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“Kung Fu” – The ABCs of Asian Representation in Hollywood

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, American television networks began a gradual modification to their primetime shows to reflect a more diverse perspective. Though Desi Arnaz rocketed to stardom as the Latin lead of I Love Lucy back in 1951, the networks were slow to embrace diversity outside of cultural typecasting.

First out of the gate in their effort to diversify was a comedy series entitled Julia, which starred Diahann Carroll (she won the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a TV series), who became the first African-American lead actor in a series that wasn’t cast in a stereotypical role. Slowly and methodically, networks followed suit with such shows as The Jeffersons, Good Times and Chico and the Man, which prominently featured non-white actors in lead roles. But in all of the groundbreaking casting, the Asian community was noticeably left outside looking in.

ABC saw a potential window to change that through a feature film by Ed Spielman and Howard Friedlander that was brought to their attention. Sized down, the concept was formulated to become one of the network’s ‘Movie of the Week’ episodes and was broadcast on February 22, 1972, ironically right after the meeting between then-President Nixon and Chairman Mao of China. The show, entitled Kung Fu, was now overseen by Jerry Thorpe and Herman Miller and followed the adventures of Kwai Chang Caine (David Carradine), a Shaolin monk who traveled through the 1870s American Old West. The orphaned son of an American father and Chinese mother, armed with only spiritual training and martial arts, his journey was to seek out his half-brother Danny Caine. But his sense of justice and social responsibility forced him to help defend the underdog.


The movie received very positive reviews, and letters asking for further adventures inundated the network which decided to order four additional episodes. To say their faith was limited would be an understatement, as they placed the show opposite the powerhouse All in the Family on Saturday night, a ratings wasteland for other networks. To their surprise, the show continued to receive positive feedback, and the network elected to move the series to Thursday nights at 9 pm, ordering twelve additional episodes. It received a rating boost and an immediate second season renewal.

John Furia, Jr. was brought on as one of the main story editors and his responsibility was to ensure the historical accuracy of each script. One of the first public debates ensued over whether a half-Caucasian could be a student at the Shaolin Temple, which culturally did not accept foreigners. Furia responded that a show of this nature would, of course, take dramatic license. But the biggest pushback came in regard to casting.

“I can honestly say that we haven’t found anyone, before or since the series began, who can play the part better,” Furia was quoted about the casting of Carradine over an Asian actor. He did promote the fact that that show was proactive in the hiring of Asian actors for the secondary roles, which not only added authenticity but was the right thing to do and distinguished the series as one of the primary employers of Asian actors at the time.

In May 1973, the show reached the pinnacle of popularity when it reached No. 1 in the ratings. Ironically, at this same time, Bruce Lee topped the box office charts with his film Fists of Fury. His explosion of fame had many wondering why Lee wasn’t given the opportunity to play Caine and myriads of reasons have been debated over the years.

In an interview back in 1971, Lee himself addressed this, stating that he had developed a concept for a television series called The Warrior meant to star himself, about a martial artist in the American Old West (one year before Kung Fu aired), but that he was having trouble pitching it to Warner Brothers and Paramount. But the forensic tracks of the story go back to Spielman’s 1967 treatment for the Western, and there were discussions in the next years for Lee to actually star in the film. Due to an exorbitant $18 million budget at the time and the fact the studio feared audiences would not embrace an Asian actor as the protagonist, they abandoned the idea.

But Lee would again resurface when ABC took the project for their movie of the week. Along with Mako and George Takei, Lee was being considered for the role of Caine. According to reports, the creators found that none of those actors could carry the series and so they chose to focus on the American half of Caine’s DNA in choosing their hire. Takei, along with the Association of Asian Pacific American Actors, filed a formal complaint about unfair hiring practices. While their pursuit of seeing an Asian actor hired as the lead was ignored, their demand for a Chinese historical advisor was met and incorporated. Needless to say, the Asian acting community wasn’t happy, but with so few acting opportunities afforded them at this place and time, they saw at least the opportunity for secondary roles being available.

It is noteworthy to point out that during the 63 episodes the series ran, the show featured appearances by Harrison Ford, Jodie Foster, Don Johnson, Barbara Hershey, William Shatner, Gary Busey and Pat Morita, who would later go on to star in The Karate Kid.


In the fifty-plus years since the show first aired, many have analyzed the rights and wrongs of the series, with the wrongs clearly predominating. Outside of the casting of Caine, detractors also point out the patronizing portrayal of women, Blacks and Native Americans, and just the general judgment against Asians in entertainment – not being perceived as true Americans. But there are those who acknowledge that the show brought powerful positive imagery, especially the introduction of martial arts in western iconography which showcased the foreign element of the Old West.

Fred Weintraub, who was an executive at Warner Brothers at the time they were producing Kung Fu, and later produced the 1973 film Enter the Dragon starring Lee, looked back on the historical perspective of the show in his memoir.

“The powers that be had a hundred different reasons why Bruce was wrong for the part: he was an unknown, he was short, his English wasn’t good enough, he lacked the necessary serenity to play the role… But at the end of the day, there was really only one reason,” he wrote. “In the history of Hollywood, there had never been an Asian hero.”

The studio dipped its toe back into the well when it reimagined Kung Fu in 2021 and switched the lead to a Chinese American woman, Nicky Shen (Olivia Liang), who returns from a life-changing journey to an isolated monastery in China to use her skills to protect her community from criminals. While its detractors pointed out the new series altered too much of the original’s formula, there was widespread approval for its accuracy in casting, which included such talent as Kheng Hua Tan, Eddie Liu, Shannon Dang, Jon Prasida and Vanessa Kai.