The Martial Arts and Wisdom of the Classic TV Series ‘Kung Fu’ Is Headed to the Big Screen

shot from the 1972-75 TV series
Courtesy Everett Collection
David Carradine played Caine in the original 1972-75 Kung Fu series.

Who isn’t familiar with the phrase, “Take the pebble from my hand,” from TV’s original Eastern Western, Kung Fu, starring David Carradine (who died tragically in 2009)?

Carradine’s Kwai Chang Caine, aka “Grasshopper,” has sprung eternal. Martial arts legend Donnie Yen will star in a new feature film adaptation as Caine, the fugitive Shaolin monk from the Far East who roams the Old West.

David Leitch will serve as the movie’s producer alongside Kelly McCormick via their Universal Pictures-based 87North Productions in tandem with Guy Danella; and Stephen L’Heureux of Solipsist Films. Leitch will also serve as director for the film, which has a script from Stephen Chin. Serving as the movie’s executive producer is Ed Spielman, who, with Howard Friedlander, created the original Kung Fu TV series.

celebrity image of martial arts star/actor Donnie Yen outside of the March 2023 premiere for "John Wick: Chapter 4." Yen is wearing a white shirt underneath an aqua-colored jacket, with his hands in the pockets of his dark-colored pants as he poses for a shot on the red carpet.

Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic/Getty Images

Martial artist/actor Donnie Yen, pictured at a 2023 movie premiere, will play Caine in the feature film based on Kung Fu


When it premiered as a 90-minute TV movie in 1972, Kung Fu was defined by industry professionals and television fans alike as a Fugitive/Shane fusion, with a compound of corporal, cerebral and ethereal creeds imported from the Orient. Ancient Shaolin wisdom would come in handy whenever Carradine’s Caine was confronted with the ignorance and deception of Western America in the 1870s. In the show’s trademark flashback sequences, with Keye Luke as Master Po, Philip Ahn as Master Kan, and Keith Carradine and Radames Pera sharing the role of a young Grasshopper, Caine’s past would depict guidance for the reality of his present.

The show’s writers gathered information from Confucius, Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching, Zen Buddhism, and the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, all of which share a similar theme: Gentleness, peace and compassion are of the utmost importance if one is to have a spiritually-sound and happy existence.

Originally envisioned as a feature film for theatrical release, Spielman and Friedlander’s Kung Fu screenplay had rested on the shelf at Warner Bros. until 1971. That’s when studio executive Harvey Frand dusted off the script and commissioned it to be transformed into a TV movie for ABC.

At the time, ABC was enjoying enormous success with its weekly 90-minute Movie of the Week series that showcased original productions (harkening back to CBS’ earlier Playhouse 90 TV era).

Once Warner Bros. and Frand hired Spielman and Friedlander to convert the Kung Fu screenplay into a teleplay, the Kung Fu TV movie was given the green light. Ultimately, the TV movie served as a backdoor pilot for a TV series, which Kung Fu became, first with monthly and then weekly episodes.

Eleven years after the series ended, CBS aired the 1986 TV film and backdoor pilot Kung Fu: The Movie, with David Carradine and Keye Luke reprising their roles opposite Caine’s son, as played by Brandon Lee (son of martial arts legend Bruce Lee — who, contrary to popular belief, did not create Kung Fu).

In 1987, another new pilot movie failed to catch on. This time, Kung Fu: The Next Generation featured David Darlow opposite Brandon Lee.

From 1993 to 1997, Kung Fu: The Legend Continues, with Carradine back as Caine in a modern world, opposite Chris Potter as his police partner, was a hit in syndication.

The CW recently rebooted Kung Fu with a contemporary female lead in the guise of Olivia Liang.

Now, the original Old Western concept of Kung Fu will finally make it to the big screen where it was originally envisioned all along.

[Herbie J Pilato is a writer/producer and author of several media tie-in books including The Kung Fu Book of Caine and The Kung Fu Book of Wisdom.]