David Carradine was born John Arthur Carradine, eldest son of John Carradine, the beloved and very busy character actor, whose roles encompassed everything from John Steinbeck's Reverend Casey to Bram Stoker's Dracula. David Carradine's early adult life was one of exploration -- though born in Hollywood, he tried on a lot of sides of living before he finally turned to acting as a profession. He worked with various community and semi-professional dramatic companies in San Francisco; hitchhiked his way to New York; did Shakespeare in Akron, OH, and parts of New Jersey; and all of the other things that aspiring would-be actors are supposed to do. He got a few early screen credits in television productions such as Armstrong Circle Theater ("Secret Document"), and in various series produced by Universal Pictures' ReVue television division, including episodes of The Virginian, Wagon Train, and Arrest & Trial, plus The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. He also made his big-screen debut thanks to Universal with a small role in the R.G. Springsteen-directed western Taggart (1964). His real professional breakthrough came a year later on the Broadway stage, however, in Peter Shaffer's The Royal Hunt of the Sun, in a cast headed by Christopher Plummer. He enjoyed an extended run in the Broadway production, which was accompanied by the first round of publicity for Carradine, even then focusing on his unpredictable, iconoclastic nature. He was lured back to Hollywood by the chance to star in the series Shane, based on the George Stevens movie and the Jack Schaefer novel. He was able to put his own stamp on the role, quite different from the portrayal that Alan Ladd had delivered in the film; but the viewing public had been swamped by westerns for a decade, and the series never had a chance to find an audience, lasting only 16 episodes. From 1967 until 1972, he was occasionally seen in one-off roles in dramatic series such as Coronet Blue and The Name of the Game, and was in a remake of Johnny Belinda with Mia Farrow and Ian Bannen, but was most often seen in westerns, including The Violent Ones (1967) and The McMasters (1969) (playing a Native American in the latter).
In 1972 he was approached about the possibility of starring in a proposed series that was easily the most offbeat western ever considered by a network up to that time: Kung Fu. The public had long since lost interest in traditional westerns, but here was a story that combined a quest with a tale of pursuit and necessarily included philosophical conflict never before addressed in series television. The role appealed to Carradine, and he got the part of Kwai Chang Caine, the Chinese-American hero, despite knowing nothing of martial arts. Drawing on his ability as a dancer at his meeting with the producers, he was able to prove with one well-placed kick at a point above his head that he could pull it off. The series ran for three seasons, during which time Carradine put an increasing amount of himself into the portrayal. And the public responded, especially viewers under 40, who resonated to the character and the man behind it. Kung Fu became one of those odd cult shows, the fans of which were devoted beyond the usual casual weekly viewing. Carradine saw to it, however, even during the run of the series, that he kept busy on other projects, including the Martin Scorsese-directed Boxcar Bertha (1972), starring his paramour Barbara Hershey, and small roles in the Robert Altman revisionist detective film The Long Goodbye (1973) and Scorsese's Mean Streets (1973).