Jim Kelly, the martial artist who was a last minute addition to one of the greatest martial arts films ever, Enter the Dragon, has died. He was 67 years old.
Born in Paris Kentucky, he was a natural athlete who starred in multiple sports in high school. He entered the University of Kentucky but withdrew during his first year to study karate. After winning a major international tournament in Long Beach, he opened his own dojo.
Production was about to start in Hong Kong on Enter the Dragon when one of the main cast members backed out. Producer Fred Weintraub was aware of Kelly’s karate school in L.A.’s Crenshaw area and went to see him. He liked what he saw and Kelly was cast in the film. The movie’s original script called for Kelly’s character to be the one to survive their trip to Han’s Island, while the “Roper” character portrayed by John Saxon was to be the one to die. Saxon’s agent objected to this and managed to have the script changed so his client’s character survived and Kelly’s character would die.
Enter the Dragon made Kelly a minor star. He went on to do “Blaxploitation” films with a martial-arts theme like Black Belt Jones and Three the Hard Way. After One Down, Two to Go in 1982 he stopped pursuing acting roles and would appear in only a few more movies until his death. If you look in the deleted scenes on the DVD of Undercover Brother you can find him in a cameo shot with the film’s star Eddie Griffin. His last film was the direct-to-video Afro Ninja in 2009.
He moved back into the sports world after leaving movies behind, becoming a tennis instructor and player on the senior tennis circuit. He did shoot a commercial for Nike where he and LeBron James did a spoof of Bruce Lee’s final film, Game of Death.
Jim Kelly was married briefly in the late 1960s. Cause of his death is not yet known, but there are rumors floating around that he was suffering from cancer.