"When you can take the pebble from my hand it will be time for you to leave."
First of all, who would want to leave? Why would you leave a veritable paradise of peace, tranquility, and higher intelligence just to go to such a decadent wasteland as the American west searching for a brother that you're not even sure is alive? And if he is alive, trust me, you two would have nothing in common.
Okay, okay. If you took my advice, you wouldn't have a TV show. Kung Fu was undoubtedly the most amazing cultural and artistic television breakthrough of all time. America plunged headlong into a vast arena of art, western adventure and beautifully choreographed violence that plays out more like a quiet hallucination than reality. We thought that Archie Bunker slinging racial epithets through the air like spittle was a landmark achievement. That was peanuts compared to Kung Fu. The fact that the show aired at all was a miracle. I always felt that it was the most courageous endeavor of all-time for mainstream television, and I applaud ABC broadcasting for having the huevos to actually film a pilot movie.
I was there, I saw the pilot in 1972. Chances are that if you're reading this, you were there too. When the show was finished, I sat there with my mouth agape. Immediately I called my best friend. "Did you see what I just saw?" The rest was Kung Fu history. I can just visualize ABC's switchboard nearly orgasmic with call-ins wanting to know what they watched, and when it would be on again. After they sifted through the mail stacks, they probably knew they had a hit.
This program broke every single rule
that the typical American household grew up with as far as television was concerned.
- A. It was a western whose protagonist was not an American, but in fact, Chinese. (We'll omit the fact that he's half American because the people stateside only saw him as Chinese).
- B. He didn't believe in violence. He only defended himself, but did it with such grand style that the people who needed a weekly dose of television whoop-ass could be entertained.
- C. The show was heavily painted with Chinese mysticism, Buddhist philosophy, Shao-Lin traditions and real Kung Fu techniques. Plus it co-starred a bald kid throughout
a great portion of the show--not that that's important--just highly unlikely for American television at the time.
- D. Kwai Chang Caine didn't eat meat. He wanders through most of southern and northern California, stumbles upon ranch after ranch--and usually ends up working on one--and he doesn't chow down on the national product.
- E. And finally, the coup d'grace for the average American TV viewer, he almost always manages to get the female co-star to fall in love with him.
Though he had to flee his native China, Kwai Chang Caine did commit murder in an act of rage. He killed the nephew of the Emperor of China (not that that was a bad thing considering the circumstances), but it was murder just the same. That bit of spear throwing into a human's chest seemed to get it out of his system as he never killed again in anger. He has since killed, but only in self defense. Still, these are only morsels of conscience, value, or virtue, for at the time, I could have cared less about the right or wrongs of what Kwai Chang Caine did or did not do. I tuned in for that beautiful Kung Fu choreography, the slow motion throws and spinning kicks, the demonstrated artistic techniques in editing, the beautiful instrumentation of the background music, and last but not least, the splendid use of A/B roll techniques of running two images simultaneously. This was highly awkward and unusual television, and I was so proud that a show like this was on prime time.
It seemed to me like everybody involved in this show took it to heart, and wanted the very best production possible in the few days allotted to turn out an hour-long episode. It was high art, never preachy and always fascinating. The lessons learned from this show were rooted in logic. This means there was no high moral ground where a valuable life lesson is learned. The lessons were always taught.
Some of the finest Chinese and other Asian actors finally found plenty of work with this program, and that was a good thing, for they all had so much to offer. There wasn't one slack-actor on the Asian front in the history of the program. The glowing-eyed Master Po and the benevolent and calming Master Khan were real treats. I always loved Master Khan and wished he'd had more character development. It was the blind Master Po that stole the hearts of Kung Fu's loyal viewers.
Tragically, this program does have a bit of evil history: There are Bruce Lee's claims that he was the actual creator of the idea for a series called "The Warrior". Even though his fighting techniques would have elevated the show to beyond super-status, I always felt that he would have been horribly wrong for the part. His Kung Fu would be powerful, and screaming, and he'd have that crazed anger-vengeance look that he always got in his films, and I think he would have had a reverse effect. The calming insight of Shao-Lin was wonderfully represented with the cast that stood.
In her memoirs, Bruce Lee's widow, Linda Lee Cadwell, asserts that Lee actually created the concept for the series, which was then stolen by Warner Bros. In a December 8, 1971 television interview on The Pierre Berton Show, Bruce Lee himself makes reference to both Warner Brothers and Paramount wanting him to do a TV series.
After Pierre Berton comments, "there's a pretty good chance that you'll get a TV series in the States called "The Warrior", in it, where you use what, the Martial Arts in Western setting?" Lee responds, "that was the original idea, ...both of them (Warner and Paramount), I think, they want me to be in a modernized type of a thing, and they think that "The Western" type of thing is out. Whereas I want to do the Western. Because, you see, how else can you justify all of the punching and kicking and violence, except in the period of the west?" Later in the interview, Berton asks Lee about "the problems that you face as a Chinese hero in an American series.
Have people come up in the industry and said 'well, we don't know how the audience are going to take a non-American'"?. Lee responds "Well, such question has been raised, in fact, it is being discussed. That is why "The Warrior" is probably not going to be on." Lee adds, "They think that business wise it is a risk. I don't blame them. If the situation were reversed, and an American star were to come to Hong Kong, and I was the man with the money, I would have my own concerns as to whether the acceptance would be there." What Lee called "The Warrior" and "Kung Fu" shared the idea of a lead character in a TV series who performs Martial Arts in a Western setting. Based on Lee's comments to Berton, he was talking to both Warner Brothers and Paramount about "The Warrior" as late as December 1971.