Jim Kelly was born on May 5, 1946 in Paris, Kentucky. He grew up there, but later moved to San Diego, where he developed an uncanny athletic ability in high school. He was a gifted athlete that was involved in sports such as track and field, football, and basketball. He was also voted most inspirational junior high athlete in the entire city of San Diego, and was pursuing a football career, but decided otherwise after leaving the University of Louisville as a freshman.
Shortly after leaving UL, Kelly moved to Lexington where he began his study of the martial arts under acclaimed instructor of Shorin-Ryu karate, Parker Sheldon. It was that decision that would cement his star status. In 1971, Kelly proved he was an excellent fighter, by capturing the 1971 International Middleweight Karate Championship. Realizing that he had a potential career in the martial arts, Kelly opened a karate studio.
His recognition as a champion fighter gave him the opportunity to appear in a movie called Melinda (1972). The part wasn’t big, but it led to other offers. Six months later, Kelly was flown out to Hong Kong to showcase some of his fighting techniques to Warner Brothers. Kelly had no idea he’d be getting a part in one of the biggest martial arts films in cinematic history. Kelly was asked to play ‘Williams’ in a movie co-starring Bruce Lee, and it was that role that brought him ‘star status’. That film was Enter the Dragon (1973) and it’s huge popularity, largely due to Bruce Lee, showed that fans were eager to have a new kung fu hero.
In 1974 Jim Kelly made his first appearance in the lead role in the film Black Belt Jones with Robert Clause, the director of Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon (1973) and then he starred in Black Samurai (1976), directed by genre veteran Al Adamson. He went on to make several other films which include Three the Hard Way (1974), Hot Potato (1976) and Death Dimension (1978). Kelly retired after a string of low budget movies. His last appearance was in a movie called One Down, Two To Go (1982).
More athlete than actor, Kelly retired from the screen to pursue a successful career in professional tennis. Jim Kelly continued to get offered roles in movies, but simply said that he ‘just doesn’t dig the scripts’. He said he wouldn’t mind acting again, but he wanted the roles to be respectable. He was also very proud of the movies he did, and didn’t want to spoil that image. Even in his 60’s, Jim Kelly was still considered one of the best ‘ass kickers’ in the history of cinema. He was always making various appearances and doing interviews. He continuously studied Brazilian grappling and work at developing his own style of hybrid fighting.
Martial artist and Enter the Dragon (1973) star, Jim Kelly, passed away on Saturday, June 29, 2013 at 11:00 pm in his home in San Diego. He was 67 years old.