Friday, June 5, 2009

A Night in Duluth With Another Carradine...

By Jim Heffernan

The death of actor David “Kung Fu” Carradine (he would be better remembered as David “Woody Guthrie” Carradine) brings to mind an encounter I had in Duluth with his father, the late actor John Carradine.

It was about 1970, and the elder Carradine was on a lecture tour of college campuses that included an appearance at UMD. Working nights at the News Tribune at the time, a friend and I stopped at the old Black Bear Lounge in then Hotel Duluth (now Greysolon Plaza) for a drink after work.

There sitting at the bar alone after his lecture, trenchcoat over tails, was John Carradine, instantly recognizable from his many film roles, including the preacher in “The Grapes of Wrath,” and one of the passengers in the classic western “Stagecoach,” that vehicle also containing John Wayne, Thomas Mitchell and Claire Trevor.

Carradine (heretofore that reference will mean the father, not the son, and certainly not the Holy Spirit) even did a stint or two as Count Dracula and appeared in hundreds of other movies. He is reputed to have acted in more movies than any other actor in history.

Pencil thin, with a black mane and high cheekbones forming a skeletal face, Carradine had a deep, commanding voice that also served him well in portraying Shakespearian roles on stage. “Oh, what a rogue and peasant slave am I…” I don’t recall if he quoted that line from Hamlet at the Hotel Duluth bar, but he spouted plenty of Shakespeare, and parlayed a good deal of Hollywood lore in the two hours my friend and I spent with him, each taking a turn buying a round (beer).

He seemed glad to have our company, and we were thrilled to chat with him -- in ever-louder tones on his part. A few others in the lounge began to notice him, and one or two recognized him, associating him with the 1939 movie “Jesse James” in which he played Bob Ford, “the dirty little coward that shot Mr. Howard (James’ alias) and laid poor Jesse in his grave.” Tyrone Power played Jesse, and Henry Fonda starred as Jesse’s brother Frank.

“Hey, you killed Jesse James,” another customer hollered from across the bar, seemingly not sure what the old actor’s name was, but recalling him in that role.

To my friend and I, sitting alongside him, Carradine hit his stride regaling us with tales of old Hollywood, revealing “secrets” about many well-known stars’ private lives. It was an altogether memorable evening for us.

And one of his stories might have involved son David, who at the time had not yet made his own name as an actor, but soon would. I can’t be sure if old Carradine was referring to young David or another of his four sons when he told the story of how the son, uh, entered manhood in the sense that he was no longer a virgin.

Carradine said he was hosting a poker gathering at his home one night when the son (David? Keith? One of the others? I don’t know) burst through the door and announced that he was now a man, boasting that he had been with a woman.

“Does she know it?” old Carradine said he responded. One can only imagine how loudly he bellowed it. Probably as loudly as he bellowed it in the Hotel Duluth bar. Laughing all around.

Google reports that he died in 1988, and one site lists a few John Carradine quotations. Here are two:

“I’ve made some of the greatest films ever made – and a lot of crap, too.”

“Never do anything you wouldn’t want to be caught dead doing.”

There’s some irony in that last quote, if reports on how his son, David, died this week in Thailand are accurate.

To read more about the death of David Carradine, click here for a link to today's New York Times report.

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