13 Unforgettable Martial Arts Actors Who Have Died

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It’s a strange coincidence that some of the most famous martial arts actors died so young. And more than a few died under “mysterious” circumstances too. In this article, we’ll check out 13 unforgettable martial arts actors who have died.

We’ll find out about each one, their mastery of martial arts, what made them famous, and the circumstances of their death.

Let’s get started.

1. Sonny Chiba

Sonny Chiba’s real name was Sadao Maeda. He was born in Fukuoka, Japan, in 1929. In 1957, he started learning martial arts at Nippon Sports Science University.

He earned a first-degree black belt in 1965 after studying under Karate master Masutatsu Oyama. He was a master of many martial arts. In fact, over time, he would also earn black belts in ninjutsu, Shorinji Kempo, judo, kendo, and Goju-Ryu karate.

From the 1960s to the 2010s, he acted in an array of movies and TV productions, where he exhibited his skills as a consummate martial artist. He also choreographed fight scenes in many movies.

In a trilogy, he played Oyama, the master he studied under.

The movies are: “Champion of Death”, “Karate Bearfighter”, and “Karate for Life”. Over time, he acted in a host of movies. He was in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill. He died of Covid-19 complications at the age of 82 in 2021.

2. David Carradine

David Carridine was born John Arthur Carradine Jr. to actor John Carradine in 1936.

He was in the army for a while but would become an actor later, at which point he was advised to adopt a different first name so that he won’t be confused with his father. He was once described as the hardest-working actor in Hollywood.

He starred in an array of movies. Some of the movies he was in include “Kung Fu”, “Boxcar Bertha”, “Mean Streets”, and “Kill Bill” in which he was the titular character. He is best known for his role in the 1970s TV series Kung Fu.

David Carradine had no black belt in any martial art but was reported to have kept training as a martial artist over a 40-year-period. He did not consider himself a master but rather an “evangelist” of Kung Fu.

He died under mysterious circumstances in June 2009. He was found dead in his hotel room hanging by a rope in a closet!

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3. Jim Kelly

He was born James Milton Kelly in 1946. A good-looking African-American known with the regulation Afro. He was a trained martial artist in an era when a lot of blacks were making waves in boxing.

In 1964, he started learning the Okinawan Shorin-Ryu style of Karate and would go on to earn a black belt. In 1971, he won the middleweight division title at the Long Beach International Karate Championships.

He’s the first black martial artist to become a movie star. A fortuitous turn of events gave him an opportunity to star alongside Bruce Lee in the iconic movie “Enter The Dragon”. He also starred in “Black Belt Jones”, “Three The Hard Way”, and “Black Samurai”. He died at 67 in July 2013 — the cause was cancer.

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4. Brandon Lee

Brandon Lee is the son of Bruce Lee. He was born in Oakland, California in 1965. He was an actor, choreographer, and martial artist. As the son of the martial arts legend, he started learning early in life, but tragedy struck when his father died when he was 8 years old.

After a period of difficulties, he resumed martial arts training and attended Emerson College and the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute.

He appeared in several movies, including spin-offs of Kung Fu, alongside David Carridine as the lead. Others include “Legacy of Rage”, “Showdown in Little Tokyo”, and “Rapid Fire”.

Sadly, he lost his life on the set of “The Crow” when a blank was fired at him from a jammed prop gun!

5. Toshiro Mifune

Toshiro Mifune, the most internationally celebrated Japanese actor, was born in 1920 in China and acted in over 120 feature films in his lifetime. Some of his most iconic roles involved playing Samurai in the movies of the legendary director Akira Kurosawa.

He served in the Japanese army during World War 2 and began acting later. One of his first appearances was in Kurosawa’s “Drunken Angel”, where he played the part of a gangster.

He would achieve international fame in “Rashomon” as a boastful bandit. He appeared in several other movies. A versatile actor, he also appeared in Kurosawa’s adaptations of Western classics such as “Macbeth”, “The Idiot”, and “The Lower Depths”. He was also in the American production, Shogun.

He did not really have an extensive martial arts background. He died of organ failure in 1997.

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6. John Saxon

John Saxon, an Italian American, was actually born Carmine Orrico in 1936.

A handsome man, an agent convinced him to change his name after seeing him on the cover of a magazine. Before becoming a contract actor for Universal pictures, he studied under Stella Adler.

He starred in several movies, such as “The Unguarded Moment”, “Running Wild”, “The Big Fisherman”, and “This Happy Feeling”. The best known are “Enter The Dragon” and “Nightmare on Elm Street”. He also starred in “The Appaloosa”, opposite the great Marlon Brando.

He wasn’t a martial arts expert but was a legitimate martial artist, seeing as he had studied Judo, Karate, and Tai Chi Chuan. He’s best known as Roper, Bruce Lee’s co-star in “Enter The Dragon”. He died in 2020. The cause of death was pneumonia.

7. Steve McQueen

Terence Stephen McQueen, “The King of Cool”, was born in 1930 in Indiana.

A macho, laconic movie star who embodied entrancing masculinity. He often portrayed loner heroes whose actions spoke louder than words. He was one of the top-grossing movie stars in the world.

He had a difficult childhood seeing as his mother was a sex worker who would eventually marry two different men at different times. Steve McQueen was not on the best of terms with his stepfathers.

He had several odd jobs and served in the U.S. Marine Corps. Later, in 1952, he would start performing at Neighborhood Playhouse in New York. He debuted as an actor in 1956 in the movie “Somebody Up There Likes Me.”

In the 60s, he attained stardom when he appeared in the movies: “The Magnificent Seven” and “The Great Escape.” Over time, he appeared in several other memorial movies.

He was a trained martial artist who was also hip to the nuances of street fighting. Both lent a huge dose of verisimilitude to his fighting scenes. He trained under several martial art experts. He even studied with Bruce Lee.

He was diagnosed with pleural mesothelioma on Dec. 22, 1979. Sadly, he died of cardiac arrest a year later at the age of 50.

8. Sean Connery

Many regard him as the definitive James Bond.

In fact, when many fans think of Ian Fleming’s creation, it’s Sir Connery that’s its enthralling image. A Scot who grew up in the slums of Edinburgh. A tall, handsome man. He won the role of Bond when the producers of the movie watched him walk.

He would star in the very first James Bond movie and in 7 overall. He left the franchise because he did not want to be typecast.

So, he sought out other roles and went on to appear in many other movies.

They include “Family Business”, “The Offense”, “A Fine Madness”, “Murder in the Orient Express”. One of the roles many also remember him for is Malone, in Brian De Palma’s “The Untouchables”, where he played an old, honest cop who helped the Feds capture Al Capone.

He wasn’t a martial artist. But he had an honorary black belt in Kyokushin karate, given to him by its founder, Mas Oyama.

Sir Sean Connery died in his sleep at the age of 90 in 2020. Prior to his death, he’d been battling dementia.

 9. James Coburn

In a career spanning over 43 years, James Coburn made over 100 movies.

He said he was never in a fight and yet would realistically portray a brawler in several movies. In fact, he was typecast as one. He was a friend of Steve McQueen and also appeared in “The Great Escape”. He was also in “The Magnificent Seven” and several other movies.

Legend has it that he developed his interest in martial arts after a meeting in which Bruce Lee tried one of his punches on him. He went on to be trained in Jeet Kune Do by the iconic martial arts legend. He’s regarded as Lee’s best student.

He passed away in 2002 in his home while listening to music with his wife.

10. Steve Irwin

Steve Irwin was known all over the world for his ability to hunt crocs, alligators, and other dangerous beasts. He was also an MMA enthusiast who trained regularly.

One of his colleagues said he even built them a cage where they would spar frequently. He was so dedicated that he would often start training 5 hours before the other men showed up.

Kyle Noke, a retired UFC fighter who served as his bodyguard, spoke in glowing terms about Irwin’s dedication to martial arts.

He was impaled by a stingray barb and immediately went into a cardiac arrest which resulted in his demise in 2006.

11. James Cagney

James Francis Cagney was born in New York in 1899.

An incredibly versatile actor who could be at home in crime dramas, comedies, and even musicals. He was one of the most famous stars from the 30s to the 50s and excelled at playing tough dudes.

Something many regarded as a natural extension of the man seeing as he had a difficult childhood and learned how to box in his youth as a member of some Irish gangs. He acted in an array of movies, including “Blood on the Sun”, “Public Enemy”, “Taxi”, and “White Heat”.

He often insisted that he performs his own stunts. As prep for “Blood on the Sun”, he trained extensively in Judo under master Ken Kuniyuki. He died from cancer at the age of 86 in 1986.

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12. Barbara Yung

Barbara Yung was born in Hong Kong in 1959 and would later emigrate to the UK with her mother sometime after her father had passed away.

After studying in the UK, she would return to Hong Kong, where she contested in the Miss Hong Kong pageant. She came 8th but would go on to sign an acting contract.

Her debut acting was in the series “Legend of the Unknowns” with co-star Kent Tong.

This made her a household name in many Asian countries and led to her being cast in “The Legend of Condor Heroes”, where she portrayed Wong Yung, a role that requires dazzling mastery of martial arts swordplay.

In 1985, at 26, she killed herself. It’s believed that she killed herself because her then-boyfriend and co-star broke up with her.

13. Bruce Lee

Lee Jun-Fan, popularly known as Bruce Lee, is arguably the most famous martial artist who ever lived.

Many credit watching his movies with arousing their interest in martial arts. He was born in America but grew up in Hong Kong.

He is from a proper middle-class background but was getting into trouble as a boy. Legend has it that he even beat the son of one of the men known to be a part of the Hong Kong Mafia. And for his safety, his father sent him to America.

Some think of Bruce Lee as the first mixed martial artist. He knew Wing Chun (having trained under Yip Man), boxing, Tai Chi, and street fighting. Some of his students include Chuck Norris, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Sharon Tate.

He wasn’t merely a mixed martial artist. He also acted in a few iconic martial art movies and also evolved his own style of fighting: Jeet Kune Do.

Sadly, in 1973, he died six days after the release of his film “Enter The Dragon” from brain swelling triggered by an allergic reaction to headache medication. Of course, there are those who believe there’s something fishy about his death.

Real Story of Bruce Lee's Death

Conclusion

Watching movies inspired by martial arts is one of the best ways to relax.

It’s not just entertainment; it can also be inspiring. In the article, we learned about some martial arts actors who have died. We learn a bit about their background and also the circumstances of their death.


Photos that require attribution. These are licensed under CC2.0 and may have been cropped, edited, or resized:

David Carradine – https://www.flickr.com/photos/31332178@N02/3596202006/

Brandon Lee – https://www.flickr.com/photos/lizma_2106/8609143654/

Toshiro Mifune – https://www.flickr.com/photos/89330362@N03/8138132945/

John Saxon – https://www.flickr.com/photos/loimere/14920143878/

Steve McQueen – https://www.flickr.com/photos/tom-margie/1543430895/

Sean Connery – File:Sean Connery as James Bond (1971, cropped2).jpg licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Netherlands

Steve Irwin – https://www.flickr.com/photos/shebalso/48549901481/

James Cagney – https://www.flickr.com/photos/123723459@N07/26137279656

Bruce Lee – https://www.flickr.com/photos/145458598@N05/45481811784

Image by tee2tee from Pixabay

Jeff Campbell

Jeff Campbell was Academy Director for a large martial arts school for over 7 years, and has trained extensively in a variety of martial arts including Brazilian Jiujitsu, different styles of Karate, the Russian Martial Art of Systema, Aikido, and much more.

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