James Milton Kelly, simply known as Jim Kelly, competed in tennis, basketball, football as well as track and field. He might have focused his energies on these outlets had a coach not referred to a Black teammate with a racial slur at the University of Louisville, where he played football.
The realization that a coach could demean his own players because of their ethnicity appalled him so much he redirected his energies to studying Shorin-ryu karate.
Having learned intricate skills from various masters, Kelly became one of the most decorated world karate champions in the sport in the 1970s. He won four prestigious championships in 1971, most notably, the World Middleweight Karate title at the 1971 Long Beach International Karate Championships. Interest in the martial arts in America at this stage was very high so naturally, Kelly opened his own dojo (a hall or place for immersive learning or meditation) which was frequented by numerous Hollywood celebrities.
Two years after his 1971 wins on the karate circuit, producers of the Enter the Dragon film came calling. Kelly played the arrogant, insouciant Williams, who competed alongside Bruce Lee in a sinister competition on an island. Kelly’s impressive afro, sideburns and good looks made him the perfect choice for a film shot at the height of Blaxploitation.
On the back of Enter the Dragon, Kelly became a huge cult figure. He featured in Black Belt Jones, Three the Hard Way (both 1974) and Black Samurai all touching on an African American who practices martial arts. However, after 1982’s late-era blaxploitation martial arts effort One Down, Two to Go, he was little seen on the big screen and later pursued a career in tennis as a professional.
Of the 70s where as an actor, he became the first black martial arts film star, Kelly told salon.com in 2010 “It was one of the best experiences in my life,” on Bruce Lee he added “Bruce was just incredible, absolutely fantastic. I learned so much from working with him. I probably enjoyed working with Bruce more than anyone else I’d ever worked with in movies because we were both martial artists. And he was a great, great martial artist. It was very good.”
Kelly was married two times; from 1967 until 1968 to his college sweetheart Marilyn Dishman and later to Marcia Bentley from 1980 to his death in 2013. From 1973 to 1976, Kelly dated film actress Rosalind Miles.
The Millersburg, Kentucky native born May 5, 1946 died on June 29, 2013 from cancer aged 67.
Other films he featured in include Melinda (1972), Hot Potato (1976), Death Dimension (1978) and Tattoo Connection (1978).
This article has been updated.