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By WILLIAM YARDLEYJuly 1, 2013Jim Kelly, who added an Afro, street swagger and a few memorable one-liners to martial arts movies in the 1970s, most notably in a prominent role alongside Bruce Lee in “Enter the Dragon,” died on Saturday in San Diego. He was 67.The cause was cancer, said his former wife, Marilyn Dishman.In a genre dominated by Asian faces and settings, Mr. Kelly’s roles often emphasized what was most obviously distinctive about him: he was a handsome and chiseled black man who knew karate at a time when most prominent black fighters were boxers.
He wore his hair in a meticulous mushroom Afro, flashed more curls on his taut chest and dispensed stilted bravado in between blows. In “Enter the Dragon,” when the evil Mr. Han warns him that he will eventually be defeated in a fight, Mr. Kelly’s character, known as Mr. Williams, flashes a smile and responds that defeat will not faze him because he will “be too busy looking good.” Decades later, when he joined other cult stars at autograph shows, fans would ask him to repeat his best-known lines, some of which are not printable in a family newspaper.
“Enter the Dragon” was a box-office success and made Mr. Kelly a new star in two rising genres: martial arts and blaxploitation, both of which emphasized violent action. Critics were not always impressed. In a brief review of “Black Belt Jones,” in 1974, A. H. Weiler of The New York Times wrote that “the succession of clashes and explicit street language tend to become repetitious and as unwittingly comic as the cast’s largely mechanical performances.
” Mr. Kelly made several other movies through the early 1980s, including “Three the Hard Way,” in which he co-starred with Jim Brown and Fred Williamson, and “Black Samurai.” James Milton Kelly was born in Millersburg, Ky., on May 5, 1946. He spent part of his youth in San Diego but graduated from Bourbon County High School in Kentucky, where he starred in several sports, including track and football.
He briefly attended the University of Louisville.Mr. Kelly and Ms. Dishman divorced in 1968. Mr. Kelly’s survivors include a daughter from that marriage, Sabrena Kelly-Lewis. Complete information on survivors was unavailable. In a 2010 interview with Salon, Mr. Kelly said he began studying martial arts in 1964, learning the Okinawan Shorin-Ryu style of karate from Parker Shelton in Lexington, Ky.
He later studied in Chicago before receiving his black belt in Southern California. In 1971, he won the middleweight division title at the Long Beach International Karate Championships. Two years later, after receiving one small film role playing a martial arts instructor, Mr. Kelly appeared in “Enter the Dragon” after being cast at the last minute when another actor dropped out.“I broke down the color barrier,” he told The Los Angeles Times in 2010.
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