When Carradine was humbled

Remembering the actor's disastrous foray into directing

Related: David Carradine found dead

It was doubly sad for me to learn of the death of actor David Carradine in an apparent suicide Thursday in Bangkok, as I was a witness to one of the more crushing failures in his artistic life.

In 1981, when he came to the Directors' Fortnight at Cannes with his handmade film "Americana," Carradine was at the top of his game. He was the star of a smash TV series in "Kung Fu" and such fine films as "Bound for Glory" and "The Long Riders."

But Carradine wanted to be a filmmaker. Tenaciously, he put together a clutch of film projects for himself to direct and planned to use his acting pay to finance his films, just as John Cassavetes was doing.

He hoped to launch this career with "Americana." The film was a poetic fable about an ex-Green Beret, played by Carradine, who drifts into a small Midwestern town in 1973 and impulsively decides to repair a broken-down merry-go-round. An allegory about the joy of work, the loneliness of an artist and small-town prejudices, "Americana" is a snapshot in time: Here we see a country, still caught up in the Vietnam War, struggling to restore a sense of decency to its collective soul.

"Americana" won an award in Cannes, but Carradine needed American audiences to see the film. When he told me about the project at a dinner party, I asked to see the film. Most impressed, I immediately got an assignment from The New York Times to do a profile on Carradine the filmmaker.

For all his reputation for wild times and hard living, I found him to be sincere and earnest about this fledgling career. This, remember, was long before lightweight cameras and digital cinema made it easy for just about anyone to make a movie.

"You don't have to be a millionaire to make a movie, but everyone always feels there are limitations," he told me. "I wanted to see if it were true. I found that shooting in sequence and working with a small crew were all simplifying factors."

After developing a script with writer Richard Carr, he took a break from "Kung Fu's" shooting schedule in 1973 and headed for Kansas with 26 people, very little cash, Panavision equipment, a Chapman crane and film stock. He shot for 18 days, at one point borrowing money from a friend.

He edited the film as his schedule permitted. When he went to Munich in 1977 to act in Ingmar Bergman's "The Serpent's Egg," he recruited two of Bergman's editors to help. The great Swedish director even offered his own advice.

Crown International, a Los Angeles-based company known for teen exploitation films, picked up the film in 1983 and set a New York opening. My Times piece was pegged to the opening. Then came the reviews.

"It wasn't just that the critics didn't like the picture, they were angry at me for making it," Carradine said. "I'll never figure that out."

A publicist with him in New York later told me that after reading the reviews, Carradine retreated to a hotel bathroom to throw up.

Needless to say, The Times spiked my profile, and Crown lost interest in the film. Laemmle Theatres in Los Angeles booked the film in 1985. But by then the damage was done.

"You know, I could just hang out by the pool and accept roles," he mused to me back then. "This going out and drumming up more acting business not only to support me but to support a whole moviemaking entity drives me crazy. Filmmaking is not the No. 1 aspect of my career, in a sense. But if I'm doing anything important or anything that is going to last, this may be the stuff."

In that, sadly, he was wrong.
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