One Last, Strange Night With David Carradine

When you encounter a talented celebrity who is advancing a bit in years and is clearly Not Quite In His Right Mind, there is always that hope that the star's eccentricities belie the kind of lovable dottiness and refusal to give a whit that can come with age... as opposed to, you know, actual manic depression.

Such was my hope when I bore witness to what was probably David Carradine's last public appearance, in late March. He was participating in a panel after an American Cinematheque screening of his 1976 film Bound for Glory, the sort of film-buff affair that usually promises a modest amount of inside-baseball Hollywood illumination but nothing in the way of actual fireworks. Instead, this dry-sounding discussion turned into a riveting hour of near-chaos, with fellow panelists or audience members seething or screaming at Carradine and the actor yelling back. (I gave a full account of the bizarre proceedings in a Huffington Post blog at the time, which you can read here.) Carradine wasn't the only person in the theater who was acting just a little kooky as things got out of hand that night, but he was the trigger for the craziness, and his behavior left the stunned crowd wondering whether the guy they remembered and loved from Kung Fu was an endearing maverick or a sad nutter.

Now that we've learned of his apparent suicide, would it be all right to think of him as a little bit of both those things? I'm the last one who wants to put a smiley face on mental illness, especially the terminal kind. But I kind of fell in love with David Carradine that night in Santa Monica, as aghast as I was at some of the things that came out of his mouth. His unbridled candor was probably the result of either not taking enough medication or being too self-medicated--those of us standing around on the sidewalk outside afterward couldn't agree on which was more likely. But, without fully embracing the stereotype of Crazy Guy as Truth Teller (see Revolutionary Road for the latest fictional example), there's something to be said for those unexpectedly air-clearing moments when you're shaken out of a torpor by someone whose self-censorship mode is, for whatever reason, malfunctioning. And something to be said just for "Hollywood characters," of which Carradine was very decidedly one.

I won't go into a full recount of what strangeness transpired at the American Cinematheque, since you can read it elsewhere on this site. But the outline of how things unraveled, comically and anxiously, is still burned into my mind. Bound for Glory, as a Woody Guthrie biopic, is naturally a pro-union screed, among other things, so everyone expected Carradine to behave as a proper liberal. Instead, he started talking about how different things are than they were in the '30s, proposing that, in this near-depression, unions needed to cede some of their power and make concessions so that companies could stay alive. An enraged woman in the audience began shouting him down, at length. He shouted back at her--and his points were lucid ones, and yet he seemed to lack the self-awareness to know that yelling into a microphone made him appear to be a bully. Some of the crowd began to turn on him. Fellow cast member Ronny Cox muttered "That doesn't sound like Woody Guthrie to me!" and walked out on Carradine. Perhaps finally sensing that he wasn't coming off well, Carradine stood up for his audience antagonist's right to argue, and tossed his microphone in her direction, so that she could use it. It struck someone in the front row in the head. This wasn't going to be his night.

Things had barely calmed down when Carradine seemed to want to pick a fight with the remaining panelist, cinematographer Haskell Wexler, a firebrand in his own right. The actor said repeatedly, with a smile on his face, that Wexler "got an Academy Award for ruining my movie." Rather than capture the grit of the Depression, Carradine said, Wexler had come up with a soft look for the film that made everything look "like it was shot through a glass of milk." It's actually a legitimate criticism some people have made of the film over time--that it's too pretty, too gauzy--but it seemed either refreshingly candid or a little bit evil for Carradine to be making it in front of Wexler. And then he said that director Hal Ashby had tried and failed to fire the cinematographer. Naturally, the legendary director of photography snapped--confirming that he'd been momentarily fired, but saying that he got "unfired" when he made a fuss over how much cocaine everyone on the set was doing. Carradine denied joining in the coke use supposedly rampant in the production, but defended Ashby: "Hal was a fucking genius. I don't like anybody to put him down and say the drugs got in the way... They got in the way of him living longer, but they did not get in the way of his movies." He then spoke up for directors who've been able to do good work while being "cocaine freaks"--lumping Quentin Tarantino in with Ashby. You could hear a couple of hundred jaws scrape the theater floor at that moment.

Thinking back now on Carradine talking about what got in the way of Ashby living longer, you've got to wonder what kind of demons got in the way of Carradine living longer. His was not an easy mindset to get into, either that night or during some other quirky exchanges he was known for over the years. Did he relish being the kook who speaks truth to power and/or bullshit artist? Was he even capable of the self-awareness to sense that half the audience for the panel discussion loved him, and half thought he was out of his gourd (not counting the dozens of walkouts)? In the days to come, I expect those who knew him well will be able to speak to his depression, and whether, as I assume, we were seeing a manic episode of it that night in March.

But my most memorable takeaway moment from his last public appearance, at least emotionally, is how, when the fracas had reached its tensest moment and there was suddenly a dreadfully awkward silence, he decided to smooth things out by picking up the guitar he'd brought along for an unscheduled musical interlude. He encouraged everyone to join in with him on Guthrie's "Bound for Glory," in what he clearly hoped would be a "Kumbaya" moment. But nobody did, that I could tell--the mood in the room was just too tense to be that easily broken for a campfire interlude--and Carradine was up there wailing away by himself. It was a funny and brave and poignant moment, and I found myself feeling an honest affection for this utterly charismatic and strangely transparent guy... notwithstanding the disorder he'd passive-aggressively instigated and was now trying to clean up.

I can't imagine what was going through Carradine's mind in his last moments, if indeed he did take his own life. But I hope it wasn't the feeling that he'd created a mess in his life and no one was singing along.

UPDATE: Police in Thailand have said Carradine also had a rope around his genitals, which lends credence to an autoerotic asphyxiation theory, a la Michael Hutchence. Carradine's manager is telling journalists he was found with his hands tied behind his back, which, if true, would certainly indicate the possible involvement of a sex worker. This blog will be updated to reflect the unlikeliness of a deliberate suicide. It's hard to be "rooting" for an alternate theory, exactly, but it's reassuring to know that, whatever eccentricities Carradine may have been known for, he was not necessarily despondent in his final days.