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.
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.
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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.
For the filming of ‘Enter the Dragon,’ Kelly was required to stay in Hong Kong. During this period, he developed a fondness for Bruce Lee, as Lee respected Kelly for his capabilities. He allowed Kelly to provide creative inputs while filming the fight sequences.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jim_Kelly_(martial_artist)