Jim Kelly (martial artist)

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For other people named Jim Kelly, see Jim Kelly (disambiguation).
Jim Kelly
Kelly in Black Samurai (1977)
Born James Milton Kelly
(1946-05-05)May 5, 1946
Millersburg, Kentucky[1]
Died June 29, 2013(2013-06-29) (aged 67)
San Diego, California
Occupation Martial Artist, Actor, athletic instructor
Years active 1972–2013
Spouse(s) Marilyn Dishman (1967–1968; divorced)

James Milton "Jim" "the Dragon" Kelly (May 5, 1946 – June 29, 2013) was an American athlete, actor, and martial artist who rose to fame during the Blaxploitation film era of the early 1970s. Kelly is perhaps best known for the films Enter the Dragon (1973)[2] and Black Belt Jones (1974).

Early life[edit]

Kelly was born in Millersburg, Kentucky. His father ran a locker-rental service for Navy personnel.[3] Kelly began his athletic career at his high school, Bourbon County High School, Paris, KY, competing in basketball, football, and track and field. He attended the University of Louisville, where he played football, but left during his freshman year to begin studying Shorin-ryu karate.[citation needed]

Kelly began his martial arts career under the tutelage of Sin Kwan The (Shaolin-Do) in Lexington, Kentucky. He also trained in Okinawan karate under the direction of Parker Shelton, Nate Patton, and Gordon Doversola. During the early 1970s, Jim Kelly became one of the most decorated world karate champions in the sport. In 1971, Kelly won four prestigious championships that same year, most notably, the World Middleweight Karate title at the 1971 Long Beach International Karate Championships.[citation needed]

He opened his own dojo, which was frequented by numerous Hollywood celebrities. He taught karate to actor Calvin Lockhart for a role in a thriller feature film Melinda (1972) and ended up playing a martial arts instructor in the movie.[4]

Additionally, Kelly was a professional tennis player on the USTA Senior Men's Circuit.[citation needed] He often played amateur tennis in the 1970s at Plummer Park in West Hollywood.[citation needed]

Acting career[edit]

As an actor, Jim Kelly became the first Black martial arts film star. He co-starred alongside Bruce Lee in the blockbuster, Enter the Dragon (1973) in a role originally intended for actor Rockne Tarkington, who unexpectedly dropped out days before shooting in Hong Kong. Producer Fred Weintraub had heard about Kelly's karate studio in the Crenshaw district of Los Angeles, went there to see him, and was immediately impressed.[5] Kelly's role as Williams, an inner-city karate instructor who is harassed by white police officers, made a good impression upon directors and African-American males with his cool-cat demeanor and formidable physical skills.

This appearance led to starring roles in a string of martial arts-themed blaxploitation films, among them Melinda (1972),[6] and Black Belt Jones (1974). This was the only role in which he was the primary star; most of Kelly's film roles played up the novelty of an African-American martial arts master.[citation needed]

He earned a three-film contract with Warner Brothers and made Three the Hard Way (1974) with Jim Brown and Fred Williamson, and Hot Potato (1976), in which he rescues a diplomat's daughter from the jungles of Thailand. After his contract ended with Warner Brothers, he starred in low-budget films Black Samurai (1977), Death Dimension (1978), and Tattoo Connection (1978).[citation needed]

After his appearance in One Down, Two to Go (1982), Kelly only rarely appeared in movies.

A deleted scene from the film Undercover Brother (2002), included on the DVD extra features, shows him in a cameo appearance with Eddie Griffin.[citation needed]

In his last film, Kelly made a cameo appearance as Cleavon Washington in Afro Ninja (2009), produced, directed by, and starring veteran stuntman Mark Hicks.[7]


On June 29, 2013, Kelly died of cancer at his home in San Diego, California. He was 67 years old.[1]





  1. ^ a b Yardley, William (July 1, 2013), "Jim Kelly, Star of Martial Arts Movies, Dies at 67", The New York Times 
  2. ^ Ryfle, Steve (January 10, 2010). "DVD set is devoted to '70s martial arts star Jim Kelly". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2010-05-31. 
  3. ^ Horn, John (July 1, 2013). "Jim Kelly, 'Enter the Dragon' star, dies at 67". Los Angeles Times. 
  4. ^ Calhoun, Bob. "Jim Kelly, "Enter the Dragon's" baddest mother". Salon. 
  5. ^ Horn, John (July 1, 2013), "Jim Kelly, 'Enter the Dragon' star, dies at 67", The Los Angeles Times 
  6. ^ Melinda. IMDb. 1972. 
  7. ^ "Afro Ninja (Video 2009)". imdb.com. December 9, 2009. Archived from the original on April 8, 2014. Retrieved April 8, 2014. 
  8. ^ Black Belt Jones 2. IMDb. 1978. 
  9. ^ The Amazing Mr. No Legs. IMDb. 1979. 
  10. ^ Stranglehold. IMDb. 1994. 
  11. ^ Ultimatum. IMDb. 1994. 
  12. ^ Macked, Hammered, Slaughtered and Shafted. IMDb. 2004. 

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