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Bruce Lee
1940 - 1973

 


With nothing but his hands, feet and a lot of attitude, he turned the little guy into a tough guy
By JOEL STEIN for Time Magazine

 

Not a good century for the Chinese. After dominating much of the past two millenniums in science and philosophy, they've spent the past 100 years being invaded, split apart and patronizingly lectured by the West. And, let's face it, this communism thing isn't working out either.

But in 1959 a short, skinny, bespectacled 18-year-old kid from Hong Kong traveled to America and declared himself to be John Wayne, James Dean, Charles Atlas and the guy who kicked your butt in junior high. In an America where the Chinese were still stereotyped as meek house servants and railroad workers, Bruce Lee was all steely sinew, threatening stare and cocky, pointed finger — a Clark Kent who didn't need to change outfits. He was the redeemer, not only for the Chinese but for all the geeks and dorks and pimpled teenage masses that washed up at the theaters to see his action movies. He was David, with spin-kicks and flying leaps more captivating than any slingshot.

He is the patron saint of the cult of the body: the almost mystical belief that we have the power to overcome adversity if only we submit to the right combinations of exercise, diet, meditation and weight training; that by force of will, we can sculpt ourselves into demigods. The century began with a crazy burst of that philosophy. In 1900 the Boxer rebels of China who attacked the Western embassies in Beijing thought that martial-arts training made them immune to bullets. It didn't. But a related fanaticism — on this side of sanity — exists today: the belief that the body can be primed for killer perfection and immortal endurance.

Lee never looked like Arnold Schwarzenegger or achieved immortality. He died at 32 under a cloud of controversy, in his mistress's home, of a brain edema, which an autopsy said was caused by a strange reaction to a prescription painkiller called Equagesic. At that point, he had starred in only three released movies, one of which was unwatchably bad, the other two of which were watchably bad. Although he was a popular movie star in Asia, his New York Times obit ran only eight sentences, one of which read "Vincent Canby, the film critic of the New York Times, said that movies like Fists of Fury make 'the worst Italian western look like the most solemn and noble achievements of the early Soviet Cinema.'"

What Canby missed is that it's the moments between the plot points that are worth watching. It was the ballet of precision violence that flew off the screen; every combination you can create in Mortal Kombat can be found in a Lee movie. And even with all the special-effects money that went into "The Matrix," no one could make violence as beautiful as Lee's. He had a cockiness that passed for charisma. And when he whooped like a crane, jumped in the air and simultaneously kicked two bad guys into unconsciousness, all while punching out two others mostly offscreen, you knew the real Lee could do that too.

He spent his life turning his small body into a large weapon. Born sickly in a San Francisco hospital (his father, a Hong Kong opera singer, was on tour there), he would be burdened with two stigmas that don't become an action hero: an undescended testicle and a female name, Li Jun Fan, which his mother gave him to ward off the evil spirits out to snatch valuable male children. She even pierced one of his ears, because evil spirits always fall for the pierced-ear trick. Lee quickly became obsessed with martial arts and body building and not much else. As a child actor back in Hong Kong, Lee appeared in 20 movies and rarely in school. He was part of a small gang that was big enough to cause his mother to ship him to America before his 18th birthday so he could claim his dual-citizenship and avoid winding up in jail. Boarding at a family friend's Chinese restaurant in Seattle, Lee got a job teaching the Wing Chun style of martial arts that he had learned in Hong Kong. In 1964, at a tournament in Long Beach, Calif. — the first major American demonstration of kung fu — Lee, an unknown, ripped through black belt Dan Inosanto so quickly that Inosanto asked to be his student.

Shortly after, Lee landed his first U.S. show-biz role: Kato in The Green Hornet, a 1966-67 TV superhero drama from the creators of Batman. With this minor celebrity, he attracted students like Steve McQueen, James Coburn and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to a martial art he called Jeet Kune Do, "the way of the intercepting fist." Living in L.A., he became the vanguard on all things '70s. He was a physical-fitness freak: running, lifting weights and experimenting with isometrics and electrical impulses meant to stimulate his muscles while he slept. He took vitamins, ginseng, royal jelly, steroids and even liquid steaks. A rebel, he flouted the Boxer-era tradition of not teaching kung fu to Westerners even as he hippily railed against the robotic exercises of other martial arts that prevented self-expressive violence. One of his admonitions: "Research your own experiences for the truth. Absorb what is useful...Add what is specifically your own...The creating individual...is more important than any style or system." When he died, doctors found traces of marijuana in his body. They could have saved some money on the autopsy and just read those words.

Despite his readiness to embrace American individuality and culture, Lee couldn't get Hollywood to embrace him, so he returned to Hong Kong to make films. In these films, Lee chose to represent the little guy, though he was a very cocky little guy. And so, in his movies, he'd fight for the Chinese against the invading Japanese or the small-town family against the city-living drug dealers. There were, for some reason, usually about 100 of these enemies, but they mostly died as soon as he punched them in the face. The plots were uniform: Lee makes a vow not to fight; people close to Lee are exploited and killed; Lee kills lots of people in retaliation; Lee turns himself in for punishment.

The films set box-office records in Asia, and so Hollywood finally gave him the American action movie he longed to make. But Lee died a month before the release of his first U.S. film, Enter the Dragon. The movie would make more than $200 million, and college kids would pin Lee posters next to Che Guevara's. In the end, Lee could only exist young and in the movies. Briefly, he burst out against greater powers before giving himself over to the authorities. A star turn in a century not good for the Chinese.
 


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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.

 

 

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This web page was last updated on: 12 December, 2008