Memories of David Carradine
by Bill Nelson.
Upon hearing the shocking and tragic news about David Carradine’s death hanging in a Bangkok hotel closet, triggered my memory to recall a brief but unforgettable encounter a few years ago that my buddy and I had with this legendary movie and television star with almost cult like status.
At the time I was collaborating on a book called Hollywood’s Hellfire Club, about a hard nosed drinking circle of famous actor’s, artist’s and writers that met at the home of a local artist on Bundy Drive up in the hills of West Los Angeles way back in the thirties and forties. They were known as the Bundy Drive Boys because of their outrageous & reckless behavior at this house and elsewhere on and off screen. Such luminaries of this group were John Barrymore, Errol Flynn, W. C. Fields, Gene Fowler, Ben Hecht and David’s father John Carradine.
Around this time, I happened to see an ad in the local weekly entertainment rag that David Carradine was giving a talk and book signing at the famous Book Soup on Sunset Boulevard. The book he was promoting was The Kill Bill Diaries, in which he recounts his time playing the lead part as Bill the ruthless assassin in Quentin Tarantino’s two hit films.
In the seventies David Carradine was on the top of his game, with the lead part in the popular “Kung Fu” television show and staring in such interesting films as “Death Race 2000”, “Bound for Glory” & “The Long Riders”. However by the mid eighties David’s career was in a slump. Until Tarantino gave him his second big break almost a decade later, he had filed quietly into the ranks of the has-been stars of the past. The work he did get was cameo roles on various TV shows, bit parts in forgettable pictures, as well as occasional appearance’s signing autographs at various movie conventions.
At the book signing, my friend Mike and I arrived early to get good seats. Mike was there to meet an actor he admired, and I was there to hopefully try and get a few of David’s thoughts on his father and any memories or stories about the infamous drinking circle for my book. Prior to that, I tried many times to contact him, but with no luck, so this was my last opportunity to talk with David before my book was published. It seemed like an eternity waiting. It was quarter till eight, and David had still had not shown up for his talk that was scheduled for 7pm. Mike got up and started to browse the store. A few moments later, he returned to his seat with two plastic cups full of Jack Daniels. David’s here he said, and here’s a drink courtesy of Book Soup. He explained that they had a bottle of Jack Daniels on the back table, where David was going to be signing. David saw Mike fixing our drinks and asked if he was planning on getting drunk for the talk. Mike responded no, but a little buzz would be nice, and then offered to pour David one, which he declined stating health reasons, even though he smelled like he had just smoked a big fat joint. As we sat and sipped our whiskey, David finally made it to the front podium and read from his new book. He briefly took some questions and then ventured to the back for the signing.
As I was getting my books signed I asked him about his Father’s infamous circle of friends. He replied that he was too young to remember them, however from what he had learned, he had one word to sum up that group. And what’s that? I said. “Did you ever see the classic David Lean film “The Bridge on the River Kwai?” He asked. Yes, I answered in fast anticipation. “Well do you remember the last word uttered in the film?” to which I responded that I couldn’t remember. “M-A-D-N-E-S-S!” he exclaimed in a slow whisper. After that he suggested to me if I wanted to know more about his father, that I would have to read his other book Endless Highway. I mentioned that I had read it and that he had just signed a copy for me. At that point he became stone faced, shrugged and looked away. It was clear the interview was over.
Mike on the other hand seemed to have more luck. Being a struggling actor, he had many questions for the veteran movie star. Amazingly David was quite open and willing to accommodate with some very helpful ideas not just on acting but on mind-altering drugs, spirituality and fast cars. Breaking his vow of sobriety, David even laughingly suggested they do a whisky shot together. In an instant, the complimentary Jack Daniels was brought forth, and they saluted the fine art of their profession. Before we left, Mike read me the inscription that David had written in his book; “Every great author, poet or musician was high on something. (That doesn’t mean its a good idea)”…….
As we walked to the car along Sunset, I couldn’t help but think that John Carradine’s insane spirit had fully infected his son, and that David was living on borrowed time.
Rest In Peace, David, you never made it over “The Bridge on the River Kwai”, but you did make it over The Bridge on the River M-A-D-N-E-S-S…