Last surviving member of original Kung Fu has one complaint about the CW reboot
The last surviving member of the original Kung Fu series that starred David Carradine as a wandering, mixed-race monk trained in the martial arts said he takes issue with the CW's update and how it uses the same title — especially when the two shows couldn't be more different.
Radames Pera, who played young Caine, or Grasshopper, in the original show that aired from 1972 to 1975, said Kwai Chang Caine (Carradine) used his training from a Shaolin Monastery only when necessary as he searched for his half-brother in the American old west. In the modern-day reimagining by Christina M. Kim (Blindspot), the young, monastery-trained Nicky Shen (Olivia Liang) battles criminals in her Bay Area community — and serves as a fearless vigilante — with the help of her tech-savvy sister, Althea (Shannon Dang), Althea's fiancé, Dennis (Tony Chung) and her pre-med brother, Ryan (Jon Prasida). There's also a "hint of the supernatural," Kim tells EW about the introduction of a magic sword.
The new version has been lauded for being the first network drama with a predominantly Asian American cast — a stark contrast to the original, which featured two white men (Carradine and Pera) playing an old and young version of Caine, the orphaned son of a white American man and a Chinese woman. The series from Ed Spielman was an extremely popular western on ABC and would have continued had Carradine not quit due to injuries.
"I want to be positive and not be critical of [the new version], except for the fact they're taking very big licenses with the original show," says Pera, who admits he's only read the pilot script of the show that premiered April 7. (He lives in France and can't access CW shows). "David Carradine once said that Kung Fu was an anti-revenge series. The character walked through life trying to make as few ripples as possible because of his mixed race status. But he'd immediately be the focus of people's negative attention and bigotry, so he would have to deal with these jerks coming at him," Pera explains to EW. "Despite that, he always tried to do the least amount of harm," he adds.
"There's a beautiful ... and I'm not going to recall it word for word ... but Master Po says to young Caine to honor all life. The first rule of Kung Fu is to run away. If you have to confront, check rather than hurt, hurt rather than maim, maim rather than kill. That was a very interesting thing to watch, a trained person make those kinds of decisions rather than use lethal force at all times, which is kind of what you're seeing in this new show."
In an email to EW, Kim said she was a "big fan of the original series" and was particularly eager to honor "the most unique and beautiful qualities of the original show (and) its mix of spirituality, Buddhism, and Kung Fu." Her young heroine Nicky, like what happened to Caine, experienced a "life-altering experience at a monastery in China where she studied Buddhism, Kung Fu, and got in touch with her inner spiritual self."
"Throughout the course of the series, our heroine, Nicky, will draw from this inner strength and the teachings of her shifu to fight for justice and to heal her personal relationships," explains Kim. "In creating a Kung Fu for a new audience and a new generation, and creating the first network drama with a predominantly Asian cast, it was important for me and my co-showrunner Robert Berens, to craft a serialized story with a range of narrative elements— action, adventure, soap, romance, and family drama. In addition to elements of spirituality and mysticism, we decided to incorporate a hint or two of the supernatural which is evidenced in the ancient sword. In the fullness of our season one story, it becomes very clear that Nicky's journey is not about obtaining power from an object, but about finding that strength within... as well as without, in the form of the people who love and support her."
Pera recognizes the legacy of the original Kung Fu is tarnished by the fact that he and Carradine were cast as mixed-race characters. Carradine, who died in 2009 at the age of 72, was born in Los Angeles while Pera, now 60, grew up in New York City. Both are white.
"They did the best they could at the time," recalls Pera, who was 11 when he first started on the series that was shot in Los Angeles. "They were taking heat from the Asian community from the onset. So they actually made a deal with some of the representatives from Asian American community to hire everybody in town, whether they were Korean, Japanese, Chinese, or Filipino who had a SAG card. They also gave cards to those who didn't have one by giving them their first job in a union production. Literally every Asian actor in town worked on that show."
After Kung Fu, Pera went on to appear on Little House on the Prairie and in the movie Red Dawn. He hopes to honor Kung Fu's 50th anniversary next year with an event in Los Angeles. In case anyone wants to binge the original, says Pera, it's available on DVD.
"David did a really beautiful job in portraying the character, and the stories hold up," says Pera. "The pacing is pre-MTV so yes, it might not appeal to current sensibilities and young people. But if you just give yourself to it, like 2001: A Space Odyssey, it may feel very long and ponderous but it's certainly worth the time."
The new Kung Fu airs Wednesdays at 8 p.m. ET on CW.
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