Kung Fooled; or hanging out with David Carradine (Part One)

Following the lurid and sad aftermath of the death of David Carradine, I wanted to add this extended and adapted column about my truly memorable experience of working with this amazing man. I will have to split it into two parts due to its length. RIP David, you are truly one of the most Remarkable Magicians it has been my pleasure to meet.

I wish I had enjoyed that one extra vodka with you while I had the chance.

So, here I am at 1:30 am sitting in the bar at the Intercontinental Hotel in Toronto. In one hand I am holding a deck of cards while my right hand is stretched out perpendicular to my body. My right index finger is inside the mouth of a grizzled, gray-haired man. Every time I try to remove, it I feel two rows of very sharp teeth bite into the flesh at the base of my finger. I have been stranded in this position for nearly thirty minutes. Maybe I had better start this story at the beginning!

Over the years I have been hired as a magical advisor on dozens of projects. I was the man who turned Kenny Rogers into “The Gambler” for his TV movie. In three weeks I made Sid Caesar look like he had been performing magic for a lifetime! I got a call from my friend Michael Sloan who said that he wanted me to work with him on an episode of “Kung Fu: The Legend Continues.” Michael was the executive producer/writer of the series and one of the few stand-up people I have met in the television industry. We had worked on projects before and I was delighted to get the call. A month later I flew from Los Angeles to Toronto and the madness began.

One of the regulars on the show was Robert Lansing who, aside from being a great actor, was a regular at the Magic Castle in its early days and a particular friend of Dai Vernon. Lansing had cancer and knowing his time was limited Michael had written a special episode that would allow Robert to fulfill a lifelong dream. Bob wanted to perform Vernon’s “Twisting The Aces” routine on camera. One of my jobs was to work with him and build up his confidence a little. I did this in my usual manner; which was to be half magician and half psychologist. Bob actually did the trick perfectly but felt very uneasy, as his hands seemed too dry for his comfort. I eventually had a plan to ease this problem; I had a small jar of Burt’s Bees Honey Lip Balm in my case and I gave it to Bob and with a total lack of honesty informed him that it was the very same preparation that Vernon used on his hands before working with playing cards. Lansing was very impressed and immediately rubbed a small amount onto his hands.

Moments later he performed a perfect version of “Twisting” and there was no more talk of his hands being dry!

Working with Bob Lansing was a delight and a privilege; however there was a trial by fire waiting for me that I will never forget if I live to be normal. This was getting to work with the wonderfully eccentric David Carradine. This brings me back to my strange position at the bar in the Hotel Intercontinental. The early part of the evening had consisted of a leisurely dinner with Lansing and Sloan listening to Bob relate stories about his friend and magical mentor Dai Vernon.

We arrived back at the hotel and decided to have one last glass of chardonnay at the bar. That was when Carradine arrived! He joined us at our booth and said, “Who is this?” while staring at me with a fairly active dislike. Sloan introduced me and explained that I was to be a guest star in the episode and also magical advisor. Carradine’s eyes had never left my face but his look of active dislike turned into something even stronger. I never saw a look like that again until his movie “Kill Bill” was released years later. Unknown to me, one of Carradine’s best friends was Patrick Culliton the magician/actor and Houdini expert.

David then explained that if there was going to be a magical advisor on the show it was going to be his friend Pat and not Sloan’s friend Nick. There followed a brief but intense discussion between the two men about the respective merits of Culliton and myself. Since the episode began filming the next morning the outcome was never in doubt but it was certainly a little unnerving as far as I was concerned.

During a brief lull in the debate I took the opportunity to smile at Carradine and say, “I’m really looking forward to working with you, Mr. Carradine.” David looked at me without a hint of a smile and said, “We’ll see about that!” It wasn’t a great start, all things considered, but it got worse. Michael Sloan then said, “Nick, do a card trick for David, show him your chops.” Now I have one card trick that I always perform when I need to impress people. During this trick the cards do everything but walk up and down the table whistling the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” I did my trick and then casually left the cards on the table. Carradine grabbed the cards and growled, “That’s a trick deck!”

He searched through the cards and discovered to his surprise that it was indeed a regular deck of cards. I looked him in the eyes and said, “The cards are the real thing and so am I. That’s why I’m here, I’m the best.”  I had already decided that the only way to deal with Carradine was to meet him toe to toe without ever backing up.

David looked at me and said that I seemed to know my stuff and that maybe he would even let me do a couple of hand shots for him. He removed a large jade ring from his finger and said he wanted to see if it fitted. It did fit, however it was rather too snug and I had trouble removing it from my finger. “I’ll do it.” Said Carradine raising my hand to his face and then my finger disappeared into his mouth. I don’t know if you have ever sat in a hotel bar with your finger stuck in a celebrity’s mouth but it is rather strange to say the least. Every time I started to remove my finger his teeth clamped back into it. At this point I was wishing to God that it were Pat Culliton sitting there instead of me. Finally he released my finger and said, “I don’t know who you are, but I will. I am going to run a make on you and find out every last thing there is to know about you.” I stared back into his eyes and said, “Start with my dad, he was in the navy.” We then all went our separate ways and I returned to my suite and fell asleep. I was woken from my sleep at 4:00am by the ringing of the bedside phone. I answered it and heard a gruff voice on the other end say, “OK son of a navy man, I will find out everything!” then the phone went dead.

To be continued………….

~ by Nick Lewin on May 26, 2010.

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