At the time of his sudden and mysterious death in 1973, actor and martial arts expert Bruce Lee (1940-1973) was on the verge of international super-stardom. Rooted strongly in both Oriental and Western cultures, Lee brought to the ancient Chinese fighting art of kung fu the grace of a ballet dancer. He was an actor as well, and infused his performances with humor and a dramatic sensibility that assured a place for king fu films as a new form of cinematic art.
Raised in San Francisco, California, Hong Kong, and Seattle, Washington, Lee had gained his first American audience with a groundbreaking role on the 1966-67 television series The Green Hornet. Eager to challenge Hollywood's stereotypical images of Asian Americans, he returned to Hong Kong and ultimately developed his own style of kung fu. On the strength of his film, Enter the Dragon (1973), Lee returned to the attention of American audiences and posthumously ushered in a new era of cinematic art. Stars such as David Carradine, Chuck Norris, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Steven Seagal, and fellow Hong Kong martial artist Jackie Chan would follow his example, making Lee the father of an enduring style of action hero.
The "Strong One"
In 1939 Lee's father, a popular Chinese opera star, brought his wife and three children with him from Hong Kong to San Francisco while he toured the United States as a performer. At the end of the following year, on November 27, 1940, another son was born to the Lees. In accordance with Chinese tradition, they had not named him, as his father was away in New York; therefore the mother took the advice of her physician and called the boy Bruce because it meant "strong one" in Gaelic. Lee reportedly had a number of Chinese names, but it would be by the name of Bruce that he would become famous.
Stardom began early, with his first film appearance at age three months in a movie called Golden Gate Girl. By then it was 1941, and though their native Hong Kong was occupied by Japanese troops, the Lees decided to return home. According to Chinese superstition, demons sometimes try to steal male children. Out of fear for the young boy's safety, they dressed him as a girl, and even made him attend a girl's school for a while. Meanwhile Lee grew up around the cinema, and appeared in a Hong Kong movie when he was four. Two years later, a director recognized his star quality and put him in another film. By the time he graduated from high school, Lee had appeared in some twenty films.
As a teenager, he became involved in two seemingly contradictory activities: gang warfare and dance. As a dancer he won a cha-cha championship, and as a gang member he risked death on the streets of Hong Kong. Out of fear that he might be caught at some point without his gang, helpless before a group of rivals, Lee began to study the Chinese martial arts of kung fu. The style that attracted his attention was called wing chun, which according to legend was developed by a woman named Yim Wing Chun, who improved on the techniques of a Shaolin Buddhist nun. Lee absorbed the style, and began adding his own improvements. This proved too much for the wing chun masters, who excommunicated him from the school.
Lee's film career continued, and he was becoming a popular actor in the Hong Kong film scene. Producer Run Run Shaw offered the high schooler a lucrative contract, and Lee wanted to take it. But when he got into trouble with the police for fighting, his mother sent him to the United States to live with friends of the family.
Teacher and Actor
Lee finished high school in Edison, Washington, near Seattle. He then enrolled as a philosophy major at the University of Washington, where he supported himself by giving dance lessons and waiting tables at a Chinese restaurant. As a kung fu teacher instructing fellow university students, he met Linda Emery, whom he married in 1964.
The newlyweds moved to California, and Lee-who had begun developing a new fighting style called jeet kune do-ultimately opened three schools in Los Angeles, Oakland, California, and Seattle. He also began to pursue his acting more seriously, and landed a part in the TV series The Green Hornet. The show was based on a 1930s radio program, and Lee played the role of the Hornet's Asian assistant, Kato. He virtually created the role, imbuing Kato with a theatrical fighting style quite unlike that which Lee taught in his schools. The show would be cancelled after one season, but fans would long remember Lee's role.
After the end of The Green Hornet, Lee made guest appearances on TV shows such as Longstreet and Ironside. His most notable role during this time was in the film Marlowe (1969) with James Garner, when he played a memorable part as a high-kicking villain. Clearly Lee had the qualities of a star; but it was just as clear that an Asian American faced limitations within the Hollywood system, which tended to cast Oriental actors in stereotypical roles. Therefore in 1971, the Lees, including son Brandon (born 1965), and daughter Shannon (born 1967) moved to Hong Kong.
Dramatic Rise, Tragic End
Back in Hong Kong, Lee soon signed a two-film contract, and released the movie known to U.S. audiences as Fists of Fury late in 1971. The story, which featured Lee as a fighter seeking revenge on those who had killed his kung fu master, was not original in itself; but the presentation of it was, and the crucial element was Lee. He combined the smooth, flowing style of jeet kune do that he taught in his schools with the loud, aggressive, and highly theatrical methods he had employed as Kato. With the graceful, choreographic qualities of his movements; his good looks and charm; his sense of humor and his acting ability, Lee was one of a kind-a star in the making.
Fists of Fury set box-office records in Hong Kong which were broken only by his next picture, The Chinese Connection, in 1972. Lee established his own film company, Concord Pictures, and began directing movies. The first of these would appear in the U.S. as Way of the Dragon. Lee was enthusiastic about his future, not merely as a performer, but as an artist: "With any luck, " he told a journalist shortly before his death, "I hope to make … the kind of movie where you can just watch the surface story, if you like, or can look deeper into it." Unfortunately, Lee would not live to explore his full potential as a filmmaker: on July 20, 1973, three weeks before his fourth film, Enter the Dragon, was released in the United States, he died suddenly.
Lee's death became a source of controversy. Officially the cause of death was brain swelling as a reaction to aspirin he had taken for a back injury. But the suddenness of his passing, combined with his youth, his good health, and the bizarre timing on the verge of his explosion as an international superstar, spawned rumors that he had been killed by hit men. Some speculated he had run afoul of the Chinese mafia and other powerful interests in the Hong Kong film industry, and had been poisoned. Throughout his life, Lee had been obsessed by fears of his early death, and some believed that the brilliant young star had some sort of bizarre "curse" on him.
According to legend and rumor, when Lee bought a house in Hong Kong shortly before his death, he incurred the wrath of the neighborhood's resident demons. The curse is said to last for three generation. Tragically, the notion of a curse gained eerie credence on June 18, 1993-a month and two days before the 20th anniversary of Lee's death-when Brandon Lee died under equally strange circumstances. While filming a scene for the movie The Crow, he was shot by a gun that supposedly contained blanks but in fact had a live round lodged in its chamber. Like his father, Brandon Lee was on the verge of stardom.
Lee gave the world an enormous artistic legacy, in the process virtually creating a new cinematic art form. By the 1990s, Enter the Dragon alone had grossed more than $100 million, and Lee's influence could be found in the work of numerous Hollywood action heroes. In 1993, Jason Scott Lee (no relation) appeared in Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, directed by Rob Cohen. Actress Lauren Holly played Lee's wife Linda, and Holly became friends with Lee's daughter Shannon.
Shannon Lee once told People that she had not inherited any of her father's or brother's fighting abilities. Although she became host of a TV show featuring martial arts competitions, she has said in most respects she was quite unlike her father.
Contemporary Theatre, Film, and Television, Volume 15, Gale, 1996.
Hoffman, Charles, Bruce Lee, Brandon Lee, and the Dragon's Curse, Random House, 1995.
International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, Volume 3: Actors and Actresses, St. James Press, 1992.
Jahn, Michael, Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, Jove Books, 1993.
Lee, Linda, The Life and Tragic Death of Bruce Lee, Star Books, 1975.
Notable Asian Americans, Gale, 1995.
Uyehara, M., Bruce Lee: The Incomparable Fighter, Ohara Publications, 1988.
Maclean's, May 10, 1993.
People, October 23, 1995.
Time, May 17, 1993.
Nationality: American. Born: Lee Yuen Kam in San Francisco, California, 27 November 1940, of Chinese parents. Education: Attended the University of Washington, Seattle. Family: Married Linda (Lee), son the actor Brandon Lee (deceased). Career: Lived in Hong Kong as a child, and made a number of films as a child actor; appeared as Kato in the Green Hornet TV series, 1966–67, and also in Batman, Ironside, Blondie, and Longstreet series, usually as a karate practitioner or teacher; from 1971, associated with series of kung-fu films made in Hong Kong; he directed one himself (released posthumously). Died: In Hong Kong, 20 July 1973.
Films as Actor:
(as Lee Siu Lung)
The Birth of Mankind
My Son A-Chen
A Mother's Tears; Blame It on Father; Countless Families (A Myriad Homes)
In the Face of Demolition
An Orphan's Tragedy; We Owe It to Our Children; Orphan's Song
Those Wise Guys Who Fool Around; Too Late for Divorce
The Orphan (The Orphan Ah-Sam)
A Goose Alone in the World
(as Bruce Lee)
Marlowe (Bogart) (as Winslow Wong)
Fists of Fury (The Big Boss) (Lo Wei) (as Chen)
The Chinese Connection (Fist of Fury) (Lo Wei) (as Chen Chen)
Enter the Dragon (The Deadly Three) (Clouse) (as Lee); The Unicorn Fist
Kato and the Green Hornet (compilation of three Green Hornet episodes) (as Kato)
Game of Death (Bruce Lee's Game of Death) (Clouse) (as Billy Lo)
The Best of the Martial Arts Films (Weintraub—compilation)
Film as Actor, Director, and Scriptwriter:
Return of the Dragon (The Way of the Dragon) (as Tang Lung)
The Wrecking Crew (Karlson) (karate adviser)
Circle of Iron (The Silent Flute) (co-story)
By LEE: books—
Chinese Gung Fu: The Philosophical Art of Self Defense, Oakland, California, 1965.
Tao of Jeet Kune Do, Burbank, California, 1975.
Bruce Lee's Fighting Method: Advanced Techniques, with M. Uyehara, Burbank, California, 1977.
Bruce Lee's Fighting Method: Basic Training, with M. Uyehara, Burbank, California, 1977.
The Art of Expressing the Human Body, Boston, 1998.
Letters of the Dragon: an Anthology of Bruce Lee's Correspondence with Family, Frieds & Fans, 1958–1973, Boston, 1998.
Bruce Lee: Artist of Life: Vol. 6, Boston, 1999.
By LEE: articles—
"Bruce Lee: The Final Screen Test," interview with C. Golden, in Interview (New York), November 1974.
Interview with Liu Chia-Liang, in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), September 1984.
On LEE: books—
Block, Alex Ben, The Legend of Bruce Lee, New York, 1974.
Bruce Lee, King of Kung Fu, edited by Lynne Waites, London, 1974.
Dennis, Felix, Bruce Lee, King of Kung Fu, London, 1974.
Lee, Linda, Bruce Lee: The Only Man I Knew, New York, 1975.
Château, René, Bruce Lee: La Légende du petit dragon, Paris, 1976.
Clouse, Robert, Bruce Lee: The Biography, Burbank, California, 1988.
Uyehara, M., Bruce Lee: The Incomparable Fighter, Burbank, California, 1988.
Lee, Linda, and Tom Bleecker, The Bruce Lee Story, Burbank, California, 1989.
Thomas, Bruce, Bruce Lee, New York, 1993.
Chunovic, Louis, Bruce Lee: The Tao of the Dragon Warrior, New York, 1996.
Little, John R., Bruce Lee: Words of a Master, Lincolnwood, 1998.
Crompton, Paul, Bruce Lee Anthology: Films & Fighting, Paul H. Crompton, Ltd., 1999.
Bishop, James, Remembering Bruce: The Enduring Legend of the Martial Arts Superstar, Nipomo, 1999.
Tagliaferro, Linda, Bruce Lee, Minneapolis, 2000.
Little, John, editor, Bruce Lee's Striking Thoughts, Boston, 2000.
On LEE: articles—
Flanigan, B. P., "Kung Fu Krazy, or The Invasion of the 'Chop Suey Easterns'," in Cineaste (New York), vol. 6, no. 3, 1974.
Kaminsky, S. M., "Kung Fu Film as Ghetto Myth," in Journal of Popular Film (Bowling Green, Ohio), Spring 1974.
Ochs, P., "Requiem for a Dragon Departed," in Take One (Montreal), May 1974.
Moore, J., "I Was Bruce Lee's Voice," in Take One (Montreal), March 1975.
Braucourt, G., "Bruce Lee, superstar posthume," in Ecran (Paris), April 1975.
Gauthier, C., "Quand Superman se fit Chinois," and "Bruce Lee: repères biographiques et filmographiques," by D. Sauvaget, in Image et Son (Paris), March 1976.
Chiao, Hsiung-Ping, "Bruce Lee: His Influence on the Evolution of the Kung Fu Genre," in Journal of Popular Film and Television (Washington, D.C.), Spring 1981.
Weinraub, B., "Bruce Lee's Brief Life Being Brought to Screen," in New York Times, 15 April 1993.
Sharkey, B., "Fate's Children: Bruce and Brandon," in New York Times, 2 May 1993.
Appelo, Tim, "Tears of the Dragon," in Entertainment Weekly (New York), 14 May 1993.
"The Big Picture," in Boxoffice (Chicago), October 1993.
Lo, Kwai-Cheung, "Muscles and Subjectivity: A Short History of the Masculine Body in Hong Kong Popular Culture," in Camera Obscura (Bloomington), September 1996.
Brown, B., "Global Bodies/Postnationalities: Charles Johnson's Consumer Culture," in Representations, Spring 1997.
On LEE: films—
Bruce Lee: The Legend, documentary, 1984.
Bruce Lee: The Man/The Myth, film biography, 1984.
Bruce Lee: Curse of the Dragon, documentary, 1993.
Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, directed by Rob Cohen, 1993.
* * *
Bruce Lee was a phenomenon—a martial artist who, as an actor, became the hero and teacher of millions. As a child, Lee appeared in at least 20 Hong Kong film productions. Pursuing a career there and in the United States as a martial artist, Lee became well known and frequently taught actors, developing his own style of martial arts known as Jeet Kune Do. Due to his reputation, he was offered the role of Kato in the television series The Green Hornet.
After a few small parts in American films, Lee's breakthrough came when he returned to Hong Kong with his family in 1970. Due to the popularity of The Green Hornet, Lee found himself greeted by Hong Kong citizens as a local hero. Raymond Chow, the founder of Golden Harvest Productions, saw in Lee the great potential of a superstar and signed him for a two-film contract. With the immense box-office success of both Fists of Fury and The Chinese Connection, Lee went on to make his first English-language production, Enter the Dragon. Three months after the completion of the film and one month before its premiere, Lee's sudden death at the moment of his emerging international stardom shocked and saddened the world.
Another explanation for Lee's status as a cult figure may have something to do with his screen image. Because he was physically a small man, with the persona of a shy incompetent or a bumbling boy-next-door, it was hard to imagine that he could destroy any number of armed opponents singlehandedly. To many, Lee was the avenger of the underprivileged and oppressed, the "little man" rising up to battle the corruption surrounding him. He was a member of an oppressed minority who reflected the frustrations of minorities everywhere; he was the underdog who came out on top.
The 1990s have seen not only Jet Li's remake of Fists of Fury but also Jackie Chan's breakthrough in the United States with Rumble in the Bronx; like Lee, in the late 1970s Chan was discovered by Raymond Chow, who groomed him as a new Bruce Lee. People still remember Lee. A new generation of kung-fu movie stars, though employing different styles and incorporating more modern techniques, still have to prove that they can match up with—in terms of physical agility and fighting ability—the legendary Bruce Lee.
—Maryann Oshana, updated by Guo-Juin Hong
Born: November 27, 1940
San Francisco, California
Died: July 20, 1973
American actor and martial arts master
Actor and martial arts expert Bruce Lee combined the Chinese fighting art of kung fu with the grace of a ballet dancer. He helped make kung fu films a new art form before his sudden and mysterious death in 1973.
The "strong one"
In 1939 Lee Hoi Chuen, a Chinese opera singer, brought his wife Grace and three children from Hong Kong to San Francisco, California, while he performed in the United States. On November 27, 1940, the Lees had another son. His mother called the boy Bruce because the name meant "strong one" in Gaelic. His first film appearance, at the age of three months, was in Golden Gate Girl (1941). Although Hong Kong was occupied by Japanese troops, the Lees then decided to return home, where Lee's film appearances continued, numbering around twenty by the time he graduated from high school.
As a teenager Lee was both a dancer, winning a cha-cha championship, and a gang member, risking death on the Hong Kong streets. To improve his fighting skills, he studied the Chinese martial arts of kung fu. He absorbed the style called wing chun, which was developed by a woman named Yim Wing Chun, and he began adding his own improvements. Lee's film career continued, and he was offered a large contract. But when he got into trouble with the police for fighting, his mother sent him to the United States to live with friends of the family.
Teacher and actor
After finishing high school in Edison, Washington, Lee enrolled at the University of Washington, supporting himself by giving dance lessons and waiting tables. While teaching kung fu to fellow students, he met Linda Emery, whom he married in 1964. Lee developed a new fighting style called jeet kune do and opened three schools on the West Coast to teach it. He also landed a part in the television series The Green Hornet as Kato, the Hornet's assistant. Kato used a dramatic fighting style quite unlike that which Lee taught in his schools. The show was cancelled after one season, but fans would long remember Lee's role.
Lee went on to appear on shows such as Longstreet and Ironside and in the film Marlowe (1969), playing a high-kicking villain. Unhappy with the number and quality of roles available to Asian Americans in Hollywood, Lee and his family, including son Brandon and daughter Shannon, moved back to Hong Kong in 1971. Lee soon released the movie known to U.S. audiences as Fists of Fury. The story, featuring Lee as a fighter seeking revenge on those who had killed his kung fu master, was not very original, but with his graceful movements, his good looks and charm, and his acting ability, Lee was a star in the making.
Fists of Fury set box-office records in Hong Kong that were broken only by Lee's next film, The Chinese Connection (1972). Lee established his own film company, Concord Pictures, and began directing movies. The first of these would appear in the United States as Way of the Dragon. Lee was excited about his future. He told a journalist, "I hope to make … the kind of movie where you can just watch the surface story, if you like, or can look deeper into it." Unfortunately, on July 20, 1973, three weeks before his fourth film, Enter the Dragon, was released in the United States, Lee died suddenly.
The official cause of Lee's death was brain swelling as a reaction to aspirin he had taken for a back injury. But there were rumors that he had been poisoned by either the Chinese mafia or powerful members of the Hong Kong film industry. Others said that Lee's purchase of a house in Hong Kong had angered neighborhood demons, who then placed a curse on him to last for three generations. This theory was revived on June 18, 1993, when Lee's son Brandon also died under strange circumstances. While filming the movie The Crow, he was shot by a gun that was supposed to contain only blanks (which produce the appearance of a gunshot but cause no bullet to be fired) but in fact had a live round in its chamber.
Bruce Lee's movies, though few in number, created a new art form. By the 1990s Enter the Dragon alone had earned more than $100 million, and Lee's influence could be found in the work of many Hollywood action heroes such as Jean-Claude Van Damme, Steven Seagal, and Jackie Chan. In 1993 Jason Scott Lee (no relation) appeared in Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story.
For More Information
Bleecker, Tom. Unsettled Matters: The Life and Death of Bruce Lee. Lompoc, CA: Gilderoy Publications, 1996.
Clouse, Robert. Bruce Lee: The Biography. Burbank, CA: Unique Publications, 1988.
Hoffman, Charles. Bruce Lee, Brandon Lee, and the Dragon's Curse. New York: Random House, 1995.
Jahn, Michael. Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story. New York: Jove Books, 1993.
Lee, Bruce. Bruce Lee: Artist of Life. Compiled and edited by John Little. Boston: Tuttle, 1999.
Roensch, Greg. Bruce Lee. New York: Rosen Pub. Group, 2002.