I was saddened to hear the news that actor and martial arts expert Jim Kelly had died of cancer, because back in the day he was one of my cinematic heroes. Although I didn’t know him personally, I did meet him in the late ’80s, and he was a perfect gentleman, very kind and personable. He died on Monday, July 1, at age 67.
Kelly starred in films during the so-called Blaxploitation era in Hollywood. He was the first Black man I’d ever seen who could move like Bruce Lee. And he was too cute with that big Afro! He starred in such films as “Black Belt Jones “(1974) and “Three the Hard Way” (1974). The role that landed him international attention, however, was the 1973 Bruce Lee film, “Enter the Dragon.”
James Milton Kelly, born in May 1946, was the second cousin of baseball star Willie Mays. He was a talented natural athlete who grew up in Kentucky and starred in football, baseball and track. Kelly played football for the University of Louisville before dropping out of college to study karate in 1964. After getting his black belt in 1969, Kelly set his sights on a film career.
In 1971, he won four major martial arts championships in a row and became a star in the karate world. Kelly said in a 2010 Los Angeles Times interview, “What I had to do was become world karate champion and use that as a steppingstone and maybe get into the movies. Maybe by the time I did this, they wouldn’t be doing John Wayne fights anymore.”
Soon after his big win, Hollywood called on Kelly, not as an actor but a behind-the-scenes trainer for the 1972 classic “Melinda,” which starred Calvin Lockhart, Rosalind Cash and Vonetta McGee. He was hired at first just to train the lead actor Lockhart in a few martial arts moves for his part in the film. But the producers saw something in Kelly and wound up giving him a supporting role in the film.
Similarly, and in true Hollywood fashion, Kelly was literally a last-minute addition in the classic “Enter the Dragon.” According to Shadow and Light’s Sergio, another actor was supposed to play the role of Williams in the film, but was let go at the last minute. And so the producers were desperately looking for a Black actor who was an expert in martial arts to replace the character in a project that was to start shooting the following week.
Kelly’s agent had him rush to Warner Bros. to meet with the producers, and they practically offered him the part right then and there, from the moment he walked in the door. And it’s no wonder. Jim Kelly was a very handsome, charismatic individual who was stunning to watch.
By the early 1980s, Kelly was all but officially retired from the screen. In his later years, he appeared with LeBron James in a Nike commercial that affectionately teased the memory of his old colleague Bruce Lee, and remained a big draw at fan conventions.
In a 2010 interview with the L.A. Times, Kelly said, “I never left the movie business. It’s just that after a certain point, I didn’t get the type of projects that I wanted to do. I still get at least three scripts per year, but most of them don’t put forth a positive image. There’s nothing I really want to do, so I don’t do it. If it happens, it happens; but if not, I’m happy with what I’ve accomplished.”
Kelly’s best-remembered line in “Enter the Dragon” is probably the one where he is challenged by Shih Kien’s villainous Han to prepare himself for inevitable defeat. “I don’t waste my time with it,” sneers Williams (Kelly) “When it comes I won’t even notice … I’ll be too busy looking good.”
Rest in peace, my beautiful brother.
“Three the Hard Way” and “Black Belt Jones” are available together on an Urban Collection Film Favorites DVD available on Warner Home Video and “Enter the Dragon” is on Netflix.