Herbie J Pilato tells All About the Origin of the Classic Series KUNG-FU

by Herbie J Pilato

Ed Spielman, creator of KUNG FU
Ed Spielman, creator of KUNG FU

Writer/executive producer Ed Spielman is a man for all seasons…TV seasons that is, and a few for the big screen as well.

Spielman, who is also an author and journalist, is the creator of the Emmy Award winning classic TV series, Kung Fu, the first eastern-western which initially aired on ABC from 1972 to 1975, and starred David Carradine as the Asian-American Shaolin monk from the Far East who journeyed through the Old West.

The show’s original 90-minute origin (co-written with Howard Friedlander), debuting February 22, 1972 (on ABC’s popular Movie of the Week series) was “the first American Martial Arts film.” The Emmy award winning series that followed commenced the modern martial arts genre for television and motion pictures, and was honored by Entertainment Weekly magazine as “One of the 100 Best Television Shows of All Time.”

Spielman, born in Brooklyn, New York, began his career at a young age, when his fifth grade teacher assigned the class to “write a short story.”

“That was the first thing I ever wrote,” Ed recalls. He was taken aback when he received the lowest mark: a zero. The teacher demanded a note from his mother, railing, “You didn’t write this. Your Mother wrote this!”

“That was my first literary effort,” he laughs today in recalling the incident. “My mother had not even seen it, let alone written it. I always wanted to find that teacher and show her my Life Membership Card in The Writers Guild…and thank her for a good review.”

Ed skipped the eighth grade and entered Brooklyn College at the age of sixteen. He attended at night while working as a Page on day-time quiz shows at ABC-TV in New York. With his friend and fellow Page, Howard Friedlander, he took to writing screenplays.

Spielman discovered kung-fu in the early 1960s, and studied Mandarin Chinese in College. He spent years doing research in New York’s Chinatown and elsewhere, unearthing this heretofore secret knowledge. At that time, kung-fu was little known in the Western world and was denied to non-Chinese. It was taught by master/student relationships and within families. It was never revealed to non-Chinese.

But Spielman pressed on.

By the mid-1960s, Ed had acquired a depth of information and wrote a forty-four-page treatment for film, TV and publishing titled, Kung-Fu: The Way of the Tiger, The Sign of the Dragon. He spent the next few years trying to move it forward to film or television.

In 1969, he was introduced to young agent Peter Lampack at the William Morris Agency in New York. Lampack liked the material and made a deal with Warner’s executive Bennett Sims in New York.

In February of 1970, Lampack bartered a deal for Spielman and Friedlander to write a theatrical motion picture screenplay from Spielman’s original story. All of this transpired in New York.

At the end of this development, Warner Bros. chose not to make the theatrical film. But, studio executive Harvey Frand had faith in the project, and took it to ABC, which by that time, had introduced a pioneering Movie of the Week format.

The Spielman/Friedlander script was pared down for budget, produced and placed on the air, and it was an immediate hit. The iconic Kung Fu monthly-then-weekly series followed.
It is for certain that Kung Fu became America’s first real martial arts film and, in the process, ignited a boom in Martial Arts entertainment that continues to this day.

The big and small screen martial arts projects that followed, included The Karate Kid, Kung Fu Panda, Beverly Hills Ninja, and the Kill Bill movies, all of which are essentially derivatives in construction and content of Spielman’s ground-breaking original.

“Grasshopper” (which Caine was nicknamed by his favorite Master Po, played by Keye Luke) now has a new meaning in the lexicon of language.

It’s important to point out that Spielman is also the Creator of the Emmy Award winning series, The Young Riders (ABC, 1988-1991), which returned the western to prime time television.

Ed and his brother, Howard Spielman, are the creators of the MGM/Showtime series, Dead Man’s Gun (1996-99), which they executive-produced in partnership with Henry Winkler (best known as “The Fonz” from Happy Days, ABC, 1973-1984).

The two genres that are the most challenging to place on-the-air are the anthology series format, such as The Twilight Zone, without recurring characters, and the western. Dead Man’s Gun was both, and became the first television western anthology show since Death Valley Days [which debuted in 1952].

Gun received three Cable ACE nominations including, “Best Dramatic Series,” and three Western Heritage Awards for “Best Fictional Television.”

Ed Spielman is clearly “The Man Who Kept Westerns Alive.” At a time after the 1960’s when the format was no longer in vogue, he is the only writer/producer in television history to have created and placed a western series on the air every decade… for thirty years.

For his contributions, Ed was inducted into the National Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City…on the same night as Clayton Moore (star of classic TV’s The Lone Ranger). Ed has personally received the Western Heritage Award an unprecedented four times. His shows have won seven.

Ed has also been awarded an Honorary Life Membership in The Writers Guild of America and the Writers Guild of Canada “Top 10” Award for Screenwriting Excellence.

Add to this prolific mix is Spielman’s book The Mighty Atom: The Spiritual Journey of Joseph L. Greenstein, World’s Strongest Man. This acclaimed nonfiction work has been published world-wide (Viking Press, USA/Secker & Warburg, UK/First Glance Books, USA), and was selected by the American Library Association as “one of the year’s best books.”

Meanwhile, Legendary Pictures/Universal has announced and is presently developing a feature film edition of his original Kung Fu series, for which Spielman will serve as executive producer.

It’s pertinent to also point out that martial arts legend Bruce Lee’s wife Linda Lee had long claimed that her husband created Kung Fu; but this simply is not the case. Lee certainly had his own ideas and aspirations, but that has nothing to do with Ed Spielman’s ground-breaking and original work.

The Writers Guild of America West awarded sole credit to Spielman as the creator of Kung Fu; and no allegation of Lee’s having to do with the creation of the show appeared in public until The Bruce Lee Story (1993) in which the allegation was made.

Ultimately, any claim about Bruce Lee having anything to do with the creation of Kung Fu can easily be dispelled by any reasonable individual asking this question:

Would Bruce Lee, a Chinese immigrant to America, a proud and accomplished man who dedicated his life to the perfection of Chinese Martial arts…create a character who was a Master of Kung Fu…but who was only half-Chinese?

Of course not, as Kwai Chang Caine on Kung Fu was Eurasian, and that’s how Ed Spielman always envisioned the series – the treatment for which was written in 1966, when Bruce Lee was starring as Kato on ABC’s Green Hornet series, and years before he made any of his claims; the final Kung Fu script was completed in 1971.

Herbie J Pilato is a Contributing Editor to TVWriter™. He’s also the author of The Kung Fu Book of Caine and The Kung Fu Book of Wisdom, both available for order on his blog. You can learn more about him HERE.

Author: Herbie J Pilato

Writer, Author, Producer, Actor, Singer/Songwriter, Lover of Life

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