Since his first major stage role in Royal Hunt of the Sun on Broadway in 1964, through his three year stint as star of the Kung Fu television series, his critically acclaimed portrayal of Woody Guthrie in Bound for Glory, his commercially successful Death Race 2000, to his part in Ingmar Bergman's movie A Serpent's Egg and the titular character of Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill: Volume 2, David Carradine remained pretty much of an enigma. As a musician, wild-man, motor racing enthusiast, and hippie, Carradine portrayed many roles throughout his acting career, which included over 100 films.
When he was 40, David Carradine had been discovered all over again – and it looked as if stardom may stick. One of veteran actor John Carradine's five sons (by two wives), David Carradine spent most of his life betting his talent against his instinct for trouble.
Like all the Carradine boys, he received a classical music training which he promptly threw away for several years of bumming around. At one point, he ended up in New York playing Laertes to his father's Hamlet. In 1965, the Peter Shaffer play Royal Hunt of the Sun made him both an actor and a star. In the years that followed, he became Hollywood's house hippie, going barefoot, dropping acid, living with Barbara Seagull née Hershey (their child is named Free because, Carradine said, "People were repressed at the time"), and pulling various wild man stunts.
In all that time, David's most prominent achievement as an actor, besides various unreleased low-budget films he financed and directed himself, was his three-year stint in the Kung Fu TV series. He still practiced kung fu each morning and the series, with its hippie, Eastern ethic, undoubtedly appealed to him personally, as well as professionally. Kung Fu ended in 1975, as did David's relationship with Barbara Seagull, and he spent time making himself into a new man.
At least, they brought him a new woman — Linda Gilbert, ex-wife of The Byrd's Roger McGuinn – and a huge flip to his acting career in the form of the starring role in Bound for Glory, Hal Ashby's film about the life of Woody Guthrie. Carradine as Guthrie was a sensation, although the film failed commercially. He went on to act in Ingmar Bergman's film, A Serpent's Egg, and Bergman recorded his admiration for Carradine's performance. Then there were other roles – in the commercially successful Death Race 2000 and in another race picture, Cannonball. In a vintage interview for Club magazine by Joan Goodman, David Carradine opens up about drug use, his leading lady, career, and how he feels about being labeled the "controversial actor."
Club: You've had an experience few American actors have experienced – working with Ingmar Bergman, What was it like working on A Serpent's Egg?
David Carradine: Oh, it was just wonderful. Bergman is a really beautiful person and Liv Ulmann is a total professional and Sven Nykwist is probably the best cameraman in the world.
But didn't you have a major disagreement with Bergman when he ordered a horse shot?
That was more than a disagreement. You can call it a schism. It was totally insane, but aside from that we had no disagreements. We were like brothers.
Do you normally feel that way with your directors?
I feel that way with a good director. I felt that way with Hal Ashby when we were making Bound For Glory. I don't normally feel that way but I haven't worked with that many good directors.
When someone like Bergman asks you to work in his picture, what does that actually mean to you?
Well, it's like approval from a high peer. Bergman is an acknowledged genius, and one of the foremost filmmakers in history, I guess, so that approval from him is a little bit over the edge, or something.
That kind of approval must give you a very sublime feeling.
No, not really. For me the point is giving a performance and it's the performance that counts. Look, Bergman was impressed by a performance he had seen in Bound For Glory and that's nice, but the important thing is the performance itself.
Is it the director who sets the tone?
Does that make you nervous?
No. Not to say I feel good or anything, but "nervous" is just not what I feel. But I'm always so eager to work, so happy to be working, I just don't have time to feel anything else.
How do you select which pictures you want to make? Serpent's Egg is political isn't it?
No, it doesn't deal with politics at all. It's entirely human. It deals with the fact that there's something awful happening in the world and any minute it's going to show itself. But I don't select films so much as films select me. It sounds like a joke but it's really true.
But after Bound For Glory and Bergman I would imagine you had your choice of films.
No, things aren't any different at all. I'm a controversial actor and a controversial personality, and it continues to be that way. It always will be that way. Look, I've been famous for years – many years – 11 or 12 years. I gave my first important performance 12 years ago in Royal Huntof the Sun, a play in New York, and virtually every part I have gotten has been on the basis of that performance. It may be that everybody knows about it now, but I'm not doing anything different than I ever have. I'm just moving along. I'm going along the same path. It's outside me, the reaction there that has nothing to do with me. It's like what we were saying before. The approval — it's irrelevant. I've been busy doing this for many years but people are saying "Oh you're really doing something now." It's not "now." Bound For Glory was wonderful for me because it was the first time that any director just let me go ahead and do it and didn't say, ''Oh, wait a minute, you better not go ahead and do that!" He just let me do it. Hal did that. He really encouraged me to let myself go. No one else had ever done that.
Did Bergman direct you in that same way?
No, but he has a certain thing, you know it's an Ingmar Bergman picture. It has to go a certain way. He leaves you free but he tells you exactly what to do.
Did that bother you?
Not with Bergman. He's a genius. I couldn't think of doing it any better. Also, once a person starts telling you, if he doesn't know what he's talking about it's ruinous to a performance. If he knows what he's talking about, and if he's like Bergman and his ideas are great, then you don't have any ideas. In other words, you get his ideas – you don't have any opportunity to evolve your own search for what the hell to do because he's already telling you what to do and you realize that's wonderful. You then become an instrument that he's playing. It's a question that you're just the instrument now, not the player. It's just as good a gig. It's not as loose; it's as free, just not as loose.
Why are you considered to be a controversial actor?
I don't know. I'm supposed to be difficult, and if you try to get me to do something I don't believe in, I am difficult.
You walked off in the middle of a television chat show. Is that the sort of thing you mean? At the time they said you objected to Zaza Gabor.
That was the Merv Griffin show, but it wasn't because of Zaza. I love Zaza. She's wonderful. I just walked off because the whole thing was so dumb. I had something I wanted to say and there was this comic who wasn't very good. When they found they had some more minutes they put him on a second time. I decided, I'm sitting here with something to say and they put on this comic, Goddamnit, I'm bombing out on the Merv Griffin show and I'll be damned if I'll do that, so I got up and left.
What about drugs. I read somewhere that you had 500 acid trips?
It's true. As a matter of fact, I've probably taken twice as many acid trips as they said in the People article. The figure they got was probably from a Rolling Stone article that I did during the Kung Fu series about 5 years ago. So if I took 500 acid trips 5 years ago, I'd say I'd probably taken twice as many now.
Why all the acid trips?
Problem-solving mainly. A lot of it was for fun, but basically for problem solving.
Did it solve the problems?
Yeah, in about the same way psychiatry solves problems.
Have you tried psychiatry?
Psychiatry doesn't interest me at all. I don't think it's truthful. Psychiatrists are like salesmen, they're so busy with the dogma, the lies of their profession, I don't think they're capable of finding the truth at all. All their diseases, like paranoid schizophrenia, are all made up, they don't exist at all except in a text book. People that they treat don't really have that. Their symptoms don't match that at all. It's something they made up and then tried to apply to people. Psychiatry is capable of affecting a change in a person but not a truthful one. They don't even speak of cures, they speak of adjustment and control – that's a big word in psychiatry – control and discipline. Psychiatry is like LSD in a way.
How do you mean?
Well, people take psychiatry in order to cure themselves of this problem they have. There was a fad in the fifties when everybody got psychoanalyzed. Once that happened, there was no need for anyone to look at psychological principles any more because it had already happened. The world was full of it. In the same way, it's unnecessary for children today to take LSD because the world is so turned on, as a result of having taken LSD all through the sixties, that if you go back and take LSD now, the effect wouldn't be anywhere near as great as in the sixties because you already know all about it. You've read about the affects, and the world has changed as a result of it. The Beatles have already changed it all for us, we don't have to go back and do it again.
And you don't take acid any more?
Well, I don't know if I don't take it anymore, it's been some time since I've had any. People give me acid once in a while and I put it someplace and it stays there until I forget where it is. I just don't feel the need for it any.
What about grass?
Well, I guess I still get trapped into smoking grass every once in a while, but I really think it's a waste of time. I feel pretty much the same about alcohol. I prefer being very alert and natural, getting up early in the morning and seeing the sparkle in the world. Also, I've changed. There's something about when you get the message, you're supposed to hang up the reCeiver.
Have you had a difficult life?
Well, my life has always been different. But it has evolved, it hasn't always been the same. I've had some very stormy and very unhappy times in my life, certainly. Just before I met Linda I was desperately unhappy. While I was doing Bound For Glory, that was one of the most unhappy times of my life. I was virtually suicidal. The only reason I was getting up in the morning was because I was doing that movie. It seemed important. I kept telling myself, "I have to finish this movie. I just have to finish this movie." That's the only thing that kept me going, and fortunately the movie lasted for six months so it carried me through a period of adjustment.
Why was that such a bad time?
Everything changed. I walked out on Barbara, then I walked out on Susan, and it seemed like I couldn't find any place to go that worked. Then I dropped the TV show and my whole life just totally altered itself. I was doing little pieces of flotsam and getting into that, "God, is this all there is" trip. It's hard to explain. I wouldn't really even want to explain it any more than that. It's enough to say I was feeling that way. Meeting Linda had a lot to do with straightening myself out, although I don't think I could have met Linda on even terms if I hadn't already gotten myself pretty straight, because Linda herself is pretty straight.
Do the things that are written about you make it difficult when you are meeting people in a private way? Like when you met Linda. So much about you seems exaggerated, or is it all true?
Well, there's always a kernel of truth, that's the whole trouble; and it does make things difficult. As a matter of fact, when I met Linda she had "heard" about me, and she "knew'' I was a certain kind of person that I'm not, and it was very difficult to gain her trust. She was sure I was some kind of crazy man. And girls' mothers... you know and generally everybody out there - thinks something like that. It is strange and difficult.
Your brother Keith said that you don't do anything much different from what anyone else does, it's just that when you do it it gets blown up into something all out of proportion and makes headlines. There is no redress from that, is there?
No, but I'm not really looking for redress.
Linda has made a big difference in your life?
Yes, a great difference. Linda and I go off and play together, and that's wonderful.
What do you enjoy doing most?
Well, mostly we enjoy getting in bed together. I mean, that's it. But aside from that, we just like to get out in the sunlight. We both love the sea so much. We love the South of France.
You were at the Cannes film festival, weren't you? What did you do there?
Yeah, Bound For Glory was shown there. But what we did in general was see a few movies, talk to a lot of people from the press, and just kind of bummed around. We went to a couple of our favorite restaurants and spent a little time on the beach and just kind of lazed around. We didn't have to answer any telephones.
Keith's film, The Duellists, was also shown at Cannes, and there was talk of rivalry between the two of you. Is this true?
No, there's no competition between us. In Cannes it was really exciting: they put out a lot of lurid prose about us being in competition with one another. I got on the phone and called him in New Orleans, where he was making Pretty Baby with Louis Malle, and we just laughed and laughed.
What about when you're both being considered for the same roles? Keith was Considered for the Bound For Glory part and Louis Malle thought of you for the Pretty Baby role.
That's no problem either. There are plenty of parts to go around, and I actually kind of like it that we are thought of that way. It's almost like we're touching each other, in a way.
Keith said that he had really wanted to do the Bound For Glory part but he was glad you had done it because no one could have done it better.
That's probably because I was really into the Guthrie character, but Keith could have done it for sure. You know, he would have done his own thing. I thought of Keith a lot when I was doing the part, and sometimes when I was looking at the rushes I would think, ''Goddamnit, that's Keith, up there..."
Were you disappointed at not being nominated for an Oscar for Bound For Glory? After all, the picture was nominated.
I was a little surprised. I didn't expect to win an Oscar, but I thought they would nominate me. Then I remembered I'm not one of the boys. You know, the Oscar is not a judged event, it's voted. It's voted by thousands of people. It's not a question of whether this performance was good but who thought it was good and how much they like that person and how much they feel he was cheated last year, A great deal of sentiment goes into it as well as personality. We've come to think of the Oscar as an official thing of some kind, but it isn't. It's supposed to be just what it is, All the members of the industry get together and have a party and say we like so and so this year. It's a kind of congratulations. It's okay with me. If I were to be given an Oscar I'd probably cherish it, and I'd be charmed and honored, but I think it's okay that I don't win one, And understandable, completely understandable. I was a little surprised, though, that I didn't get nominated. I thought that was sort of pushing it, but maybe I wasn't as good as I thought I was.
Keith won an Oscar didn't he? For "I'm Easy," one of the songs in Nashville?
Yes, he did, and I think it's wonderful. I've read I'm supposed to be envious of Keith's Oscar, but anyone who thinks that just doesn't understand the Carradines. There's no rivalry between us, and each of us is pleased with the success of the others. You know, we really like the whole thing of being the Carradine brothers.
You didn't actually know one another when you were children. Was your growing up time strange in the way Hollywood family life seems to be in the book Haywire?
My growing up time wasn't strange. On the other hand, it wasn't your regular thing. It was a broken home. There were lots of boarding schools, a little bit of reform school.
Did you need it?
Yeah, I guess so.
When did you first know you wanted to be an actor?
Acting just sort of happened to me. I didn't really aim for it. I could see that I could make a living at it, so I kept on trying to do it. Then I got this part in a play in New York called The Deputy, and while I was acting in its realized I could go a long way – maybe all the way – and that's when I became interested in it. In other words, I was already on Broadway in a successful lead before it occurred to me that I might have a crack at it and I should take it seriously,
That kind of self-discovery must be exciting.
Was your name helpful to you in getting your first parts?
I could never discover if it was helpful or not. It can't get you a part and it makes people doubtful. I had my first parts in Shakespearean plays, and I got those because I alone among all the actors around had a conversation with Shakespeare. So I would be head and shoulders above the other people trying out. I did a lot of Shakespeare in little theater before I became professional.
Are there some actors you particularly admire?
That's hard, I don't really admire anyone. I mean historically there have been some good actors, but I don't think that's the way to look at actors.
You like particular performances of particular people?
Uh-huh. I mean, you can look back on Marlon Brando's career and see the real strength of his performances, and I was enormously affected by Jimmy Dean and Laurence Olivier. Olivier was first, then Dean, and Brando was third. Then, after I became a professional and began working on my own, I thought more of Spencer Tracy and Gary Cooper than those high-falutin' guys.
It's that they were the best. The truth and the irresistible openness of those two guys' performances just really got me. Time after time to go and see them and walk away feeling wonderful. It's very difficult to walk away from a Marlon Brando performance feeling wonderful. You're impressed more. I have idolized Brando at one time or another but at this moment I'm not terribly impressed by anybody's work. It seems to me that by and large there are very few performances being given. I was impressed by Sylvester Stallone in Rocky. I was really knocked flat by it.
What films have you got coming up besides Serpent's Egg?
I just finished Moonbeam Rider. It's about a kind of rogue in about 1919 who travels around the country on a motorcycle. He gets tied up with this woman and a young boy, who ride on the back of his motorcycle. It's a complicated story.
It sounds like your kind of story. Thank you very much, David Carradine.