Enter the caveman, David Carradine: He’s been a cowboy, a kung fu artist, a folk artist. Now he takes on Austin-shot ‘Homo Erectus’
Dec. 2, 2005, Austin American-Statesman
David Carradine has long skinny legs that are stretched out like bamboo poles, naked, knobby, porpoise-smooth. They are exposed from the ankle to way up the thigh, several unsettling inches past the tan line to scary areas that make one’s eyes avert in a violent spasm. He looks supremely relaxed and casual, sunk deep in a chair with those bare legs leveled at the floor, elbow propped on an arm rest to keep the cigarette in his fingers close to his faintly duckish lips.
Carradine is dressed as a caveman. Cave-people, according to the Discovery Channel, didn’t wear much apparel. Innocent of vanity, they sported spots and dashes of clothing — loin cloths, tattered shorts, shredded bikini tops, sometimes nothing at all. And so Carradine, former star of the indelible television series “Kung Fu,” in which he sometimes wore little more than a monk robe, is sparsely draped in the rags of primitive man. His shoes are ratty moccasins, his shirt random scraps of earth-tone felt. His pants: nonexistent.
“This is only half of it,” Carradine says with a swell of pride. “I throw fur on top of it all.”
He points to a heap of fake black fur on the floor of his actor’s trailer, which rests on the magnificently dusty moonscape of a limestone quarry in North Austin. Scenes from the movie “Homo Erectus” are being shot here, one of the film’s many locations, including Hamilton Pool and Enchanted Rock, that suggests prehistoric landscapes. (A limestone quarry? How very “Flintstones.”)
“And in the movie my hair is sticking straight up like this,” says Carradine, teasing out long, wild gray-blond strands to make a static-electric blast. “Out to here.”
What are you going to do when playing a caveman but go with it? Carradine seems to be having fun with the role of Mookoo, the blustering chief of his cave tribe. His son Ishbo, who is goading his species to evolve, is played by a Woody Allenish Adam Rifkin, the film’s writer and director. Talia Shire plays Carradine’s cave-wife and Ali Larter (“Legally Blonde”) plays Rifkin’s elusive dream girl. “Homo Erectus” is the third low-budget feature produced by the University of Texas Film Institute and its for-profit arm, Burnt Orange Productions.
Carradine’s last major role was the title villain in Quentin Tarantino’s martial-arts revenge opus “Kill Bill,” the success of which hurled the actor back into public view after a disappearance that seemed to have lasted decades. Actually, it did last decades. His most recent watchable film before “Kill Bill” was the Jesse James western “The Long Riders,” co-starring his brothers Keith and Robert. That was 1980.
“Playing in ‘Kill Bill’ helped,” Carradine says. “Up until then everyone was saying ‘Grasshopper.’ Now everyone says ‘Bill.'”
Climbing into Carradine’s trailer, one is swallowed in a rich fog from his English Ovals, fancy, filterless cigarettes he lights the way some people pop peanuts. He has the grainy rasp and paper-bag flesh of a smoker and the gruff pluck of someone turning 69 on Thursday.
“He’s so fit!” says Carolyn Pfeiffer, head of Burnt Orange, on the set of “Homo Erectus.” “He’s doing lots of action scenes. Right now they’re shooting a battle. I wish I knew his secret.”
Carradine doesn’t rise or offer a hand when a visitor enters. He produces a flask from a leather satchel, takes a quick nip, puts it back. Smoke twists from his mouth and nostrils.
He took the caveman movie because he didn’t have anything else to do. Script unseen, he accepted the part, saying “Why not?” Eventually, he read Rifkin’s screenplay.
“It’s genius. It’s half-way between Monty Python and Quentin Tarantino,” Carradine says. “It’s full of philosophy while being funny.”
Gazing over Carradine’s extensive career in B bilge and drive-in titillations, it’s apparent the actor might take a lot of roles before reading the script. A magazine once dubbed him the “Most Working Actor in the Universe” because he made 19 movies in 18 months. “Actually,” Carradine says, “they missed a couple.”
Like Michael Caine if he made mostly genre and exploitation flicks, Carradine can’t say no. A dependable character actor, much like his famous father John, Carradine loves to work, and needs the money. He knows he’s made irrevocable rubbish. Many of his movies are exiled straight to cable and video.
But there have been significant movies. He was the lead in Martin Scorsese’s 1972 Hollywood debut “Boxcar Bertha,” played Woody Guthrie in Hal Ashby’s “Bound for Glory” and co-starred in Roger Corman’s cult favorite “Death Race 2000.”
“I have made 112 feature movies,” Carradine says. “Some of them were great and some were phenomenal: ‘Bound for Glory,’ ‘The Long Riders.’ What about the one I did for Ingmar Bergman (‘The Serpent’s Egg’)? What other American actor can say they starred in a Bergman film?
“I always thought I should do everything,” including keeping up his longtime roots-rock band Soul Dogs, he says. “But you do movies that are straight to video, the studios don’t want you. So I’ve always been catch as catch can. I’ve turned down stuff that is odious to me. But if it’s at all interesting I tend to do it. It’s not always about the money. I just like to work.”
But sometimes it is about the money.
“I went through a period when I was trying to get out of a hassle with the IRS, and I said the way I’m going to do it is by taking every role and make enough money to pay them off,” he says. “It didn’t work. I’ve just about got rid of them.”
Despite “low-tide moments,” Carradine kept working. “I thought, What am I going to do to get out of this? I’m going to wind up like Zsa Zsa Gabor.”
Eventually Tarantino, known to revive atrophied careers, wrote a prime piece for Carradine, whom Tarantino plainly idolized. “Kill Bill” sparked Carradine’s comeback. “Homo Erectus,” he hopes, will fuel the momentum.
“This is going to be a very hot little movie. It’s really cheap but we’re doing it right. It’s going to look like it cost a lot more than it did. And I managed to get paid pretty well,” he says.
“I mean, hey, I’m living in a big house with a lot of land around it. I have a clay tennis court. I’m driving a Ferrari. I have no complaints whatsoever.”
He crosses his naked legs. Smoke seeps from a grin.
“I think people have woken up to the fact that I’m still around and that I can still kick (bleep).”