I’m continually amazed at the widespread influence the series Kung Fu has had on the world. Ed Spielman, a kung fu student in New York City, sold his script to Fred Weintraub, whom he met at a restaurant that Fred had won in a poker game. Back in Hollywood, Fred couldn’t figure out what to do with the script, so he let it gather dust on the shelf for six years, when Jerry Thorpe, a producer of TV movies and series (The Untouchables was one of his) while rummaging through the archives for a good script, found it in Jerry’s library and bought it for Warner Brothers TV.
When the show proved so popular, Fred said to himself, “Was I dumb, or what?” He traveled to Hong Kong, where Bruce Lee had migrated in a fit of pique over being passed over for the series, and hired him for Enter the Dragon, in which Bruce had a big fight with Chuck Norris, convincing Chuck that he should try his hand at an acting career, and motivating him to market a line of martial arts equipment, for the first time making gees, swords, numchucks,, etc., readily available in the U.S.
Meanwhile, while the world was watching this story of East-meets-West, Richard Nixon was establishing détente with red China. (The second showing of the pilot movie was pre-empted to show Dick shaking hands with Mao, to welcome China into the UN ) Chinese philosophy and “barefoot” medicine were sweeping America, inspired no doubt by Quai Chang Caine’s Taoist tidbits and his little bag of herbs, with which he routinely healed people in his travels, and kung fu schools were springing up on every street corner. Curtis Wong came on the show in the first season as a fighter, and got the idea of launching a magazine called Inside Kung Fu.
At first, the show was banned in England, for its “violence”; in Mexico, because of its “revolutionary content”. In Israel and other places for various reasons, Eventually all those markets joined in. In Mexico, a few years back, they elected a new president who loved the show and ordered it put on TV. Israel fell in line just last year. Meanwhile, in the U.S., it was admired for its peaceful message, and was required watching by some school teachers, with reports due. Girls wouldn’t accept dates on the night the show was on.
By 1985, the news had penetrated all the way to Hunan province in China. I received a personal invitation from the abbot of the Shaolin Monastery to visit with him. It took me thirteen years to respond, when, by then, the old abbot had left us. The new one, however, told me to keep up the work, and even went so far as to tell me, after viewing some of the pilot movie, that he thought it would be a good idea to admit a Caucasian into the monastery. “Just once”, he said. A full circle.
An interesting sidelight to all this is the influence the show had on Chinese cinema. Bey Logan, an old friend of mine, whom I met at The Cannes film Festival over a quarter of a century ago, when he was introducing his new star Jackie Chan, recently told me about this one. He actually asked me to tell about it in the column; so here goes.
There was a Chinese film made in 1975 entitled ‘The Monk’, which was evidently inspired by the Kung Fu series. The show played on TV there, the main character’s name being ‘Cho Man Jai’, (“Grasshopper Boy”! ) The title character of the renegade Shaolin was played by an actor named Yam Sai-kwoon (whose Mandarin name, in case you want to know, is Yen Shi-kwan). He would later play the villains in Once Upon a Time in China and Iron Monkey. I’m trying to track down a decent copy of the whole film. However, you can see a clip on a DVD entitled The Story of The Drunken Master (bear with me here…) which I’m told was released in the US under the Wu Tang Clan label. The bonus features on the disc include a clip from The Monk, and the influence of the original Kung Fu TV series is pretty clear, even in this short excerpt.
The show also provided the premise for a Spaghetti Western entitled The Fighting Fists of Shanghai Joe!
All this, because, back in 1971, Western movies were out for the moment, and the bean counters at Warner Brothers Studios were looking for some way to make use of their Western Street sets on the backlot in Burbank. A big bonus being that they could also use the Camelot Castle, which had been going slowly to seed for several years, all overgrown and crumbling. We stripped off the gargoyles and angels, and brought in some giant Chi Chi Dogs and statues of Buddha, and turned it into the Shaolin Temple.
Yes, the Tao works in mysterious ways.
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