Over the weekend, we reported on the passing of martial arts star, James M. Kelly, a.k.a. Jim Kelly. The impact of his death not only resonated with our staff but on others throughout the industry as well.
Our earliest memory of Kelly was in his breakthrough role in 1973’s Enter the Dragon. Opposite both Bruce Lee and John Saxon, Kelly played Williams, an inner-city karate instructor who is harassed by white police officers. Kelly made a good impression on directors and African-American males with his cool-cat demeanor and formidable physical skills.
Kelly received his biggest break by chance – he almost missed it!
The role was originally supposed to go to actor Rockne Tarkington, who unexpectedly dropped out days before shooting in Hong Kong.
Producer Fred Weintraub had heard about Kelly’s karate studio in the Crenshaw district of Los Angeles, and went there to see him and was immediately impressed.
As they say, the rest is history.
His appearance in Enter the Dragon led to starring roles in a string of martial arts-themed blaxploitation films including Melinda and Black Belt Jones. Most of Kelly’s film roles played up the novelty of an African-American martial arts master.
Kelly earned a three-film contract with Warner Brothers and made Three the Hard Way with Jim Brown and Fred Williamson, and Hot Potato, a movie in which he rescues a diplomat’s daughter from the jungles of Thailand. After his contract ended with Warner Brothers, he starred in several low-budget films Black Samurai, Death Dimension, and Tattoo Connection.
He made his last film, One Down, Two to Go in 1982 and never acted again.
Another notable actor that was stunned by the news was actor and martial artist Michael Jai White (Black Dynamite), who, of course, throughout his career, as compared to Kelly.
White spoke passionately about his relationship with the late martial arts superstar.
“My world stopped this morning when I learned of the passing of Jim Kelly. He was a pioneer, our first black representation of what a black martial artist is to this world. His look, swagger, and martial arts prowess have been an inspiration for me as well as countless others. In Black Dynamite I copied his monochromatic fashion sense, his afro, as well as his patented kiai (yell) SUUUEEYY! I am inspired to continue honoring him as I forge forward in this industry.
I’ve met the man upon occasion and have empathized with his wounds that were afflicted by Hollywood. We first met at Good Earth Restaurant in “97” when I went over to his table and introduced myself as Mike.
He didn’t know who I was but he shared his views on the industry and was deeply troubled with how blacks were being treated in Hollywood. In the 70s Black Alpha Males were embraced in movies as logical leads and representations of who we were and currently, our media blueprint was that of a buffoonish nature.
We exchanged information and I’d contact him from time to time. I was Mike, the guy from Good Earth and I worried he might feel betrayed when he learned of how much more our paths were similar and that I was, in many ways, seen as “The New Him.”
I tried to get him to do cameos in films but the “Hollywounds” were too deep. For now, I will train just a little bit harder and focus a little deeper. I, as well as my generation, was inspired by Jim Kelly and I have to accept that I may inspire the next. I am saddened that this hero was defeated, by himself or the system and I resolve not to do the same. I accept this baton on behalf of you Master Kelly and Mike from Good Earth’s gonna fight on with the swagger and pride he borrows from you!”
Check out some tributes to Kelly as well as scenes from him in some of his most popular films below: