Radames Pera isn’t surprised that “Kung Fu” is taking flight again.
The series, which ran on ABC from 1972 until 1975, followed Kwai Chang Caine (David Carradine), a Shaolin monk who came to the American West in search of his half brother. Pera, now 59, played “Grasshopper” throughout the series and is now the only surviving cast member.
But “Kung Fu” has remained a cult favorite among fans and now a movie is in the works at Universal, TheWrap.com reported.
Pera spoke to Fox News about what it was like filming “Kung Fu,” his memories from “Little House on the Prairie” and how he managed to escape the child star curse.
Fox News: Looking back, what was the audition process for the role of Young Caine in “Kung Fu”?
Radames Pera: I was already acting for a while at that time. I think I was 11 and a half years old and I had been acting since I was about seven and a half professionally. I remember my mom saying, “You have an interview this afternoon for an interesting role.” She, in passing, also said, “If you get this role, you’ll have to shave your head.” I just laughed. I thought, "Is she kidding me?" It just sounded so bizarre. Why would I shave my head? I thought she was kidding the whole time until I got to the studio and realized there was a scene where someone is actually shaving my head on camera.
Then I got the part. I honestly don’t think there were a lot of kids they were considering for it… Of course, on the professional side, it was fantastic. But then going back to school after filming the pilot, I had my head shaven. It was such a horrible experience going back to school that week. During this era, kids with shaved heads usually had a bad case of lice. It was horrible. I did suffer for a bit. I don’t want to say, “Poor me” because I was on a hit show, but it was an alienating experience. And there was no one to say, “Forget about those guys. They don’t understand. They’re jealous. You should feel so lucky to join this cast.”
Fox News: When did you realize the phrase “young Grasshopper” had become so popular?
Pera: It’s interesting because, around that time, Bruce Lee's films were coming out and they were huge, especially among kids. But it wasn’t until years later when I started seeing it more and more in magazines and TV as a joke. It became a cultural meme, so to speak. It always amazes me when someone comes up to me and goes, “You’re Grasshopper!” That character has become such a free-floating icon. And it has lasted all this time.
Fox News: What’s one of your favorite memories from your time on set?
Pera: The memories that make me smile the most are the times I was working with Keye Luke (Master Po). Working with him was such a distinct pleasure. He was such a fine individual. And I was very steeped into Buddhism and Eastern philosophies when I was a kid before I even got the role. And I remember these scenes were just filled with kernels of wisdom.
So when we filmed these theses, they were really special to me. They were moments of concentrated wisdom for me and allowed me to be self-reflective, even at that young age. I was so proud of myself and Luke was such a great guy to work with. He made it so easy for me. And when he looked at you, he really looked at you. So when I think of those moments, they always put a smile on my face.
Fox News: What caused “Kung Fu” to end?
Pera: We had Nielsen boxes on the backs of television sets throughout the Midwest, and they would determine who was watching what at any given time. This was before the internet. And back then, Nielsen ratings meant everything. David Carradine, who admitted this himself, said he always had a love/hate relationship with fame and success in general. He was a countercultural type of person but was also under contract with major corporations. That became a problem for him and he just got tired. He didn’t want to do it anymore. So he sabotaged it.
He dropped acid one night in his neighborhood - and this is well-documented - in Laurel Canyon. He went around the neighborhood and broke into somebody’s house. He cut himself on the glass pane he bashed in. Then he started playing piano in their house and got blood all over the piano. Sometime later, the police were called and they found him curled up in a fetal position at his house. He was arrested, taken down to the station. It made national news almost immediately. The ratings plummeted because the people who had these Nielsen boxes in the Midwest came from neighborhoods that were much more conservative than say the East or West coasters. They couldn’t understand why a Hollywood actor would drop LSD and break into someone’s house. It was shocking to them. And the show was already challenging for Middle America, to begin with, due to the subject matter.
When word got it, it was basically, “Forget it, we’re not watching this show anymore. This is a bad influence on children.” They turned the channel and the ratings just tanked. This was in the third season and that became the final season. And it also didn’t rerun like other shows soon after. I guess the network was waiting for the bad press to die down and for people to forget about it. Of course, it became very successful during its syndication run. And another generation was able to watch it for themselves.
Fox News: How did you feel about “Kung Fu” being canceled?
Pera: It was disappointing. We had a good cast with great writers. Everybody was loving it. And then all of a sudden, it was like boom, David said, “OK, I’m pulling the plug.” And he was very effective in changing his own destiny with that. And then, of course, he didn’t hesitate to utilize his identification with that character for future projects he was doing. He was able to carry that forward and do his own career. Everybody else lost their jobs. But it happened. And I guess that’s how the fortune cookie crumbles.
Fox News: You later went on to appear in “Little House on the Prairie.” How were you received by that cast?
Pera: I went in to read directly for Michael Landon. He had written a special character who was going to develop a relationship with his oldest daughter on the show, Mary Ingalls, played by Melissa Sue Anderson. But I did have to earn my way into the group. Some warmed up to me right away and others did not. Melissa Sue, who I was supposed to have the most interaction with, was a couple of years younger than me. She was probably 13 and I was 15. When Michael decided to develop a romantic relationship between us, I think that she just wasn’t ready for that type of acting yet. It felt a little pushed by Michael. And despite my best efforts to be professional with her and invite her to help develop the on-screen chemistry between our characters, she wouldn’t have any part of that.
It became very frustrating for me as a professional actor at that time to be met with that kind of, what really amounts to basically unprofessional resistance. But looking back on it now, I understand. She just wasn’t ready. And fortunately, we were both talented enough that we didn’t let that show in our performances. But Michael knew it was an issue and things just weren’t clicking between us. And the actor who played my adopted father, Victor French, he went on to do a pilot for a different series. Michael didn’t offer him a serious contract. So he moved on, but Michael was very upset. So Michael decided to write the whole family out. And then they had a falling out personally.
Fox News: What happened to your character then?
Pera: The family suddenly disappears and Mary comes to visit me while I’m off in college. And all the while, in between writing love letters to her, I was seeing another woman. That’s how they cut out the audience’s interest in my character. We received a lot of angry letters over that. IN fact, when I make public appearances today with other cast members, I still get fans who yell out “cheater!” *laughs*. I just have to smile. But Michael and Victor eventually made up. And Victor came back on set. So I was really excited… Then I remember walking on the set. There are Michael and the second director. They go, “It’s so funny you showed up today. We just shot the scene where we find your dead body.” That was a knife through my heart. I had walked in thinking we had another chance and they were done with me already *laughs*.
Fox News: What surprised you about Michael Landon?
Pera: In the public eye, he had this squeaky clean image. But he told some of the dirtiest jokes I’ve ever heard *laughs*. He liked to drink and there was a good flow of alcohol on that set come 3 or 4 o’clock in the afternoon and everybody was gone. There was a minibar in the prop truck. He smoked cigarettes, he drank. But I’m not knocking the man. He really was a wonderful person. But he was also human, not just this perfect image accepted by the American public. He was a very talented workaholic. He literally poured his life into his work and creating entertainment for America. That was his goal. And he did a wonderful job at it. He could make you laugh and cry in one scene. There’s really no one like him.
Fox News: How did you escape the so-called child star curse?
Pera: I escaped it because some of my shenanigans never got to the public *laughs*. I had my share of adjusting to the harsh reality that most child actors face when the business is done with them. There can be a lot of shock and anger when you realize the success you achieved as a child doesn’t translate into having a successful adult career in the business. Typecasting is a very real thing. You may want a change for yourself, but the industry may not allow that for you. I remember I would walk into interviews feeling at the top of my game and then wonder why I never got the role. And I realized it was difficult to see me as an adult, not a cute child.
It happens. No one tells you that’s what’s happening until you figure it out for yourself years later. The anger and resentment come out, which is why so many former child actors go ballistic. It’s at a certain point when the writing is on the wall - your career is over. It can be very hard to accept that, especially when you don’t create any plans for yourself to do anything else besides acting. It can be a difficult moment. Sometimes it can take years for people to unravel this.
It wasn’t from the lack of a lot of good therapy and hard work on my part to understand what happened to me and try to do something else with my life, all while having a good sense of self and esteem. I accomplished that by having a completely different career. In my late 20s, I started a company designing whole theaters and sound systems in the late ‘80s. I ran that for about 25-26 years successfully. That gave me a tremendous amount of confidence in myself that I don’t think I would have achieved if I continued my acting career. I didn’t want to spend my time looking back. I was eager to move forward.