Jim Kelly, the martial artist who rose to fame acting a number of exploitation films in the 1970s including the Bruce Lee classic Enter The Dragon, died Saturday in San Diego at age 67.
Kelly dropped out of his freshman year of college to study martial arts. Following his win in the middleweight division at the 1971 Long Beach International Karate Championships in Long Beach, CA, he opened his own dojo. There he trained actor Calvin Lockhart in karate for a role in the thriller Melinda (1972). Impressed with his work, the producers cast Kelly in the film as a martial arts instructor.
When actor Rockne Tarkington dropped out of the cast for the Bruce Lee film Enter The Dragon just days before it was set to begin filming in Hong Kong, producer Fred Weintraub recalled hearing about Kelly and visited him at his school to offer him the role. Standing out even against the charismatic Lee, Kelly made an impression on moviegoers with his characters wisecracks – including his famous line “Man, you’re like something out of a comic book” – and his martial arts skills.
Numerous roles soon followed the release of Enter The Dragon, leading to 1974’s Black Belt Jones and Golden Needles and Black Samurai (1977). Warner Brothers signed Kelly to a three-film deal that lead to Three The Hard Way (1974), with fellow blaxploitation stars Fred Williamson and Jim Brown, and Hot Potato (1976). Kelly would reteam with Williamson and Brown for the western Take A Hard Ride (1975) and One Down Two To Go (1976).
Kelly’s film career waned at the end of the 1970s, but he would continue teaching martial arts. He also took up tennis, ultimately playing on the USTA Senior Men’s Circuit.