fell apart around 1974 when Carradine was arrested for attempted burglary. He also had an affair with Season Hubley, who guest-starred on Kung Fu. Hershey and Carradine went their separate ways after it became too much for her.

Under the Influence of Peyote

At the height of his Kung Fu fame, Carradine was seen wandering nude around his neighborhood. He was under the influence of peyote, a hallucinogen derived from cacti. He ended up breaking into a neighbor’s home, smashing a window, and cutting his arm.

A promotional still of Carradine for Kung Fu.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/ Copyright: Warner Bros.

He surprised the two women who were home and allegedly assaulted one while asking if she was a witch. Carradine pled no contest to the mischief charge and was given probation. Although he wasn’t charged with assault, the woman sued him for $1.1 million and won $20,000.

Thanks, Bruce Lee

As Carradine ventured into the film world, it didn’t take long for him to get roles in movies like Death Race 2000, Thunder and Lightning, The Serpent’s Egg, and Circle of Iron. When Bruce Lee died in 1973, he left behind an unreleased movie script, The Silent Flute.

A still of Carradine in Circle of Iron.
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The Silent Flute was turned into Circle of Iron, and Carradine played the four roles originally intended for Lee. Carradine and many critics considered this film one of his best because he pulled off playing four different characters.

His Stardom Declined

Around the 1980’s Carradine’s star power was on the decline. While he wasn’t out of the spotlight, he was taking roles in more low-budget projects. Carradine guest-starred on an episode of Darkroom and made a cameo in Trick or Treats.

Chuck Norris and Carradine are on the set of Love Wolf McQuade.
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He was also the villain in Chuck Norris’ Lone Wolf McQuade. Carradine was still in demand but starred in “B” movies like The Warrior and the Sorceress and On the Line. Carradine kept getting villainous roles and embraced it.

“It’s The Government’s Fault”

Although his 1974 arrest cost him a big chunk of money, Carradine didn’t stay out of trouble. While filming Safari 3000 in South Africa, Carradine was arrested again for possession of marijuana. He was convicted and given a suspended sentence.

A movie still of Carradine.
Source: YouTube

However, the most interesting part of his arrest was that Carradine claimed he had been framed by the apartheid government, as he had been seen dancing with Tina Turner. He thought this was their way of punishing him for being seen with a woman of color.

He Was Always Working

Whether it was a straight-to-video action film or a low-budget project, there wasn’t a year that went by when Carradine didn’t have at least one or two film roles. It seemed like he took every opportunity that presented itself, and he made the most of it.

A photo of Carradine on a filming set.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/ Copyright: United Artists

Carradine starred in numerous films from the mid-‘80s to the beginning of the 2000s. He was also in a Lipton Tea commercial that aired during the Super Bowl in 1993. The ad paid tribute to the Three Stooges while satirizing Carradine’s King Fu character.

Harsh Punishment

The ‘80s were a wild time for Carradine, who drank and used drugs freely. Throughout the decade, he was arrested at least twice for driving under the influence, in 1984 and 1989. Carradine pled no contest in the second case.

A dated picture of Carradine walking the street.
Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Legal experts said it was a harsher than average sentence for a second-time offender. Carradine had to spend 48 hours In jail, complete 100 hours of community service, pick up trash for the California Department of Transportation for 30 days, attend a drunk driving meeting and complete an alcohol rehab program.

Career Revival

Although he never stopped working, Carradine wasn’t a largely mainstream actor. However, in 2003, he enjoyed a revival of his fame when he was cast in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill films. He played Bill, the assassin extraordinaire in Kill Bill: Volume 1 and Kill Bill: Volume 2.

A still of Carradine during an interview at the time.
Source: YouTube

Many believed he deserved an Academy Award for his portrayal because he stole every scene and gave a powerful performance. Although he didn’t get an Academy Award, Carradine was nominated for a Golden Globe and a Saturn Award for Best Supporting Actor.

The Quality Didn’t Improve

Despite his outstanding performance in Kill Bill, the quality of Carradine’s roles did not improve. For some reason, he could only get parts in low-budget films that didn’t do much for his career. He starred in fairly obscure films like Dead & Breakfast and Last Goodbye.

A still of Carradine as Bill in Kill Bill: Vol 2.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/ Copyright: Miramax Films

Carradine wasn’t bothered by the roles he got, but he had the potential to do much more. In 2005, he took over hosting duties from his brother Keith on Wild West Tech on the History Channel and guest-starred in an episode of Medium.

Who Remembers Yellowbook?

Way back in the early 2000s, when people still used phonebooks, Carradine became the spokesperson for Yellowbook. He appeared in all their commercials and ads, which helped him get some recognition again. He was always that actor you knew but didn’t know where he was from.

A video still of Carradine for Yellowbook.
Source: YouTube

Over the next few years, he appeared in several films and worked as a producer for some of them. In 2008, he starred in the TV movie Kung Fu Killer, in which he played a character very similar to his Kung Fu character, Caine.

He Followed in His Father’s Footsteps

Like his father, Carradine wasn’t the best at maintaining romantic relationships. After things ended with Hershey in 1974, Carradine married his second wife, Linda Gilbert, in 1977. They had a civil ceremony in Germany, and they had a child a year later.

David and Linda attend an event.
Photo by Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection/Getty Images

Unfortunately, Carradine’s second marriage ended in divorce, as did the two that followed. He was married to Gail Jensen from 1986 to 1997 and Marina Anderson from 1998 to 2001. Carradine grew up with a father and mother who were married several times, so it wasn’t unusual.

One More Shot at Love

After his first four marriages didn’t work out, Carradine gave love another chance. On December 26, 2004, Carradine married Annie Bierman at his friend’s home in Malibu. His attorney and Bierman’s longtime friend, Vicki Roberts, performed the ceremony by the ocean.

A photo of Carradine and Bierman arriving at an event.
Photo by Christian Alminana/FilmMagic/Getty Images

He gained three stepdaughters and a stepson from Bierman’s previous marriage. She was 24 years younger than him, and his daughter asked why he didn’t like women his own age. Carradine told her, “Most of the women my age are a lot older than me.”

Not Just an Actor

While Carradine was mainly known as an actor, He was also a musician who sang and played the piano, guitar, and flute. He performed in an episode of Ironside, singing “I Stepped on a Flower,” “Lonesome Stranger,” and “Sorrow of the Singing Tree.”

A portrait of David Carradine.
Photo by J. Merritt/FilmMagic/Getty Images

In 1975, he recorded the album Grasshopper. During the Kung Fu series, Carradine would make flutes out of bamboo and plant them on the Warner Brothers lot. He also made several flutes for Circle of Iron, one of which he later played in Kill Bill.

“Evangelist” of Kung Fu

When he took on the role of Caine in Kung Fu, Carradine knew nothing about the practice. Instead, he relied on his experience as a dancer for the part. He had previous experience in sword fighting, boxing, and street fighting to help him prepare for the role.

A still of Carradine in Kung Fu.
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

Carradine had martial arts training throughout the show’s three seasons, but he never considered himself a master of the art. Rather, he saw himself as an “evangelist” of kung fu. He even released instructional videos on T’ai chi and Qigong in 2003 as he had acquired enough expertise in martial arts.

He Worked Until His Last Days

Between 2008 and 2009, Carradine appeared in ten movies. While they might not have been blockbuster hits, it was a lot of work for one person. He once received an award for being the hardest-working actor in Hollywood and had a dozen projects released after he died.

A photo of Carradine and Uma Thurman during Kill Bill Vol.2 Premiere.
Photo by Fred Duval/FilmMagic/Getty Images

His last movie released was the 2013 cult independent film Night of the Templar, directed by his friend Paul Sampson. It was the last time Carradine was seen wielding a sword on screen. After seeing the film, many thought it foreshadowed his death.

Found in the Closet

While filming the movie Stretch in Bangkok, Carradine was staying at the Swissotel Nai Lert Park Hotel. A maid entered to clean his room on June 3, 2009, when she found the actor naked, hanging by a rope in the closet. She immediately called the police.

A still of Carradine in the film Big Stan.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/ Copyright: Sony Pictures Television

Initially, his death was ruled as a suicide because of the nature in which he was found. But why would Carradine want to end his life? He was in the middle of filming another movie, and he had plenty of projects in the works.

Not a Suicide

After further investigation, police believed his death wasn’t suicide but was an accident as the result of autoerotic asphyxiation. Two of his former wives came forward stating Carradine was into things like that, so it wasn’t such a surprise that he could have accidentally killed himself.

A photo of Carradine during a press conference.
Photo by Tom O’Donnell/WireImage/Getty Images

Everyone was sad to hear the news of Carradine’s passing, especially his family and friends. His wife was devastated to hear the news, and it was revealed that she hadn’t participated in this type of bondage with Carradine during their marriage.

His Ex-Wife Wasn’t Surprised

While it might have come as a shock to many people, Carradine’s ex-wife, Marina Anderson, was not surprised by the way in which he died. Throughout their marriage, she knew about Carradine’s kinky sex life and how he liked being choked. It ultimately destroyed their marriage.

A dated picture of Marina Anderson and Carradine attending an event.
Photo by Jeffrey Mayer/WireImage/Getty Images

Anderson said the choking freaked her out, and she “liked having oxygen in her brain.” However, she knew from firsthand experience what it was like to satisfy Carradine’s sexual requests. When Anderson heard about his death, she knew he wasn’t alone.

She Thought It Was Murder

In Anderson’s memoir, she said, “David never flew solo when we were together. That didn’t fit the scenario. David liked participation.” It led her to believe he was murdered. She thought he indulged, and something went terribly wrong, so Anderson wanted to investigate.

A picture of Marina during an event.
Photo by John M. Heller/Getty Images

She obtained autopsy reports and death scene photos, interviewing coroners in Bangkok and America. Anderson was angry because certain things in the reports didn’t make sense to her. She said it was impossible to have marks around your neck by just doing autoerotic or sexual asphyxiation.

Was He Targeted for Money?

In Anderson’s memoir, she wrote that someone may have choked him for money. He always carried around wads of cash and wore expensive watches, so he could have attracted unwanted elements. Given what Carradine was into, Bangkok would have been a sex heaven for him.

A dated photo of Anderson and Carradine with their pet.
Photo by Ken Faught/Toronto Star/Getty Images

She doesn’t believe Carradine was by himself when he died. Anderson thought that someone was in his room unsolicited, or he got bored and paid someone to come to his room. Carradine’s attorney blamed his death on a mysterious sect of kung fu assassins.

Ignored Evidence

While his family believes Carradine accidentally choked himself to death in a sex act and Anderson thinks he was murdered, there was a key piece of evidence no one discussed. When Carradine was found, red women’s lingerie was on his bed.

A headshot of Carradine while posing for the press.
Photo by Bruno Vincent/Getty Images

Whoever had been wearing the lingerie was probably in his room when he died. Could they have realized he was dead and left him in fear that they would be arrested for murder? It seems that no one considered finding who the lingerie belonged to.

It Doesn’t Add Up

Thai authorities ruled Carradine’s death a sex play accident, but the evidence doesn’t point to that. How would Carradine have been able to tie himself up even though his hands were also tied together? It didn’t look like a solo act like Anderson said.

A photo of Carradine during an event.
Photo by Arun Nevader/FilmMagic/Getty Images

Robert Dunlap, who interviews hundreds of people who practice deviant sex behaviors for his 2002 documentary, said, “In order to have an orgasm, his hands would have had to be free. There is something very peculiar about this.” There is no way he could have done it himself.

Wrongful Death

A year after Carradine’s death, Carradine’s widow filed a lawsuit against the production company handling the film. Bierman alleged breach of contract and wrongful death. She thought his death could have been avoided if Carradine had provided “sufficient assistance” and “all the best amenities.”

A dated photo of Bierman and Carradine at a film premiere event.
Photo by Tom O’Donnell/WireImage/Getty Images

The lawsuit claimed that the production company failed to follow industry standards during the course of filming. Bierman thought Carradine’s death resulted from negligence, especially because he was supposed to be with an assistant and the director the evening he died.

He Was Supposed to Meet the Director

The evening before he was found dead, Carradine was supposed to have dinner with the film’s director. However, the assistant responsible for his schedule and transportation to the set and meetings left him behind in the hotel after failing to reach him.

A picture of Carradine with his wife Annie and their son Max.
Photo by Mark Mainz/Getty Images

When Carradine called the assistant an hour later, he was told, “they were already across town, and he would have to make his own arrangements that evening.” Carradine had only been in the city for three days and didn’t know where he was supposed to go or do.

Secrets Revealed

Even though it had been eight years since their divorce, Anderson said her book was a tribute to Carradine and the love she still felt for him. While it was supposed to honor his memory, she revealed some personal secrets that showed the actor’s “dark side.”

A photo of the book cover.
Photo by John M. Heller/Getty Images

Anderson said, “I felt I had a responsibility to his fans, family, and our relationship to see that my book was a balanced and truthful recount of our life together.” Despite Anderson’s claim that her memoir was a love story, she wanted people to know the “real” Carradine.

Claims of Incest

In her book, Anderson claimed that their four-year marriage was derailed by incest. She didn’t identify the family member or their gender. Still, Anderson said Carradine had a relationship with a younger relative that spanned his marriage to her and his previous wife.

A photo of Gail Jensen and Carradine attending an event.
Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection/Getty Images

When Anderson found out about the incest, she said it ruined their relationship. She thinks it was why his marriage to Gail Jensen also fell apart. Anderson said, “David did to her what he did to me. Obviously, it was a major problem in the relationship.”

He Needed Help

Anderson writes that she begged Carradine to seek professional counseling for the incestuous relationship. She had caught him in a compromising situation with the younger relative in their home, but he refused to seek help. It caused a lot of issues for Anderson.

A picture of Carradine in the airport.
Photo by Eric Isaacs/FilmMagic/Getty Images

She revealed that her uncle had abused her as a child and seeing Carradine have a relationship with a young relative brought back those traumatic memories. Anderson chronicled her past ordeals in her book with the help of Celebrity Rehab psychiatrist, Dr. Drew Pinsky.

Was He an Addict?

Dr. Drew suggested that Carradine was addicted to opiates, which enabled him to sustain pain. Anderson explained, “Not to say he was an addict, but we had a lot of painkillers around. I had a feeling he was taking some opiates along the way with the erotic asphyxiation.”

A picture of Carradine attending an event.
Photo by Christian Alminana/FilmMagic/Getty Images

Could Carradine have been taking the opiates to escalate his kinky sexual activity to the next level? Maybe he was on painkillers the night of his death, and he didn’t realize the choking was going too far because he didn’t feel any pain.

She Kept Him Sober

Anderson is credited for resurrecting Carradine’s career. The two met in the 1970s but didn’t fall in love until they worked together on the set of Kung Fu The Legend Continues. When they were together, she kept him sober for six years.

A picture of Quentin Tarantino and Carradine.
Photo by Christian Alminana/FilmMagic/Getty Images

She acted as his publicist and manager, introducing Carradine to Quentin Tarantino, who cast him in his 2003 film, Kill Bill. Anderson wanted to turn his life around and show the world his true potential. However, he was a rebel who believed you should color outside the lines.

Full of Contradictions

After his death, many people remembered Carradine for his work in Hollywood. But some thought about how he was full of contradictions. Those who knew Carradine said he was athletic but constantly drank and smoked. He loved his fifth wife but was hung up on his ex.

A picture of Quentin Tarantino, Sofia Coppola, Annie Bierman, and David Carradine during Kill Bill: Vol 2 Premiere.
Photo by Lalo Yasky/WireImage/Getty Images

Carradine would pretend to be broke even though he was raking in a considerable amount of money. Maybe he wanted to downplay his life as a way of being humble, but it didn’t make sense to many who were close to him.

He Had Many Fetishes

According to Carradine’s third wife, Gail Jensen, Carradine tied himself up many times during their marriage. She said he had a fetish for Speedos and experimented with nearly drowning himself in the pool. Jensen also recalled a time when he hung himself up mimicking Jesus.

A photo of Carradine and Jensen during an event.
Photo by Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection/Getty Images

Jensen said Carradine was a strange man. She remembered walking in on him many times when he was tied up. She would walk in, see him, and say, “Oh, my God, David, you have got to be kidding me.” Then she would turn around and walk out, leaving him to his own devices.

He Suffered From Depression

Forensic psychiatrist Stephen Hucker said autoerotic asphyxia is sometimes associated with mood disorders, and in 60 percent of the cases, patients have made previous attempts to take their lives. Though everyone said he was a happy guy when working, he suffered from bouts of depression.

A dated image of Carradine during a film festival.
Photo by Gianni Ferrari/Cover/Getty Images

Carradine reportedly wrote about suicide before, but his family noted that he was happy at the time of his death. Because autoerotic asphyxiation is heavily stigmatized, it wasn’t surprising that people believed he took his life. But no one knows the truth.

His Death Remains a Mystery

While there were many questions surrounding his death, many have accepted that Carradine died due to “accidental asphyxiation.” Experts wondered how he could have gotten himself into the position he was found in by himself, but they couldn’t connect anyone to the crime.

A photo of Carradine posing for the press.
Photo by L. Cohen/WireImage/Getty Images

The Carradine family hired a forensics expert to figure out the true cause of his death, but they never shared the findings with the public. Maybe someday we will have a satisfying answer, but Carradine’s death remains a mystery to most people. He took that secret to his grave.