Jim Kelly was born in 1946 in Paris, Kentucky. He spent much of his youth in San Diego where his father ran a locker rental service to U.S. Navy sailors. An excellent athlete growing up, he played basketball, football, and competed in track and field. He attended the University of Louisville on a football scholarship, but would quit the team and drop out in protest of the racist treatment of a fellow player. He became interested in Shorin-ryu Karate and Okinawa-te Karate after returning home to California. There he would open his own school after training under Parker Shelton and was loosely associated to the Black Karate Federation. The school logo (as well as BKF founder Steve Sanders) can be seen in the background of Kelly's dojo early in Enter the Dragon.
He won a middleweight Karate title in 1971 at the Long Beach International Karate Championships (the video above is from one of his matches on the way to that title). His unorthodox style and competitive success drew the interest of film producers in the area, who cast him in a small role in the 1972 action movie Melinda. His big breakout came the following year as Williams in the Bruce Lee masterpiece Enter the Dragon. It was one of the first times that a black actor had gotten a major part in a martial arts film, and spurred the growth of an era of blaxploitation martial arts movies.
"I broke down the color barrier -- I was the first black martial artist to become a movie star," said Kelly, 63, the owner and director of a tennis club in the San Diego area. "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."
"My ultimate goals were to get into the movie business, to become famous, to make a lot of money and motivate and inspire young people, people of all nationalities and colors," Kelly said during an interview last month. "But I didn't know anything about acting. And there weren't a lot of black heroes in the movies at that time. I felt that with the martial arts, I could offer Hollywood something different. So my goal was to become a world champion martial artist and try to get noticed."
His role in Enter the Dragon landed him a non-exclusive three picture deal with Warner Bros. a major deal for a black action star. It was during that time he made Black Belt Jones, Three the Hard Way, and Hot Potato. As the Blaxploitation craze started to die down in the early 80's Kelly's interest in taking film roles died down with it.
"I never left the movie business," Kelly said. "It's just that after a certain point, I didn't get the type of projects that I wanted to do. I still get at least three scripts per year, but most of them don't put forth a positive image. There's nothing I really want to do, so I don't do it. If it happens, it happens, but if not, I'm happy with what I've accomplished." (via Steve Ryfle/LA Times)
He moved on to other accomplishments, becoming a professional tennis player on the USTA senior men's circuit. And later in his life he'd become a tennis instructor and regular comicon speaker as well as several film appearances, including this 2004 Nike commercial.
While his time in the public eye was brief, he will always be remembered by fans as a pioneering and iconic actor in martial arts film-dom. His original style, ultra cool looks, and brash personality defined decades of film making and helped set the tone for action movie stars for years to come.
His ex-wife Marylin Dishman announced his passing, stating that his family is "having trouble processing it," and that there would be no funeral service.