Jim Kelly Biography

(American Athlete, Martial Artist and Actor)

Birthday: May 5, 1946 (Taurus)

Born In: Paris, Kentucky, United States

Jim Kelly was an American martial artist, athlete, and actor. He was one of the most popular African–American faces in the martial arts movies of Hollywood. Kelly is most remembered for his role in the movie ‘Enter the Dragon,’ in which he co-starred with Bruce Lee. Since his school days, Kelly was athletically inclined. Though he was actively involved in football and basketball, Kelly did not pursue any of them, as he developed an interest in karate. In those days, it was not a popular game among African–Americans. Kelly won several world karate championships. He opened his “dojo,” which was frequented by several celebrities from Hollywood. A chance to provide martial arts training to actor Calvin Lockhart proved to be the turning point in his career. Kelly trained Lockhart for the movie ‘Melinda.’ His impressive performance secured him a role in the movie, marking his entry into the film industry. Kelly became the first African–American martial arts film star. Later, he was offered a part in the martial arts movie ‘Enter the Dragon,’ in which he co-starred with Bruce Lee. Kelly was offered roles in several “blaxploitation” movies, which had African-–Americans playing major roles. Some of them were ‘Black Belt Jones,’ ‘Three the Hard Way,’ and ‘Hot Potato.’ With his “Afro” hairstyle and superb karate skills, Kelly won many hearts. He died of cancer at the age of 67.
Quick Facts

Also Known As: James Milton Kelly

Died At Age: 67


Spouse/Ex-: Marcia Bentley (m. 1980), Marilyn Dishman (m. 1967–1968), Rosalind Miles (m. 1973–1977)

children: Sabrena Kelly-Lewis

Born Country: United States

African Americans African American Men

Height: 6'2" (188 cm), 6'2" Males

Died on: June 29, 2013

place of death: San Diego, California, United States

Notable Alumni: Bourbon County High School, University Of Louisville

Cause of Death: Cancer

U.S. State: Kentucky

More Facts

education: University Of Louisville, Bourbon County High School

  • 1

    What martial art did Jim Kelly study?

    Jim Kelly studied martial arts, specifically karate, and achieved a black belt.

  • 2

    Which famous actor did Jim Kelly star alongside in the movie "Enter the Dragon?"

    Jim Kelly starred alongside Bruce Lee in the movie "Enter the Dragon."

  • 3

    Was Jim Kelly an accomplished athlete in addition to being an actor?

    Yes, in addition to his acting career, Jim Kelly was an accomplished professional athlete with a background in tennis.

  • 4

    Did Jim Kelly have a signature style or look that he was known for?

    Yes, Jim Kelly was known for his distinctive afro hairstyle and his stylish martial arts outfits in his movies.

  • 5

    What impact did Jim Kelly have on the representation of African Americans in martial arts films?

    Jim Kelly played a significant role in breaking stereotypes and paving the way for greater representation of African Americans in martial arts films during the 1970s.

Childhood & Early Life
James Milton Kelly was born on May 5, 1946, in Millersburg, Kentucky. His father ran a business of locker rentals, for the personnel of the ‘US Navy.’ Not much is known about his parents or siblings.
Kelly attended the ‘Bourbon County High School’ in Kentucky. While in school, he was active in several sports. He played football and basketball and competed in track and field athletic events, too. Later, he attended the ‘University of Louisville,’ where he played football. Gradually, Kelly developed an interest in karate. After his freshman year, he left the university to pursue karate. He was trained in ‘Shaolin-Do’ karate under the tutelage of Sin Kwan The. He mastered the ‘Okinawan Shorin-Ryu’ form of karate, too.
Continue Reading Below
In the 1970s, Kelly started his career as a martial arts trainer. In 1971, Kelly won several world karate championships. The most notable of these was the ‘World Middleweight Karate’ title at the ‘Long Beach International Karate Championships.’ Kelly was a tennis player, too. In 1970, he played amateur tennis at ‘Plummer Park.’ Kelly was a professional tennis player for the ‘United States Tennis Association.’
After establishing himself as a martial artist, Kelly opened his own “dojo,” for practicing karate. Many Hollywood celebrities were frequent visitors at his “dojo.” In 1972, Kelly got the opportunity to provide martial arts training to actor Calvin Lockhart, for the movie ‘Melinda.’ This was a turning point in his career. The movie was directed by Hugh Robertson and had Lockhart in the lead role of a radio disc jockey. The film had a character, ‘Charles Atkins,’ who was a martial arts teacher. Due to Kelly’s impressive martial arts performance, the makers of the film cast him in the role of ‘Charles Atkins.’ This was Kelly’s debut film.
Kelly was the first African–American actor to star as a martial arts expert. Before Kelly made his entry, this genre was dominated by Asian actors. In 1973, Kelly grabbed one of the most memorable movies of his career. He was cast in the movie ‘Enter the Dragon.’ It was produced by Bruce Lee, who was also the lead actor. The movie featured Kelly in the role of ‘Williams,’ a Vietnam war veteran and a martial arts expert. Kelly made his character memorable with his unique hairstyle and effortless karate moves.
After the success of ‘Enter the Dragon,’ Kelly was sought by filmmakers for two genres of movies: martial arts and “blaxploitaton.” ‘Blaxploitation’ was a genre that had emerged in the US to portray black communities as heroes, rather than villains or victims. Kelly bagged a three-movie contract with ‘Warner Brothers.’ In 1974, Kelly was cast in the lead role in the movie ‘Black Belt Jones.’ It was a martial arts film directed by Robert Clouse. The movie featured Kelly as a martial arts master named ‘Jones,’ who embarked on a mission to protect his friend’s “dojo.” This was one of the few films in which Kelly played a starring role.
In 1974, Kelly was cast in the “blaxploitation” movie ‘Three the Hard Way.’ The movie told the story of a black genocide. Kelly played one of the main characters, ‘Mister Keyes,’ who was shown as a martial artist and as someone who played a major role in unearthing of a plot to kill African–Americans.
In 1974, Kelly performed as ‘Jeff’ in the American adventure movie ‘Golden Needles.’ It was the story of the hunt for a legendary statue with golden needles on it. ‘Jeff’ was one of the characters involved in the hunt. In 1975, Kelly starred in the Italian–American movie ‘Take a Hard Ride.’ Kelly performed as ‘Kashtok,’ an Indian scout skilled in martial arts.
In 1976, Jim Kelly performed in the action movie ‘Hot Potato.’ It was a sequel to ‘Black Belt Jones’ and had Kelly playing the lead role. The movie was about the kidnapping of a US senator’s daughter. Kelly played ‘Jones,’ who was given the task of rescuing the lady.
In 1977, Kelly performed the lead role in the “blaxploitation” movie ‘Black Samurai.’ Kelly played the lead character, ‘Robert Sand,’ who was an agent of the defense agency ‘DRAGON.’ In the years that followed, Kelly was part of several movies, such as ‘Death Dimension,’ ‘The Tattoo Connection,’ and ‘One Down, Two to Go.’ In the 1980s, as the demand for the martial arts genre of movies reduced, Kelly received less film offers. His last movie appearance was in 2009, in the movie ‘Afro Ninja.’ Kelly made a guest appearance in the movie.
Family & Personal Life
Kelly was married twice. In 1967, he married Marilyn Dishman, who was his girlfriend from college days. The couple divorced in 1968. They had a daughter named Sabrena. From 1973 to 1976, Kelly dated actor Rosalind Miles. In 1980, he married Marcia Bentley. They remained together until his death.
Kelly suffered from cancer during his final days. On June 29, 2013, he breathed his last, at his home in San Diego. He was 67 years old.
Facts About Jim Kelly

Jim Kelly was not only a successful football player, but he also had a passion for acting and appeared in several movies and television shows.

In addition to his athletic abilities, Jim Kelly was known for his philanthropic work and dedication to supporting various charitable causes.

Jim Kelly was a skilled martial artist and achieved a black belt in karate, showcasing his commitment to physical fitness and discipline.

Despite facing numerous challenges and setbacks throughout his career, Jim Kelly remained resilient and maintained a positive attitude, inspiring many with his perseverance.

Jim Kelly had a unique sense of style and was often seen sporting colorful outfits and accessories, adding a touch of flair to his public persona.

Recommended Lists:

See the events in life of Jim Kelly in Chronological Order

How To Cite

Article Title
- Jim Kelly Biography
- Editors, TheFamousPeople.com
- TheFamousPeople.com

People Also Viewed

Dwayne Johnson Biography
Dwayne Johnson
Ryan Reynolds Biography
Ryan Reynolds
Timothée Chalamet Biography
Timothée Chalamet
Jake Gyllenhaal Biography
Jake Gyllenhaal
Ben Affleck Biography
Ben Affleck
Tom Cruise Biography
Tom Cruise
Bruce Willis Biography
Bruce Willis
Kevin Spacey Biography
Kevin Spacey