Synopsis of TV Show
“Snatch the pebble from my hand, grasshopper.”
Kung Fu was an ‘Eastern western,’ an unlikely but effective blend of the Western genre and Eastern mysticism. However, it didn’t rely on its genre-bending to pull in viewers: it had style to burn and a surprising amount to say within its action-show context.
David Carradine starred as Kwai Chang Caine, a former Shaolin monk forced to abandon China after killing a member of the Royal Family to avenge the murder of one of his teachers. He escaped to America, where he wandered through the Old West as he searched for his long-lost brother. Along the way, he met people in need and would help them before moving on to the next town. At the same time, he had to be on a constant lookout for the bounty hunters and Chinese Imperial agents who wanted to return him to China.
This all sounds like the setup for a non-stop barrage of action, but Kung Fu was nothing of sort. Unlike most other adventure series, it had a surprisingly gentle and thoughtful tone to it. Caine only used his martial arts prowess when he had no choice, and otherwise tried to conduct himself in a peaceful fashion. The sequences depicting his kung fu were often shot in slow-motion and thus brought a graceful beauty to what would otherwise have been a brutal scene.
Despite the title of the show, the focus of Kung Fu was on Caine’s interaction with those around him. Racism was a recurrent theme, as the half-Chinese Caine often found himself up against oppression from the primarily white people that he met. Caine usually sided with and came to the rescue of outsiders, since he himself was an outsider twice over, both as a Chinese man in America and as a fugitive from the law. Memorable episodes included “The Spirit Helper,” in which Caine trained a young Native American boy so he could rescue his mother from the outlaws who kidnapped her, and “Chains,” in which Caine taught a rage-driven man how to control his anger.
When dealing with the problem of the episode, Caine would flash back to his childhood training in the Shaolin temple. These flashbacks were a major attraction of the show. In them, the young Caine would perform various physical tasks under the tutelage of Master Po (who affectionately referred to the young Caine as ‘Grasshopper’). Each of these tasks brought the young boy to the understanding of some philosophic point, and the adult Caine would use this lesson to solve the problem facing him in the present.
Despite being well-remembered by television fans, Kung Fu was never a big success. In fact, it never broke the top twenty in the Nielsen Ratings during its network run. However, it maintained a faithful audience that kept the show going for three seasons and remained popular enough to spawn a sequel series in the 90’s, Kung Fu: The Legend Continues. Since its cancellation in June of 1975, Kung Fu has popped up frequently in syndication and continues to attract new fans with its never-duplicated blend of adventure and mysticism. It is truly the thinking man’s adventure show.
Release History of Prime Time Show10/1/72 - 6/28/75 ABC
TV Sub Categoriesdrama
Television StudioWarner Bros. TV
TV CastKwai Chang Caine David Carradine
Master Kan (1972-75) Philip Ahn
Zeke Caine (1975) John Blyth Barrymore
Master Po (1972-75) Keye Luke
Vincent Corbino (1975) Leslie Nielsen
Caine (as a youth) Radames Pera