James Milton Kelly (May 5, 1946 – June 29, 2013) was an American athlete, actor, and martial artist. Kelly rose to fame in the early 1970s appearing in several blaxploitation films. Kelly is perhaps best known for his role as Williams in the 1973 martial arts action film Enter the Dragon. He also had lead roles in 1974's Black Belt Jones as the title character and Three the Hard Way as Mister Keyes. Kelly died of cancer on June 29, 2013 at age 67.
Kelly was born in Millersburg, Kentucky on May 5, 1946. His father ran a locker-rental service for Navy personnel. He began his athletic career at Bourbon County High School in Paris, Kentucky, competing in basketball, football, and track and field. He attended the University of Louisville, where he played football, but left during his freshman year to begin studying Shorin-ryu karate.
Kelly began his martial arts career under the tutelage of Sin Kwan The (Shaolin-Do) in Lexington, Kentucky. He trained in Okinawan karate under the direction of Parker Shelton, Nate Patton, and Gordon Doversola. During the early 1970s, Jim Kelly became one of the most decorated world karate champions in the sport. In 1971, Kelly won four prestigious championships that same year, most notably, the World Middleweight Karate title at the 1971 Long Beach International Karate Championships. Kelly opened his own dojo, which was frequented by numerous Hollywood celebrities. He taught karate to actor Calvin Lockhart for a role in a thriller feature film Melinda (1972) and plays a martial arts instructor in the movie. Kelly was also a professional tennis player on the USTA Senior Men's Circuit. He played amateur tennis in the 1970s at Plummer Park in West Hollywood.
As an actor, Kelly became the first black martial arts film star. He co-starred alongside Bruce Lee in the blockbuster, Enter the Dragon (1973) in a role originally intended for actor Rockne Tarkington, who unexpectedly dropped out days before shooting in Hong Kong. Producer Fred Weintraub had heard about Kelly's karate studio in the Crenshaw district of Los Angeles, went there to see him, and was immediately impressed.
This appearance led to starring roles in a string of martial arts-themed blaxploitation films, among them Melinda (1972), and Black Belt Jones (1974). This was the only role in which he was the primary star; most of Kelly's film roles played up the novelty of an African-American martial arts master. He earned a three-film contract with Warner Brothers and made Three the Hard Way (1974) with Jim Brown and Fred Williamson, and Hot Potato (1976), in which he rescues a diplomat's daughter from the jungles of Thailand. After his contract ended with Warner Brothers, he starred in low-budget films Black Samurai (1977), Death Dimension (1978), and Tattoo Connection (1978). After his appearance in One Down, Two to Go (1982), Kelly rarely appeared in movies. A deleted scene from the film Undercover Brother (2002), included on the DVD extra features, shows him in a cameo appearance with Eddie Griffin. In his last film, Kelly made a cameo appearance as Cleavon Washington in Afro Ninja (2009), produced, directed by, and starring veteran stuntman Mark Hicks.
Kelly was married three times; from 1967 until 1968 to his college sweetheart Marilyn Dishman, and from 1973 to 1977 to film actress Rosalind Miles. He was married to Marcia Bentley from 1980 to her death in 2013. On June 29, 2013, Kelly died of cancer at his home in San Diego, California. He was 67 years old.