“Here we are . . . still talking about him. And for good reason. He tried to live what he believed. When you see him on screen you’re not just seeing a performance, you’re seeing the real human being.” – Shannon Lee, Bruce Lee’s daughter.
Tomorrow, November 27, marks what would have been Bruce Lee’s 75th birthday if he hadn’t died in 1973 after suffering a fatal cerebral edema caused by an allergic reaction to pain medication. Lee was an incredible athlete, inspiring teacher, thoughtful philosopher and sensitive poet who was responsible for popularizing martial arts in America and broadening our narrow perception of Asian actors. Despite many personal hurdles and professional disappointments, he was able to overcome widespread industry racism and establish a new kind of Hollywood action hero who was admired by millions around the world. Lee’s death at the young age of 32 was a great loss to us all but his family, friends and fans have kept his legacy alive and today he remains a recognizable pop culture figure as beloved and admired as Elvis, James Dean and Marilyn Monroe.
Throughout 2015, Bruce Lee’s family has been celebrating his 75th birthday on his official website, Twitter (#BruceLee75) and Youtube channel where they’re currently posting videos of celebrities and athletes such as Stan Lee, George Lopez, Marlon Wayans, Cung Le, and Ray ‘Boom Boom’ Mancini wishing the legend a happy birthday and talking about what he meant to them. There have also been a number of products released in association with Lee’s birthday including new video games that share his name, commemorative coins, a plethora of t-shirt designs, journals, watches, an exclusive shoe line and a number of collectible figures from Funko, Plastic Cell, Enterbay and Bandai. Some of the profits from these items benefit the Bruce Lee Foundation managed by his widow Linda Lee Cadwell and their daughter Shannon Lee, which provides scholarships to students in need and is currently trying to raise funds to create a Bruce Lee museum in Seattle.
Lee’s extraordinary life and accomplishments have been documented in numerous books and films but here’s a little background for the uninitiated…
Lee was born in San Francisco in 1940 while his father, an actor and opera performer, was on tour there with his wife. A few months after Lee’s birth he appeared in his first Cantonese film role, Esther Eng’s Golden Gate Girl (1941), shot in San Francisco. Afterward, his family returned to China and Lee and his five siblings were raised in Hong Kong. For the next 18 years, Lee appeared in a number of Hong Kong films where he often played orphans and outcasts.
The films he made between 1946 and 1959 suffered from limited budgets that hampered production along with predictable scripts but watching young Lee tackle drama and comedy while trying to find his footing as a child actor is fascinating. His parents undoubtedly encouraged him but he’s a natural performer with confidence and agility who is equally at home doing comedy or drama. It’s not at all surprising that he eventually ended up making action pictures that displayed his innate energy and dynamic talents.
The young actor reportedly began studying martial arts at his father’s suggestion after he noticed his son was getting into street brawls and at age 13, Lee began practicing with the renowned Wing Chun teacher Yip Man. His Kung fu (aka Gung fu) skills greatly improved under Yip Man’s guidance and for the next five years, Lee was his devoted student.
After appearing in 20 films, Lee returned to San Francisco when he was 18 and eventually ended up in Seattle working at a Chinese restaurant. In 1961 he enrolled in the University of Washington where he majored in philosophy and supported himself by teaching Kung fu classes. He eventually opened his own school and taught his unique style of Kung fu called Jeet Kune Do. It was here that Lee met his future wife and mother of his two children, Linda Emery, who was one of his many students.
After participating in a martial arts tournament Lee was spotted by Jay Seberg who was a hairstylist to the stars and close friend of actress Sharon Tate (both were murdered by the Manson clan in 1969). Seberg encouraged Lee to take a screen test in Hollywood and he eventually got the role of Kato in The Green Hornet television series that debuted in 1966. Lee was so popular as Kato that his performance garnered more attention than his co-star Van Williams. After The Green Hornet was canceled in 1967, Lee continued to teach martial arts and had many celebrity students including James Coburn, Steve McQueen and James Garner. He also found guest roles in a number of television productions such as Ironside and Here Come the Brides while trying in vain to get his own show on the air about a wandering Chinese monk who used his hard-won wisdom and Kung fu to help others. Studio executives told Lee that a show starring a Chinese actor was not bankable at the time but they eventually launched a similar series with David Carradine and Lee’s name was left off the credits. Naturally, this did not sit well with the ambitious young man and Lee began to feel like an outsider in Hollywood.
In 1971 he was contacted by a Chinese producer who encouraged Lee to return to Hong Kong and make movies with Golden Harvest studio. For the next two years he starred in three hugely popular martial arts films; The Big Boss (1971), Fists of Fury (1972) and Way of the Dragon (1972). The success of these films caught Hollywood’s attention again and Warner Brothers came knocking. They made a deal with Lee to star in the first Hong Kong-American co-production. That film was Enter the Dragon (1973) and it became one of the most successful films of the year. Unfortunately, Lee did not live long enough to see its release. He died a month before the premiere after complaining of a severe headache and taking pain medication that caused him to slip into a coma. When he died, the world mourned. Along with his family, Lee’s loss was felt particularly hard in the Chinese community abroad and at home.
Bruce Lee was the first universally admired Asian superstar and a genuine action hero who defied Hollywood stereotypes. He had undeniable charisma and a hyper-masculinity, which was very attractive to both men and women at the time. He was also extremely handsome and possessed a great sense of humor and natural charm. His effortless smile could easily disarm his most ardent critics and his unparalleled martial arts skills can still astonish and thrill film audiences today. There had never been anything quite like him on screen before. Like any legend, the facts often get in the way of a good story and the myth-making can obscure the truth, but there is no denying that Lee’s impact on Hollywood and the world at large was enormous.
His influence was evident in America throughout the seventies, especially in places like the San Francisco Bay Area where Lee and I were both born. His likeness was plastered on the walls of local Chinese restaurants, across magazine covers and almost every teenager I encountered seemed to own a poster from Enter the Dragon. His movies were regularly played in local revival theaters and on television, and as the decade wore on Top 40 tunes that recalled Lee’s memory such as “Kung Fu Fighting” and “Dance the Kung Fu” seemed to be played on a never-ending loop. Reruns of The Green Hornet also continued to air alongside episodes of the Kung Fu (1972-1975) series that expounded a Lee-like philosophy about life. There were countless comic books published with “Kung Fu” in the title along with cartoons like Hong Kong Phooey (1974), featuring a crime-fighting dog that practiced martial arts. And naturally, Hong Kong and Hollywood took notice.
Film studios quickly began releasing a myriad of movies that attempted to cash-in on film audience’s fond memories of Bruce Lee and their desire to see more martial arts-styled action on screen. In Asia, the trend became so popular that a new genre developed that was fondly called “Bruceploitation” by its fans. These movies featured actors with names like Bruce Li, Bruce Lei, Bruce Lai, Bruce Liang and Dragon Lee who used martial arts and tried to mimic the deceased actor but few of them possessed his original good looks, charm, and grace.
My own affection for Bruce Lee began when I was just a kid. I became aware of the actor and director when he died in 1973, which was the same year I lost my own father. For a number of reasons, including their similar age and the fact that Lee’s passing garnered massive publicity at the time, their deaths were inevitably linked in my head and heart. There were, of course, plenty of other celebrity deaths in 1973, including Lon Chaney Jr. and Edward G. Robinson, but neither generated the kind of worldwide public mourning and media attention that followed in the wake of Bruce Lee’s passing. Afterward the celebrated martial artist was catapulted into sainthood while my father remained a saint in my own mind. However, when I think of one man I frequently think of the other. Both left this world suddenly, without warning, and much too soon.
Later in life, my appreciation for Lee matured when I studied Kung fu for a brief period and began to better understand the extent of his physical and mental prowess. During this time I discovered his posthumous books, Tao of Jeet Kune Do and Bruce Lee’s Fighting, that provided a much deeper look into Lee’s thought process. Even though I no longer practice martial arts, I still retain some of his life philosophy and often find myself trying (and failing) to “be water.”
As a film lover, I appreciate Lee’s movies for many reasons but they’re also one of the most powerful and somber reminders of why the sixties and seventies are my two favorite film decades. Before Bruce Lee male Asian actors in Hollywood typically played servants, laundry shop owners or our enemies in war films. Occasionally actors such as James Shigeta (The Crimson Kimono; 1956, The Flower Drum Song; 1961, Etc.) were allowed to portray heroic and romantic figures but those roles were very few and extremely far between.
Bruce Lee kicked down doors (physically and metaphorically) that were previously barred and played courageous and virile young men who overcame silly stereotypes, destroyed their enemies and made love to their female costars. Hollywood still has a hell of a long way to go before there’s any reasonable resemblance of America’s rich and diverse population represented in mainstream movies but Bruce Lee made some important inroads. And by popularizing martial arts he transformed the way action movies were made forever.
Happy Birthday Bruce!
by Kimberly Lindbergs, written for Turner Classic Movies and originally published November 27, 2015