Bruce Lee, The Fighter Who Won Top Billing But Left Too Soon


Left: Bruce Lee as the stylish and charming movie star. Right: Lee as Kato in The Green Hornet. Source: IMDB

There's precious little to the filmography of Bruce Lee: The Big Boss (1971), Fist of Fury (1972), Way of the Dragon (1972), Enter the Dragon (1973) and The Game of Death (1978). Five feature films for the international market, one of them a posthumous release and another stitched together from a never-completed project -- that's it. But his persona looms large for numerous reasons beyond the performances. A martial-arts star and teacher, Lee broke barriers for Asian actors and specifically Asian males on screen, who had not been favorably portrayed in the decades that preceded him. A muscular, formidable, handsome and charming presence on screen, Lee was unlike Asian actors American audiences had yet seen, and his films transcended the martial-arts genre. Prior to Bruce Lee, it was hard to imagine a Hollywood film with an Asian male actor in the lead role, but at the peak of his career Lee proved to be a major box-office draw.

Bruce Lee, also known as Lee Jun-Fan was born in Chinatown, San Francisco on November 27th, 1940. His family moved back to Hong Kong when he was only 3 months old. Despite Lee's mother being from a wealthy family and his father being a very popular opera singer, the rich neighborhood that he grew up in soon became overcrowded and full of gangs. This led to Bruce being involved in several fights which worried his parents. 

He Returned To The States To Go To College

Left: Bruce Lee in 'Game Of Death,' 1978. Right: Lee with son Brandon Lee. Source: IMDB

They then decided that he should be trained in martial arts and so he began at the age of 16 in the art of Wing Chun. In 1959, his father decided to send him back to the United States to live with his older sister after getting into another street fight in which the police were called.

After finishing high school and earning his diploma, he enrolled at the University of Washington where he majored in drama. While there, he met his future wife Linda Emery whom he married on August 17th 1964 and later went on to have two children, Brandon and Shannon Lee.

Bruce Lee, TV Sidekick

Bruce Lee with James Franciscus on 'Longstreet' (1971). Source: IMDB

Bruce started teaching martial arts in the same year that he moved back, and after dropping out of school in the spring on 1964, he moved to Oakland to live with James Yimm Lee. Together, they opened the second Jun Fan martial arts studio and in that same year, Lee appeared in the Long Beach International Karate Championship.

Before Lee left Hong Kong, he had been in over 20 movies with his first role at only a few months old. In 1966, he returned to acting in the TV series, The Green Hornet as well as guest starring in other TV shows like Ironside and Blondie. He was also known for choreographing fight scenes for the Dean Martin movie The Wrecking Crew with Chuck Norris; and A Walk in the Spring Rain.

Feature Film Superstardom

'Fist of Fury' (1972). Source: IMDB

Unhappy with the roles that he was getting in the US, Lee returned to Hong Kong where unbeknownst to him, The Green Hornet was a major success despite being aired for only one season. With his new found fame, Bruce signed a two-film contract with Golden Harvest. The first movie, The Big Boss, was an enormous box office success across Asia. He then followed with Fist of Fury, which broke the box office record set by The Big Boss. A few months after the completion of Enter the Dragon, Bruce Lee passed away. The film would later go on to gross over $200 million worldwide.

An Unexpected Foe Takes The Fighter Down

Bruce Lee in 'Enter The Dragon.' Source: IMDB

In July of 1973 while Lee was having a meeting to discuss another movie, he started to complain of a headache. He was given pain meds by an friend then went to take a nap. After failing to go to dinner later that night, producer Raymond Chow went to the apartment and was unable to wake him up. A doctor arrived on the scene and was also unable to wake Lee up. They called an ambulance which brought Lee to the Elizabeth Hospital where he was pronounced dead. The autopsy concluded that his brain had swollen considerably. The acute cerebral edema was due to a reaction caused by different elements in the headache medication.

Bruce Lee's Legacy

Bruce Lee left behind a wife and 2 children and an extraordinary legacy. Statues have been built in his honor in both San Francisco and Hong Kong. He was also named one of the 100 most influential people by Time magazine as well as the Greatest Movie Fighter Ever by the Houston Boxing Hall of Fame.