Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Jim Kelly May 5, 1946 - June 29, 2013 Martial Arts Expert

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Jim Kelly May 5, 1946 - June 29, 2013 Martial Arts Expert

Article excerpt

Jim Kelly, an African-American actor and martial arts expert who starred opposite Bruce Lee in "Enter the Dragon," has died at the age of 67.

Mr. Kelly, whose credits also included the "blaxploitation" films "Black Belt Jones" and "Three the Hard Way," died Saturday in San Diego, his ex-wife, Marilyn Dishman, said. No cause of death was disclosed.

"I broke down the color barrier -- I was the first black martial artist to become a movie star," Mr. Kelly told the Los Angeles Times in 2010. "It's amazing to see how many people still remember that, because I haven't really done much, in terms of movies, in a long time."

Distinguished by an oversized Afro, Mr. Kelly played college football but believed he had a better chance at becoming a karate champion than making it into the National Football League.

Raised in Millersburg, Ky., and San Diego, where his father ran a locker-rental service for Navy personnel, Mr. Kelly excelled at sports in high school and attended the University of Louisville on a football scholarship, but he abruptly quit school in protest of a coach's racist treatment of a fellow player.

He discovered karate by chance in the mid-1960s and quickly made it his life's focus. By decade's end, he was living in Los Angeles, studying and competing with prominent martial artists and teaching at his own karate school.

In 1971, Mr. Kelly won the middleweight division title at the Long Beach International Karate Championships.

Soon afterward, he was hired to train actor Calvin Lockhart in karate for the 1972 thriller "Melinda," and he ended up playing a martial arts instructor. His breakthrough role in "Enter the Dragon" came after Rockne Tarkington, the actor originally set to play Mr. Kelly's role in the classic film, dropped out of the production.

In addition to "Enter the Dragon" and the blaxploitation films, Mr. Kelly subsequently landed some minor roles on television and some direct-to-video titles. But his career quickly petered out in the 1980s. …

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