Martial arts actor Jim Kelly, best known for 'Enter the Dragon,' dies

Story highlights

  • Kelly's appearance in "Enter the Dragon" was brief
  • But his performance led to more roles
  • He later became a ranked tennis player

Jim Kelly, who parlayed his martial arts skills into a successful but brief career in action movies, has died. He was 67.

Kelly's former wife Marilyn Dishman told CNN that the actor died Saturday of cancer, but did not elaborate.

Kelly worked as a martial arts instructor in Los Angeles when he was tapped for his first role in the action movie, "Melinda." But he is best known for his work in the 1973 Bruce Lee film "Enter the Dragon."

Kelly's appearance in the movie was brief -- fans lamented he was offed too soon -- but his electrifying Afro, lanky 6-foot-2 frame and his wisecracks left an impression.

Producers came calling. And he capitalized on the attention by taking on the title role in "Black Belt Jones" the following year. A spate of other roles followed throughout the 70s, most notably "Three the Hard Way," but then dried up.

In later years Kelly took up tennis professionally, becoming a ranked player on the USTA senior circuit.

"I never left the movie business," Kelly told The Los Angeles Times in 2010, when a retrospective DVD set of his movies came out. "It's just that after a certain point, I didn't get the type of projects that I wanted to do."

But he was never far from the screen or the spotlight.

In 2004, he starred with basketball star Lebron James in a Nike commercial that spoofed another Bruce Lee film, "Game of Death." And he sometimes appeared at comic book conventions, much to the delight of his lasting fans.

Among them is Anthony Bourdain, star of CNN's "Parts Unknown."

"RIP Jim Kelly, hero of my grind house youth," he posted on Kelly's Facebook page.

The page posted the following announcement Sunday about the actor's death:

"It is with sadness and regret that we must announce the passing of a great man and legend Jim Kelly. He will be deeply missed by all. Jim had great love for his family, friends, tennis and martial arts.

We are devastated by Jim's passing but through faith and support from family, friends and fans-we are comforted, blessed and will remain strong.

He was survived by his lifetime partner of 33 years and wife."

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