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'We're all very proud of him': Jim Kelly's daughter reveals how he got on the big screen

Kentucky native Jim Kelly is a decorated martial artist that acted in several movies, including "Enter the Dragon" and "Black Belt Jones."

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — As one of the country's most decorated martial artists, Kentucky native Jim Kelly can be seen in more than a dozen movies.

His only daughter, Sabrena Kelly-Lewis, said he was born in Millersburg, Kentucky. Known to family and close friends as Ikee, he played football for the University of Louisville.

However, due to racial tension, he left the school and chose another career path.

“He had been doing martial arts for quite a while because when my mother was dating him, he used to do martial arts with my uncle, my mother's brother Bernard Dishman,” Kelly-Lewis said. “My mother would spar with him sometimes.”

Kelly-Lewis said despite several reports of Kelly learning karate in another state, he started training in Kentucky “and he loved it.”

Credit: Ian Hardwitt/WHAS-TV
Sabrena Kelly-Lewis

Kelly eventually moved to San Diego where his father was a driver; that’s when his dad overheard a conversation from a famous passenger.

“I want to say for Frank Sinatra, he was driving him for something. And either Frank Sinatra or someone else was in the car said, they were interested in someone that could do karate in a film. And he heard that, he knew that his son did karate, that's how he got started,” she said.

He helped break the color barrier and appeared in several films including:

  • Enter the Dragon
  • Black Belt Jones
  • Three the Hard Way
  • One Down, Two to Go
Credit: jimkellykarate.com
Bruce Lee (left) and Jim Kelly (right) are on the set of the movie, "Enter the Dragon."

“Seeing a family member, an African American male on the big screen was a really big deal, because you didn't see that he was the first African American to do karate in major films. And so that was, that was really awesome to see. And we're all very proud of him,” Kelly-Lewis said.

She wanted to spend more time with him, but living in two different states made it difficult. Her upcoming book, “My Life. My Story. My Father. Martial Artist Jim Kelly,” will detail what it was like being the daughter of a celebrity.

Kelly owned several businesses and a tennis club in San Diego; because he was an entrepreneur, he did not have to do every script that was presented to him, and that helped him control his destiny Kelly-Lewis said.

He died June 29, 2013 when he was 67 years old.

►Contact WHAS11’s Sherlene Shanklin at sshanklin@whas11.com or follow her on FacebookTwitter, or Instagram.

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