The Last Days of David Carradine (UNEXPURGATED)
“It’s a revisionist kind of mind
It’s just a little town down in Indochina…”
-- Alex Chilton, “Bangkok”
David Carradine Found Dead (Kill Bill PR photo)
Sex is the new drugs.
In the first week after it was announced that actor David Carradine, 72, had died in a Bangkok hotel room – naked, alone and hanging in a closet – his death went from being labeled a suicide in the hyperventilating media to some kind of solo sex play gone wrong to perhaps something more ominous. Celebrity lawyer Mark Geragos, the one guy who still maintains Michael Jackson was innocent, went on Larry King Live at the behest of the Carradine family and seriously proposed that Carradine might have died at the hands of martial-arts assassins, threatened by his noted work in exposing their secrets. When a color photo appeared in the Thai newspaper Thairath showing a man with his hands tied over his head dangling from a hanging rod in the closet of a tiny hotel room, a woman’s red negligee crumpled on the bed, Geragos threatened to sue any U.S. publication that took the bait and reprinted the photo. It’s hard to imagine how someone could get themselves into that position on their own. Follow-up reports of a thin black cord looped around his neck, wrists and scrotum convinced the prurient press that the beloved star of Kung Fu and Kill Bill had a major sideways sex jones.
Apparently, kink will get you killed.
But even 10,000 miles away, between the cheap color newsprint and some kind of poor man’s pixelation they used to obscure the body – presumably to shield the delicate sensibilities of anyone who would go hunting for celebrity death photos on the Internet – I could see that the slight Asian torso with short black Bruce Lee hair was at odds with the paunchy, road-traveled, silver-maned icon you could see on YouTube signing autographs outside Mr. Chow’s.
Which is how I came to be standing in a secluded corner of the grounds of the Swissotel Nai Lert Park Hotel, a five-story, 5-star business class hotel, having just spent 23 hours in a cramped China Airlines 747 where everyone is wearing surgical masks but me, only to barely survive an odds-defying cab ride through the smog-choked, sweltering squalor of metro Bangkok, dodging Tuk-Tuks and limbless sidewalk cripples begging for change, to be dumped in the middle of what looks like Rodeo Drive. I’ve come here to trace Carradine’s steps and try and reconstruct his final days. The hotel is currently less than a third full, despite its lush gardens and pool area, the victim of a pitiless economy, political unrest and the ubiquitous fear of swine flu.
But it’s the sight in front of me that’s got my full attention: A tranquil garden where a handful of locals, mostly women, gaze at the ground in quiet reverie, like cemetery mourners on a Sunday afternoon. Except that everywhere around me, in opalescent colors, sprouting at odd angles and thrusting skyward, are penises – hundreds of them, carved in stone or ivory or wood, festooned with prayer beads or tied jauntily with gossamer scarves, like a phalanx of abandoned ICBMs rendered moot by the apocalypse. This is Bangkok’s largest penis shrine to the fertility goddess who lives in the ficus tree. A woman in a business suit, trailed by a line of cats, discretely pours cat food onto a spreading bouquet of phalluses and slips away, leaving her feral pals to fight over this sumptuous repast. Clearly Thailand, like the death of its most recent famous victim, has more to it than meets the eye.
Penis Shrine, Bangkok
According to the police, Carradine checked into Room 352 on May 31st in the company of a French producer from Stretch, the film in which he had a small part – one of the estimated 50 roles (including TV and voiceovers) he has taken since Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, Parts 1 and 2 in 2003 and 2004 reinvigorated his career. According to hotel staff, the production filmed that day at the hotel, and Carradine completed several scenes. He was a visible presence in the hotel – drinking in the bar, entertaining guests on flute and piano and joking with the staff. The day of June 3rd, he spent the better part of the afternoon in the bar and playing piano in the lobby for a group of children. He returned to his room at approximately sometime in the evening and was supposed to meet the cast and crew for a late dinner at a restaurant on Silon Road in the red-light Patpong district after shooting wrapped, but never showed. After calls the next morning failed to rouse him, a maid was dispatched to his room who let herself in with a card key. According to police, he had been dead at least 12 hours. After reviewing hotel security tapes and time-recordings of key access, they insist that Carradine was alone when he died.
For all practical purposes, Room 352 of the hotel has been disappeared – the number plate has been pried off the locked wooden door, as if to avert world attention or the FBI investigation that is reportedly afoot at the behest of the victim’s family. The locals say it’s common to rip up the carpets and repaint a room when someone dies in it – some prescriptive combination of Buddhism and black magic. Keying into my own standardized room, I take stock of the king-sized bed, the flat-panel TV and a wardrobe unit that a dwarf would have trouble standing up in, let alone the six-foot-one Carradine. To intentionally hang himself, he would have had to fold himself in half while sitting on the shoe bench and then fall forward. Bending the flimsy aluminum hanging rod with two fingers, I could easily snap it in two.
Hotel manager Aurelio Giraudo, a small Italian man who indicates he has run hotels all over the world, is visibly sweating bullets. He assures me that hotel security is top-flight, with each visitor signed in and out and guests notified – a fact not borne out by the late-night drop-ins I have received or the two giggling massage girls with bags full of lube I met riding the elevator who seemed intent on making friends. He assures me Carradine was alone at the time of his death, the police had everything under control very quickly and he never looked at the surveillance tapes or key card records himself. He tells me the room is currently “out of inventory.”
“Michael Jackson always stays in my hotels,” he says by way of reassurance. (Jackson wouldn’t die for another ten days.) “When somebody dies – a thousand things they die of. But we don’t want to say things because of our jobs. I don’t know what happened… Thank you for your time. Write good things.”
My first stop is a prearranged lunch with Bangkok Dan, a handsome Swiss ex-pat and wire service journo who’s been here 14 years and lives with his family behind a high-voltage security fence after getting robbed six times in three weeks. He writes an insightful blog with a western slant called Absolutely Bangkok, which makes him a good source on life behind the guidebook. He says that rather than a tabloid breach, the photo that has whipped up such a storm of controversy back home reflective of the Bangkok way of life.
“You open the newspaper every day and you see that kind of stuff,” he says. “You see the ribs open, you see the head through the car window… We’re not a word culture here.” And in fact, a quick survey of the Bangkok Post in my time there turns up the headline “Rubber Worker Beheaded and Burnt,” with the photos to prove it. According to Bangkok Dan, ambulances here are a luxury, replaced by urban opportunists known as “bodysnatchers” who routinely transport the deceased to the morgue in the bed of their pickup truck (which they can quickly hose down), who follow police scanners to track the latest carnage like Weegee in gangland Chicago. Like Weegee, they also sell morgue photos to the highest bidder, although it’s just as easy to buy them off of the police. “Ya ba” or “crazy pills,” the local meth, is plentiful – they give it to elephants so they can work nonstop. It’s customary to carry 200 baht in the visor of your car for roadside police bribes. I’m told by others that there is a brisk business here, if that’s how you want to look at it, in people who top up their insurance policies and then suffer some fatal accident, or foreigners who suffer unanticipated heart attacks – often in the company of an overnight guest.
Much of what appears to Westerners as callousness, Bangkok Dan attributes to the Buddhist belief in reincarnation. “Life is worth nothing here,” he explains. “You’re so forgettable. You have no story, no background – nothing. Here it is just lived out in the open what is hidden in other places. Essentially, this could have happened in any town, but Bangkok makes it easy.”
A quick call to the “Stretch” production office reaches someone who would only identify himself as “the American,” apparently left behind to close up shop, who said the film is currently “in flux.” Russ Markowitz, who works with Legend Films, the Thai company that serviced the French company that produced the film, tells me later by e-mail that the crew were all made to sign agreements not to comment on Carradine or the film. There was also no completion bond, which means there will be no insurance payout (hence no Double Indemnity-style insurance murder, for those tallying up conspiracy theories). “From what I was told,” he writes, “[Carradine] was very prepared and professional on set, and kept to himself during his time off. Nobody reported any overtures from him. I believe he was scheduled to work the next day.” He also discounts any motives the police might have had to participate in any cover-up. “The Thais gain nothing either way,” he says. “When foreigners were killed here in the past, it was reported as such – especially if a prostitute was involved.”
Producer Charles Gillibert, responding by e-mail from France, describes the film as “about a young French jockey who decides to ride in Asia, where he discovers that the rules are different.” Gillibert reports that the crew has already shot a month in Macao and will soon reconvene in France to finish the film. Carradine’s scenes will remain in the final cut, although the ending has now been rewritten to accommodate his absence. “During his few days of work, he showed himself very respectful of the crew, very professional and in a good mood,” says Gillibert. “On the set, he had a very classy behavior which left nobody indifferent.”
One guy who might bring me up to speed on any rumors flowing through the electric circuit of the film community is David Winters, a flamboyant Joe Levine-style showman in the ‘50s mold who has done several films with Carradine (Future Force; Future Zone) – the kind of low-budget action fare that, well, would be filmed in Thailand. I’m escorted up to his penthouse apartment in what looks like a Miami Beach high-rise by Antonio Pineda, an erudite and quasi-comical eccentric and ex-Flamenco dancer in his 60s whose blog magickpapers.com keeps alive the flame of Kenneth Anger here in the heart of the Orient. Upstairs, actor Gary Stretch wanders through in a towel – a British pug who had a good part in Alexander, and who is starring in Winters’ next picture (The Warrior King).
And then we’re greeted by Winters himself, the last mogul – a five-foot-five Americanized Brit who joins Carradine on the far side of 70 (he was in West Side Story), who furiously namedrops stars who have been dead for decades. He makes sure I know that one of his ex-girlfriends was Linda Lovelace (he produced Linda Lovelace for President). Winters is certain the death was either murder or an accident. “David would not fly twenty hours to come to Bangkok to go kill himself in a closet,” he says. He had spoken to Carradine just a couple of months ago and talked him into coming to Thailand. If only….
Winters’ theory is that there was someone else involved, probably a lady-boy – transvestite prostitutes who sound like “girly-men,” but would probably kick your ass for saying so. “The lady-boys are into that kind of stuff, and they are very beautiful here,” says the Barry Diller of Bangkok with the ring of experience. “They are absolutely stunning, some of them. Prettier than the girls, and when they say there were no bruises on him – there didn’t have to be any bruises! They picked him up, put him in the closet, and made it look like a suicide, because either they freaked out or maybe they had planned it.”
“A big thing here in Bangkok is that, especially the lady-boys, they’ll go back to your hotel, put something in your drink and then rob you,” adds Stretch. They both tell stories of getting Roofied by sporting women – Winters in Phuket, Stretch in L.A. Winters reports that there was a glass of water by the bed, an unexplained shoeprint on the bedspread, that he would have had ten to fifteen thousand dollars in upfront payment and per diem cash on hand that is apparently missing. And all his journalist contacts are telling him that nobody’s talking. (Bangkok Post reporter Paul Ruffini, in his story, called it “a wall of silence.”)
“You come to Bangkok – the first thing you want to do is have sex,” says Winters. “This the sex capital of the world.” Both he and Pineda tell me about S&M clubs right around the corner from the hotel with florid Victorian names like the Eden Club and the Hell Club. And in fact, I’ll hear later that Carradine was spotted on the day before his death in the Soi Cowboy open-air sex market shaking hands with the locals. They do everything for me but draw me a map.
Thai ladyboy bludgeons tourist (via AsiaOne.com)
The Carradines – David, Keith, Robert and Chris (an executive at Disney’s Imagineering) – were the Baldwins of their day, a clan of combative Irish mutts and barroom brawlers who looked out for each other on the battlements of Hollywood, but still managed to wind up in the tabloids more often than was comfortable for them. (People nicknamed them “the Beatnik Barrymores.”) Much is made of David Carradine’s profligate number of film appearances, but as he pointed out in one interview, his father, character actor John Carradine, with 340 films in a 60-year career, he believed had the record for most feature films as an actor, a number that makes his own career tally of 220 seem anemic by comparison.
Carradine starred in the TV series Shane in 1966 and then as Kwai Chang Caine in Kung Fu beginning in 1972, his most famous role, and one originally created for martial arts legend Bruce Lee. That same year, he starred in Boxcar Bertha for Martin Scorsese, and three years later for Hal Ashby as Woody Guthrie in Bound for Glory. Along the way, he had memorable roles in Mean Streets, The Serpent’s Egg (for Ingmar Bergman), The Long Riders and his own Americana, as well as overachieving B films like Death Race 2000, Q and Sonny Boy (as one of the screen’s great transvestites). But like Dennis Hopper, with whom he seems to share certain constitutional similarities, he would appear in anything, just to keep working, and the films were eventually overshadowed by a mercurial and often volatile personal life at odds with his Zen-like persona. While he was starring in the popular Kung Fu series, he was convicted of wandering into a neighbor’s home in Laurel Canyon high on peyote, trashing the place and then sitting down to play the piano, making him the Robert Downey, Jr. of his day. (The police apprehended him by following the trail of blood – two pints worth – from a broken window.) The same day, he leapt from a car naked and bleeding and attacked a woman who he believed to be a witch, beating her and demanding she remove her clothes, for which he was later forced to pay $20,000. That was before girlfriend Barbara Hershey changed her name to Barbara Seagull and they appeared on The Dick Cavett Show, where she nursed their son Free live on the air. This was followed by drug arrests, DWIs and assault charges too numerous to mention. This duality – a healthy lifestyle advocate who smoked two packs a day and battled addictions most of his life; a spiritual being whose most prized possession was his Ferrari – carried over to many of the roles he played, from the ass-kicking monk of Kung Fu to the cold-blooded assassin and loving father of Kill Bill.
Carradine was married five times, and in fact, while I was still in Thailand, stories broke in the U.S. press about his robust history of sexual adventurism. Unnamed friends claimed he had a history of engaging in autoerotic asphyxiation, or choking oneself to produce more intense orgasms. In divorce papers filed by Marina Anderson (posted on the Smoking Gun website), she cited “abhorant [sic] and deviant sexual behavior which was potentially deadly” as complicating the relationship. (She also reports “an incestuous relationship with a very close family member.”) Another of his four ex-wives, Gail Jensen, told the New York Daily News he would construct elaborate bondage devices with which to tie himself up.
I decided it was time for some field research.
Bangkok’s Patpong porn district is a 20-minute walk from my hotel, past the U.S. and British embassies, the Mandarin Oriental Hotel and the Rolex retail outlet, to an open-air sex bazaar that looks to my jaded eyes like a psychedelic Bourbon Street. This is where they filmed The Deer Hunter to simulate wartime Saigon. The Patpong is divided by avenues – Soi 4, which is predominately gay; Soi Cowboy, a note-perfect recreation of Times Square pre-Disney, designed to cater to the Western tourist (or farang, as they’re disparagingly known locally); and Soi Nana, which is where they harbor all the kink. In the Arab Quarter, where sheiks haggle with old-soul ingénues, in the basement of the Grace Hotel, girls in baby-doll nighties with numbers around necks loll on red-velvet cushions behind a wall of glass, like a giant aquarium, while in a far corner, a Thai guy with a cash register on a rickety wooden table smokes dispassionately and rings up the sales. Outside on the midway, desperate times call for desperate measures, and women reach out and grab my crotch if they can get close enough to get a hand on it.
At the dodgy Nana Hotel, the keystone of Soi Nana, I meet a stellar-looking child bride of no more than 19 who calls herself “A.” She pours herself into my lap. I start up a negotiation, which goes swimmingly after we get over the language barrier. For 10,000 baht, or roughly $350 in U.S. currency, she will come back to my hotel, tie me up, choke me with the rope and stay the night. This is the total overnight choke-out price – compared to $500 an hour for even a moderately priced dominatrix back home. (I take a rain check.)
The next day, I make my way to the Lumphini police station to meet with Police Colonel Somprason Yenthuan, who has agreed to a formal interview. Everyone here thinks the police are inept at best and corrupt at worst, and I consider writing his answers on a piece of paper ahead of time and surprising him with them when he delivers them verbatim, but I decide that I’m a guest in this country and should try and act like it. At the police station, I’m told the Colonel will be another hour, so I wait outside. Perusing one of the million-odd bamboo Buddhist shrines this country erects every few feet, I feel a tap on my shoulder and a nondescript young man tells me in broken English to call him at an appointed time, before handing me his card identifying himself as a police department employee and scuttling off.
When I’m finally ushered into the Colonel’s ice-cold air-conditioned office, he is the very model of rectitude, pimped out in lanyards and medals. He’s also young enough to be my son. He immediately sends out my passport and press credentials to be photocopied. Whatever my first question was, this was his statement, delivered through a translator:
“The investigation is ongoing, and there are only three people who know about this investigation: The Commander [him], the second Commander and the investigator. I don’t know who told the press that the death of Mr. Carradine was suicide or accidental. It is unknown at this point. They are waiting for the autopsy report to come back to determine if it was a suicide or an accident.” I probably could have taken greater comfort in this if he hadn’t added that, “When the officers arrived on the scene, they noticed that the body was in the room and quarantined the 4th floor until the forensic team came.” Carradine’s room was on the 3rd floor.
Thailand's "Dr. Death," Porntip Rojanasunan
Which makes it especially satisfying to meet with Dr. Khunying Porntip Rojanasunan, M.D., the Director General of the Central Institute of Forensic Science for Thailand’s Ministry of Justice. Known affectionately and ironically as Porntip (“Porn Tip”), she is seen by many as a rock star for her left-of-center politics and disdain for the local police.
“They fear her – she’s a Khunying, a royal lady,” Bangkok Dan had told me, a title bestowed by the Queen. “I have never heard her lie.” This sentiment is echoed by virtually everyone I spoke with.
She arrives on time for cocktails in the hotel lobby bar wearing a Polo shirt emblazoned with a Playboy bunny, and with her signature multicolor punk shag streaked with gold and maroon. Although she takes great pains to point out that she did not examine the body, Porntip was the first to suggest in the media that the cause of death was most likely autoerotic asphyxiation. She also announced that Carradine’s room came equipped with its own penis shrine.
“I knew about the auto-erotic,” she says in halting English. “It’s not so common in Thailand – maybe once or twice a year.” (This is compared to an estimated 1,000 autoerotic deaths per year in the U.S., according to The Handbook of Death and Dying.) Now 54, Porntip has been a forensic pathologist for 27 years – one of only seven in the country, compared to 200,000 police – and Director General for two. She remains one of the chief advocates for the use of DNA technology in Thailand’s criminal justice system, having spearheaded the need for professional autopsies seven years ago, and constantly clashes with police over the importance of preserving crime scenes and DNA evidence.
“In my opinion, the police did not collect the evidence in a good way,” she states of the Carradine case. “They left something, so they don’t want me to know about this. If they don’t ask me, then I won’t be involved in the case unless the relatives of the dead ask me… [But] I learn about Buddhism from my work. Because the story of the dead gives me a lot of information. The dead cannot talk to the living, but the way that I investigate the death, I think it’s worth it for the dead. The spirit cannot talk. It depends on me to get the evidence to find the ones who killed them.”
Killing time in the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand on the top floor of the Maneeya Center across town as I wait for my confidential informant to arrive, I meet a grizzled Scot at the bar who encourages me to look into the Asian mafia, since one of Carradine’s last roles made light of them. (This sounds like Crank 2: High Voltage, in which he is almost unrecognizable beneath a long wig and moustache – a comic turn that seems unlikely to have gotten him in Dutch with either the Tongs or the Triads.)
My contact enters discretely and nods to a corner table. His English is rudimentary, but he manages to make himself understood. He tells that the Saturday before, a 23-year-old prostitute died in a hotel room with an American businessman, and the whole thing has been quietly buried. He thinks there is an active cover-up in the Carradine case: The hotel manager is scared, the maid and receptionists aren’t talking and the surveillance video has been tampered with. He also mentions the mysterious footprint, which has yet to be explained. He is certain Carradine was carried to the closet and a suicide staged, and the room was spotless. Contrary to what the police told me, he claims a bodysnatcher was dispatched to collect Carradine’s body, before they realized he was a celebrity. There was money missing – one of the film’s producers reported he was spending money like crazy. He says the videotapes show Carradine returning to his room between 9:45 and 10:45 p.m., and they’re now in the possession of the Thai government. He believes the hotel is behind it – either to stave off the bad publicity, or else an unannounced visitor (i.e., a prostitute or thief) leaves them open to a lawsuit.
On my final morning in Bangkok, as I’m packing to leave, there is a furtive knock at the door. Lady-boy assassin? Humorless Asian mafia? No – it’s my Flamenco-dancing pal Antonio Pineda, who has with him a member of the Bangkok press. This guy knows a guy. Long story short, he’s got a dozen morgue photos for sale – do I want to make him an offer? It’s clear from the first shot that the crime scene photo – the one that ran in the Thai paper – is a fake. Carradine has tattoos that run the length of his torso, a healthy paunch, long grey hair and he’s well over 200 pounds. The journalist tells me the tabloid photo was taken in a 500-baht room – a cardboard closet, just a bed and no furniture – and on closer inspection, it looks nothing like the hotel I’m staying in. Moreover, he says the paper probably knew as much when they ran it – if they didn’t stage it themselves. These photos show a thin black cord, described in the press as a shoelace or curtain cord (which the rooms there do not have), pooled on his chest and looped around his genitals, which are obscured by an index card. He is wearing a silver bracelet on his left wrist and a thick ring on the middle finger of his left hand bearing the insignia of the Knights of Malta (and visible in the trailer for his last completed film, Nights of the Templar, for which it was a prop). On his neck is a deep laceration, filled with blood, and there is blood covering the right side of his head and matted in his hair. Although it’s conceivable that this is a byproduct of the autopsy (there is a surgical zipper running from sternum to scrotum), but it doesn’t seem likely.
Bangkok morgue photo
“It doesn’t look like he did that himself,” says the journo. “But it still could have been an accident. They’ll kill you for 500 baht here. If he had twenty thousand baht, a Rolex watch, a gold chain and a diamond ring, they would whack him on the head and strangle him.”
An intelligence source of mine who used to examine autoerotic deaths in the military says of the morgue photos, “I’ve investigated auto-erotic deaths with my partner, a forensics guy, and I have never seen a case where there is so much external bleeding and deep ligature.” He too suspects a robbery.
Noted sex columnist Susannah Breslin, who has also seen two of the photos, adds, “The deep neck ligature seems to indicate something beyond sex play—solo or dominatrix-administered. Most of the time, what a practitioner is looking for is effect, and the only effect that seems intended here, based on the evidence, is death. This is like nothing I’ve ever seen before. That said, erotic asphyxiation and other sex practices are often far stranger than one can imagine. It’s hard to know what to think, when human sexuality has no restraints.”
Back in Los Angeles, the Carradine family engaged former New York City Chief Medical Examiner Michael Baden to perform a second autopsy, and he was awaiting the results of toxicology reports before making a determination of the cause of death – although he did rule out suicide.
However David Carradine shuffled off this mortal coil – misadventure, psychic dry dive or five-pointed palm exploding heart technique – it’s clear that his time here hadn’t brought him peace. Transformer producer Don Murphy reports seeing him a week before he died at La Poubelle restaurant across from the Scientology Celebrity Center in Hollywood (Carradine’s wife and daughters are Scientologists, and he would perform music there). Returning from a cigarette break, Carradine stopped at Murphy’s table and, pointing at the 25-year-old guy that he was drinking with at the bar, said, “Would you tell this guy who I am?” When Murphy readily complied, identifying two or three of his credits in the balance, Carradine told him, “I could tell you were Irish from 20 feet away.” He was obviously feeling no pain.
And as recently as last month, at a screening of Bound for Glory at the Aero Theater in Santa Monica, an obviously enhanced Carradine accused cinematographer Haskell Wexler (in attendance) of “Ruining my movie,” belligerently challenged audience members, defended late director Hal Ashby’s cocaine use, forgot the words to Woody Guthrie songs he insisted on playing and tossed a microphone into the audience, striking a publicist in the head. Fellow actor Ronnie Cox left at the first sign of trouble, as commentator Kevin Thomas, a retired film critic for the L.A. Times, sat silently as the evening slipped effortlessly beyond his control. People who witnessed it uniformly referred to it as a train wreck.
However he died – and we may never know – it wasn’t that different from how he lived. We wish him safe passage and hard-earned serenity.
*An edited version of this story appeared in Maxim magazine