Natasha Stoynoff
June 22, 2009 12:00 PM

To those who knew him, David Carradine was a man of extremes. A hard-drinking hippie who once vandalized a neighbor’s house while naked and high on drugs, he was also as deeply spiritual as the soft-spoken Shaolin monk in his hit ’70s television series Kung Fu. But in the final weeks of his life, Carradine, 72, seemed to be a man at peace. Over coffee a few weeks ago with his longtime friend, kung fu master Rob Moses, the actor chatted excitedly about his new car and upcoming projects. “I said, ‘Are you having fun?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, I’m having fun,'” says Moses. “He was definitely on a real high note. He sounded like an airborne dolphin.”

Then came devastating news: On June 4, a maid found Carradine dead, hanging inside the closet of his hotel room in Bangkok, where he had been shooting a movie called Stretch. While Thai police initially said the actor had likely committed suicide, details soon emerged about how he was found—nude, with cords wrapped around his wrists, neck and genitals—that gave rise to speculation that he accidentally died during an autoerotic act. Conflicting reports about the death left Carradine’s family (his famous acting clan includes brothers Keith, 59, and Robert, 54, heirs to dad John) “frustrated and in shock,” says Keith’s lawyer Mark Geragos, who urged the FBI to join the Thai investigation. Keith “wants authorities to investigate his brother’s death and to determine if anyone else was involved,” Geragos says. “The information keeps evolving, and that’s troubling [the family].” The family is also hiring a private detective.

While the five-times-married Carradine, a veteran of scores of movies who enjoyed a second turn at stardom in 2003’s Kill Bill, had spoken in the past about battling depression and considering suicide, friends doubt he would take his own life. “I know one thing for sure, he didn’t kill himself,” says actor Michael Madsen, a close pal. “I think there had to have been someone else involved because of the way he was found. It couldn’t have been accomplished if he was alone. God only knows what was done.”

Thai authorities say surveillance footage and Carradine’s electronic room key at the luxury Swissôtel Nai Lert Park hotel show no one else entered the actor’s room that night. Still, doctors in the U.S. are expected to examine the actor’s body, and Carradine’s family wants the FBI to examine the tapes.

As for the possibility of an accident, two of Carradine’s ex-wives have spoken out about the actor’s penchant for unconventional sexual practices. “Maybe he was experimenting,” says filmmaker David Winters, a longtime friend of Carradine’s. “He was into stuff like that.” Certainly, Carradine seemed anything but depressed during his time in Bangkok. Arriving at the hotel on May 31, the actor serenaded guests in the lobby by playing show tunes on the grand piano and, later in the evening, regaling barmates with flute-playing and stories as he downed his nightly shot of vodka. “He was a man full of life,” recalls general manager Aurelio Giraudo. “He was a very happy man. His face [was] smiling. A big smile.”

As the investigation continues, Carradine’s family chooses to remember the father of seven’s passionate life rather than the way he died. “He had a rough exterior, but he had a really sweet core,” says brother Bruce Carradine, 76. “He had an amazing amount of confidence. We all loved him.” Given his colorful past, Carradine might actually be amused by all the headlines. Says Madsen: “You don’t expect someone like David to die in his sleep.”

You May Like