LOS ANGELES — Jim Kelly, an African-American actor and martial arts expert who starred opposite Bruce Lee in “Enter the Dragon,” has died at the age of 67.
Kelly, whose credits also included the “blaxploitation” films “Black Belt Jones” and “Three the Hard Way,” died Saturday in San Diego, said his ex-wife, Marilyn Dishman. He died of cancer.
“I broke down the color barrier — I was the first black martial artist to become a movie star,” Kelly told the Los Angeles Times in 2010. “It’s amazing to see how many people still remember that, because I haven’t really done much, in terms of movies, in a long time.”
Distinguished by an oversized Afro, Kelly played college football but believed he had a better chance at becoming a karate champion than making it into the NFL.
Raised in Millersburg, Ky., and San Diego, where his father ran a locker-rental service for Navy personnel, Kelly excelled at sports in high school and attended the University of Louisville on a football scholarship, but he abruptly quit school in protest of a coach’s racist treatment of a fellow player.
He discovered karate by chance in the mid-1960s and quickly made it his life’s focus. By decade’s end, he was living in Los Angeles, studying and competing with prominent martial artists and teaching at his own karate school.
“My ultimate goals were to get into the movie business, to become famous, to make a lot of money and motivate and inspire young people, people of all nationalities and colors,” Kelly said.
“But I didn’t know anything about acting. And there weren’t a lot of black heroes in the movies at that time. I felt that with the martial arts, I could offer Hollywood something different. So my goal was to become a world champion martial artist and try to get noticed.”
In 1971, Kelly won the middleweight division title at the Long Beach International Karate Championships.
Soon afterward, he was hired to train actor Calvin Lockhart in karate for the 1972 thriller “Melinda,” and he ended up playing a martial arts instructor. His breakthrough role in “Enter the Dragon” came after Rockne Tarkington, the actor originally set to play Kelly’s role in the classic film, dropped out of the production.
“Two or three days before we left to shoot in Hong Kong … suddenly I was stuck without an actor,” producer Fred Weintraub recalled. “Somebody told me about a school that Jim Kelly had on Crenshaw Boulevard. I went down to see him, watched him work out and hired him immediately.”
In addition to “Enter the Dragon” and the blaxploitation films, Kelly subsequently landed some minor roles on television and some direct-to-video titles. But his career quickly petered out in the 1980s. He was a competitive tennis player later in his life, and a ranked senior and coach.
He said that working with Lee, who died in 1973, was one of the best experiences of his life.
“I probably enjoyed working with Bruce more than anyone else I’d ever worked with in movies because we were both martial artists,” Kelly told Salon in 2010. “And he was a great, great martial artist. It was very good.”