Before there were men like Wesley Snipes and Michael Jai White kicking unaccountable amounts of ass on the big screen, Jim Kelly was the first black martial arts action hero in cinema. On Saturday he died of cancer at his home in San Diego. He was 67 years old.
Born in Paris, Kentucky on May 5, 1946, Kelly was a star athlete in high school. He played football and basketball and participated in track and field events. Though he went to the University of Louisville to play football he left the school during his freshman year to begin studying Shorin-ryu and Okinawa-te karate. He earned his black belt in 1969. Kelly eventually rose to become a world class karate champion and would soon open his own dojo. After training actor Calvin Lockhart to fight for the 1972 film Melinda and playing the small role of a martial arts instructor in that movie Kelly decided to take a shot at Hollywood stardom.
He got his chance when actor Rockne Tarkington dropped out of the part of Williams in the action-intensive feature film Enter the Dragon, which starred kung fu legend Bruce Lee. Kelly was approached by the film’s producer Fred Weintraub and offered the role, which he happily accepted. Enter the Dragon went on to become an international smash hit and an classic of martial arts and action cinema. Though Lee was the undisputed star of the movie Kelly – with his ice cool screen presence, killer karate moves, and an Afro that could have scaled Mount Olympus – made quite an impression on audiences in an era where black action heroes were on the rise at the box office. The fact that he was given some of the movie’s most quotable dialogue helped a lot too. Gems like “Bullshit, Mr. Han-man!” and “Man, you come right out of a comic book” have deservedly entered the pop culture lexicon.
In a 2010 interview with Salon Kelly had this to say about acting in Enter the Dragon and working with Bruce Lee:
“It was one of the best experiences in my life. Bruce was just incredible, absolutely fantastic. I learned so much from working with him. I probably enjoyed working with Bruce more than anyone else I’d ever worked with in movies because we were both martial artists. And he was a great, great martial artist. It was very good.”
Kelly would continue his career as an action star by collaborating with several of his peers in the industry like Fred Williamson, Jim Brown, and Richard Roundtree on movies like Three the Hard Way, One Down, Two to Go, and the western Take a Hard Ride. He also headlined a slew of solo action flicks such as Black Belt Jones, Hot Potato, Black Samurai, The Tattoo Connection, Mr. No Legs, and Death Dimension. None of these movies achieved the same level of global popularity as Enter the Dragon, but many of them were entertaining and very profitable for their financiers.
Here’s what Jai White had to say about Kelly’s passing:
Despite his acting career foundering in the 1980s Kelly kept busy working as a professional tennis coach and becoming a beloved fixture on the convention circuit.
Jim Kelly was an icon and a hero to millions, a genuine trailblazer whose career laid the groundwork for generations of martial artists to fight in the arena and on celluloid. He changed action cinema forever, and tonight he chills with the gods in the mighty halls of Valhalla. I’ll bet Bruce was there to welcome him home.
This dialogue exchange from Enter the Dragon summed up Kelly’s screen appeal and career perfectly:
Han (Shih Kien): We are all ready to win, just as we are born knowing only life. It is defeat that you must learn to prepare for.
Williams: I don’t waste my time with it. When it comes, I won’t even notice.
Han: Oh? How so?
Williams: I’ll be too busy looking good.
I’ll end this obituary with some of Kelly’s highlights in action cinema.
Rest In Peace Jim Kelly
May 5, 1946 – June 29, 2013
[Source: The Wrap]