Enter the Dragon Actor and Martial Artist Jim Kelly Dead at 67

Bruce Lee's cohort in the 1973 film classics has passed away from cancer

By Josh Grossberg Jul 01, 2013 3:57 PMTags
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Jim Kelly, the martial artist who shot to fame opposite Bruce Lee in the 1973 kung fu hit Enter the Dragon and went on to star in numerous blaxploitation films, has died. He was 67.

Kelly's ex-wife, Marilyn Dishman, told CNN that Kelly passed way Saturday from cancer, though she did not divulge any more details. She also announced the news in a note on her Facebook page. 

"This is a difficult situation to process," she wrote on her wall. "Even I am having trouble processing it. Like his mother, there will be no service!" 

Kelly is best known for playing Williams,  the tall and gangly African-American martial arts master who's one of the fighters Lee's character befriends at an island tournament run by the villainous Han.

Despite his meeting an unfortunate end in the flick, Enter the Dragon's success helped Kelly parlay the role into a career in several classic blaxploitation flicks, among them 1974's Black Belt Jones and Three the Hard Way, the latter of which costarred Jim Brown and Fred Williamson and saw the trio take on a group of white supremacists. The gang also reunited for the 1975 blaxploitation western Take a Hard Ride with Lee Van Cleef.

Other notable films included 1977's Black Samurai and 1982's One Down, Two to Go before the blaxsploitation craze began to lose steam in the early '80s, shortly after which Kelly's film roles tapered off, though he did help to inspire Eddie Griffin's spoof of the genre in 2002's Undercover Brother.

Born May 5, 1946, in Paris, Ky., Kelly was an athlete who excelled in basketball, football and track and field when he began taking Shorin-ryu karate and Okinawa-te karate in his freshman year at the University of Louisville. Soon after, he began winning tournaments, including the middleweight title at the Long Beach International Karate Championships.

Moving to California, he opened his own karate dojo, where he caught the eye of film producers for his martial arts prowess who cast him in a bit part in the 1972 action movie, Melinda. Enter the Dragon soon followed.

Aside from karate, Kelly also played professional tennis on the Senior Men's Circuit.

In 2004, he costarred with LeBron James in a Nike ad spoofing Lee's Game of Death and in his later years became a fixture at San Diego's Comic-Con. 

Aside from Dishman, Kelly is survived by their daughter, Sabrena Kelly-Lewis.