Jim Kelly, the black American athlete, actor, and martial artist who rose to fame in the early 1970s has died at the age of 67. Kelly was best known from his performance as Williams in the 1973 Bruce Lee film Enter the Dragon.
According to Kelly’s ex-wife, Marilyn Dishman, he died on Saturday in San Diego, California. The cause of death was not disclosed.
James Milton “Jim” “the Dragon” Kelly was born in Paris, Kentucky on May 5, 1946. He began his athletic career in high school, competing in basketball, football; track and field. He went to the University of Louisville where he played football, but left while he was still a freshman to study Shorin-ryu karate.
He also trained in Okinawan karate under the direction of Masters, Parker Shelton and Gordon Doversola. During the first part of the 1970’s, Jim Kelly became one of the most decorated world karate champions in the sport. In 1971, He won four prestigious championships, most notably the World Middleweight Karate title at the 1971 Long Beach International Karate Championships.
He opened his own dojo which was frequented by numerous Hollywood celebrities. He taught karate to actor Calvin Lockhart for a role in a thriller feature film Melinda and he then wound up playing a martial arts instructor in the same movie.
Kelly became the first black martial arts film star. He co-starred with Bruce Lee in the iconic martial arts block buster, Enter the Dragon. Actor Rockne Tarkington has originally been cast in the role that Kelly wound up getting after Tarkington unexpectedly dropped out just days before filming was due to start in Hong Kong.
Producer Fred Weintraub had heard about Kelly’s karate studio in the Crenshaw district of Los Angeles, and after seeing him there in action, he was immediately impressed. Kelly’s portrayal of Williams, an inner-city karate instructor who is hassled by white police officers, made a good impression upon directors and African-American males with his cool and smooth attitude combined with his impressive physical skills.
His role in Enter the Dragon led to his taking starring roles in a number of martial arts-themed “blaxploitation” films, Melinda and Black Belt Jones to name but two. Most of Kelly’s film roles focussed on the novelty of an African-American martial arts master.
He earned a three-film contract with Warner Brothers and made Three the Hard Way with Jim Brown and Fred Williamson as well as Hot Potato, a movie where he rescues a diplomat’s daughter from the jungles of Thailand. After his contract ended with Warner Brothers, he starred in low-budget films Black Samurai, Death Dimension, and Tattoo Connection.
The black martial arts actor stopped making films in the 1980s and focussed on his sport in his latter days, before dying aged 67 on Saturday.
In a 2010 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Kelly said, “I broke down the color barrier — I was the first black martial artist to become a movie star. It’s amazing to see how many people still remember that, because I haven’t really done much, in terms of movies, in a long time.”
After Kelly discovered karate by chance in the mid-1960s it became his life’s focus. He felt that he’d found his way with the sport, Kelly said, “My ultimate goals were to get into the movie business, to become famous, to make a lot of money and motivate and inspire young people, people of all nationalities and colours.”
About his acting career, Kelly said, “But I didn’t know anything about acting. And there weren’t a lot of black heroes in the movies at that time. I felt that with the martial arts, I could offer Hollywood something different. So my goal was to become a world champion martial artist and try to get noticed.”
Fred Weintraub recalled going to see Jim Kelly at his Dojo in LA to see if he might cast him in the Bruce Lee film. He said, “Two or three days before we left to shoot in Hong Kong … suddenly I was stuck without an actor. Somebody told me about a school that Jim Kelly had on Crenshaw Boulevard. I went down to see him, watched him work out and hired him immediately.”
Jim Kelly said that working with Bruce Lee, who died in 1973, was one of the best experiences of his life. He told Salon in another 2010 interview that, “I probably enjoyed working with Bruce more than anyone else I’d ever worked with in movies because we were both martial artists. And he was a great, great martial artist. It was very good.”
Jim Kelly, the black martial arts movie actor has died age 67 in San Diego, California. No other details about his death have been released at this time.
By Michael Smith