Dive into the legacy of martial arts legend Bruce Lee, whose life was a tapestry woven with achievements, complicated relationships, and untold challenges. From his iconic films, influential friendships, and dedication to his craft, to the profound personal moments and unexpected parallels with his son, Brandon Lee, join us as we unravel the hidden layers of Bruce Lee's incredible life.
A Combat Prodigy
Bruce Lee first studied combat at the age of 13, taking up Wing Chun Gung-Fu as well as boxing, fencing, and other forms of martial arts. He opened his own school, Jun Fan Gung Fu Institute, when he was just 20 years old and eventually developed his own unique form of martial arts called Jeet Kune Do. So much for any rumors that his moves were fake!
Before the Dragon
Lee was born in San Francisco but raised in Hong Kong. His birth name was Lee Jun-fan, meaning return-again in Cantonese. It is believed that the nurse who helped birth him was the first person to call him Bruce.
Second Generation Talent
Lee was born in the United States because his father, who was a famous Cantonese opera singer and film actor, was on an international opera tour in California at the time of his birth. His father’s success and fame led to both Lee’s American citizenship and his early parlays into the entertainment industry.
Movies Before Martial Arts
Due to his father’s connections, Lee had appeared in over 20 movies by the time he was an adult. His first film appearance was as a baby of just a few months old in a movie called Golden Gate Girl. An interesting fact about these early movies and why most people do not know about them is that they were not martial arts movies.
Discovered by a Famous Man
While Lee had been in movies many times, his true talent as a martial arts star went undiscovered until 1964 when he had a chance meeting with hairdresser Jay Sebring. Sebring took Lee to a television show screen test where his skills were finally put on display for television for the first time. Sebring was murdered on August 9, 1969, by the Manson Family in one of the most infamous crimes in American history.
Member of a Street Gang
Bruce Lee rebelled against traditional schooling and was expelled from La Salle College in Kowloon. Facing taunts and ridicule, he joined the Tigers of Junction Street, a street gang. Despite this turbulent path, Bruce discovered his true passion in martial arts under Master Yip Man, the grandmaster of Wing Chun.
Fit as a Fiddle
Lee was renowned for his lean physique and rigorous fitness routine. Prioritizing muscular strength, endurance, cardiovascular fitness, and flexibility, he blended Western bodybuilding with Eastern mental and spiritual practices. Lee's disciplined approach extended to nutrition, steering clear of baked goods, and showcasing unparalleled self-discipline in both exercise and diet.
A Big Sense of Humor
Those close to Lee attest to his loving playfulness and humor, as he often delighted in telling jokes to bring laughter and happiness to those around him. On film sets, Bruce was a mischievous prankster, infusing his energetic and fun-loving spirit into every moment. This playful charisma might well have been an inherited trait from his father, a noted jokester of his time, as shared by Bruce Lee's family.
Not Fit for Military Service
In 1963, Bruce Lee faced rejection from the United States military following a failed pre-induction physical. Labeled as 4-F due to an undescended testicle and requiring contact lenses for poor eyesight, Lee's additional sinus disorder rendered him physically unfit for military training. An unlikely set of circumstances for the legendary Bruce Lee.
Director, Producer, Choreographer, and Screenwriter
Bruce Lee’s roles also included film director, producer, choreographer, and screenwriter. His journey into the film industry stemmed from martial arts, catching the attention of screenwriters in the United States. By the 1970s, Bruce Lee had established his presence in both Hong Kong and Hollywood, all while imparting his martial arts expertise to numerous enthusiasts.
The studio producing Enter the Dragon wanted to change the film's title. In response, Bruce Lee issued a stern ultimatum, threatening to quit and sever ties with the studio unless the original title was reinstated. Lee won the argument and the film's title was reverted to Enter the Dragon.
A Dancer and A Poet
Beyond his martial prowess, Bruce Lee showcased diverse talents. A champion cha-cha dancer, he won Hong Kong's Crown Colony Cha-Cha Championship. He delved into the arts exploring poetry and figure drawing. Lee's poetic pursuits were profound reflections on the human psyche, casting a unique light on his multifaceted abilities.
Memorialized on Stamps
Bruce Lee has been featured on many postage stamps both during his life and after his passing. Many countries honored Lee with stamps, but some of the most famous are the Tanzania Bruce Lee six stamp set, the 2001 Tajikistan stamp set, and the "Bruce Lee's Legacy in the World of Martial Arts" set issued by the Hong Kong Post in 2020.
Bruce Lee was often seen by others as grappling with anger management issues. His quick temper and insistence on specific conditions stemmed from exceptionally high standards. In interviews, Lee himself admitted to leveraging anger as a catalyst for learning and self-improvement, aligning with his philosophy of constant personal growth.
Year of the Dragon
Born in the Year of the Dragon and during the hour of the dragon, Bruce Lee earned the childhood moniker 'little dragon.' This title became inseparable from him, extending its influence into his film and martial arts career. In Chinese culture, the dragon signifies strength, good fortune, and immense power, aptly encapsulating the essence of the actor and his enduring legacy.
College Drop Out
Bruce Lee attended the University of Washington in 1958, focusing on Philosophy. However, he chose a different path, leaving university to dive into the film industry. Settling in Oakland, he co-founded a martial arts studio with James Yimm Lee, introduced by Ed Parker. This venture eventually led him to the Long Beach International Karate Championships, where he caught the attention of a screenwriter’s friend. Another twist of fate in Bruce Lee's journey.
Lee Has Two Children
Bruce Lee had a romance with Amy Sanbo, proposing multiple times, yet she consistently declined. The relationship ended in the summer of 1963, just before Lee's visit to Hong Kong. Following his return to Seattle in 1964, he clandestinely married Linda Emery in a shotgun wedding. Using James Lee's wife's ring, the union resulted in a daughter who later became an actress and martial artist. In 1965, Lee welcomed another child, Brandon, who continued his father's legacy as an actor and martial artist.
In 1969, Bruce Lee endured a serious back injury during a training session due to inadequate warm-ups. Damaging a sacral nerve, he faced intense muscle spasms, leading to weeks of bed rest and heightened stress. Initially told he might not walk or practice martial arts again, Lee, determined to recover, underwent extensive therapy and even designed a specialized bed. Though he resumed training and utilized medication, chronic back pain plagued him for the rest of his life.
My Definite Chief Aim
During his recovery from injury, Bruce Lee seized the opportunity to pen his renowned "My Definite Chief Aim." In this powerful declaration, he articulated his aspirations to become the first highest-paid Oriental superstar in the United States. Lee also expressed his ambition to attain global fame by the end of 1980, coupled with a deep-seated quest for inner happiness and peace.
Lee Worked with Jackie Chan
Bruce Lee acted with Jackie Chan in two films. In Enter the Dragon, the two briefly worked together in a scene where a young Jackie Chan plays a guard. Chan's character swiftly enters the frame, grabbing Bruce Lee from behind. However, Chan's role is short-lived, as Bruce Lee's character promptly eliminates him in the storyline.
Too Fast to Film
Bruce Lee showcased his remarkable speed and agility in his films. Typically, fight sequences in movies are accelerated for dramatic effect, but Bruce Lee presented a unique challenge. His movements were so fast that filmmakers had to request him to slow down to ensure they could be captured on film. Lee collaborated closely with fight choreographers and cinematographers, aiming to capture his skills without compromising clarity or coherence in the final footage.
The much-debated private bout between Bruce Lee and Wong Jack-man unfolded in 1964 in Oakland's Chinatown, where Lee was instructing martial arts. The intense match lasted for 20 minutes, with opinions divided. Regardless, Bruce Lee emerged as the victor.
The Green Hornet
In the pilot for "The Green Hornet" series, Bruce Lee was invited to portray Kato alongside Van Williams. His role introduced the art of Kung Fu to Western media for the first time, captivating audiences in the U.S. and Hong Kong with his exceptional physical abilities. Bruce Lee reprised his role in three crossover episodes of "Batman" and made appearances in other TV series, including "Ironside," "Blondie," and "Here Come the Brides."
There are three statues dedicated to memorializing Lee. Sculptor Cao Chong-en created a statue of Lee on the Avenue of Stars in Hong Kong. An unknown artist in Guangzhou, China created a bronze statue of Lee that is located in Los Angeles, California. A third statue of Lee was created by sculptor Ivan Fijolić in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina. These statues stand as proof of Lee's worldwide fame and appeal.
Hollywood Walk of Fame
At 6933 Hollywood Boulevard, Bruce Lee's star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame was dedicated on November 17, 1983, under the category of Motion Pictures. Recognized as one of the most influential martial artists ever, Bruce Lee's legacy extends through iconic films like Enter the Dragon, Fist of Fury, and The Way of the Dragon. His impact resonates, inspiring a generation of martial artists and shaping the landscape for action movie stars.
Worst Dressed Actor
While acclaimed for his martial arts prowess, Bruce Lee wasn't known for his fashion sense. In the 1970s, the Hong Kong press even voted him the 'Worst Dressed Actor of the Year' for his fondness for silk full-body suits and elaborate outfits. Despite this, his iconic yellow jumpsuit from Enter the Dragon became a timeless symbol. That very suit was later auctioned in Hong Kong, fetching $100,000.
Lee developed a terrible fear of water as a young child. He shoved his sister into a pool and as retaliation, she held his head underwater. The incident scared him so badly he would never learn to swim or go into a pool again.
A Health Nut
Bruce Lee’s philosophy emphasized a healthy mind and body. He adhered to a meticulous eating routine. Preferring balanced Asian cuisine over Western processed foods, he maintained portion control by consuming 4 to 5 small meals daily, occasionally adding fruit snacks. Bruce Lee's protein drinks included a mix of eggs, peanut butter, bananas, lecithin, and non-instant powdered milk, reflecting his dedication to holistic well-being.
Bruce Lee’s Dream Car
Prior to completing filming for Enter the Dragon, Bruce Lee foresaw its success and got a spot on a six month waiting list for a Rolls Royce Corniche. Expressing excitement about the vehicle, he frequently talked about it and other celebrities who owned one. Tragically, Bruce Lee passed away unexpectedly before having the opportunity to ride his dream car.
Friends to the End
In the Hong Kong film Game of Death, Bruce Lee collaborated with Kareem Abdul Jabbar to film a fight scene even before the completion of the movie's script. The production took place from August to October 1972 but remained incomplete following Bruce Lee's untimely passing. Despite the film's unfinished status, Bruce Lee formed a strong bond with Kareem Abdul Jabbar during its development.
On July 20, 1973, Bruce Lee, after complaining of a headache, went to take a nap and tragically never woke up. An ambulance was summoned upon finding him unconscious, but Lee was pronounced dead upon reaching the hospital. His untimely demise at the age of 32 resulted from cerebral edema or brain swelling. Over the years, various theories about the edema's cause have surfaced, leading to the emergence of conspiracy theories surrounding his death.
A Funeral Made for Movies
Steve McQueen, James Coburn, and Muhammad Ali declined roles in the Game of Death film due to concerns about exploiting Bruce Lee's death and dissatisfaction with the low pay offered by Golden Harvest. Notably, the film's funeral scene incorporates footage from Bruce Lee's actual funeral, adding a poignant and authentic touch to the portrayal.
Lee’s Good Friend Chuck Norris
Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris forged a strong friendship, with Chuck Norris being among the celebrities who enrolled in Bruce Lee's martial arts institute in Seattle. Their initial meeting during the filming of "The Green Hornet" in 1965 quickly blossomed into a close bond. They stayed at the same hotel during that time, spending every moment together until Chuck Norris had to depart for Los Angeles. Beyond martial arts, they shared common interests in philosophy and core beliefs, cementing a lasting connection.
Bruce Lee and Betty Ting Pei crossed paths in 1972 at a Hong Kong hotel, introduced by film producer Raymond Chow Man Wai. Betty Ting Pei expressed deep respect and admiration for Bruce Lee, considering him the first man she truly revered during their time together. In a 2008 interview, Ting Pei revealed that they were together with Bruce Lee before he was admitted to the hospital on the day of his death and recounted that Lee didn't wake up from his sleep and passed away suddenly in his apartment complex.
Lee Wore Taped Glasses
Bruce Lee consistently opted for his worn, taped-up glasses over new ones, maintaining a connection to his roots. Holding onto these "coke bottle" glasses for years, he considered them a symbolic reminder of his humble beginnings. Bruce Lee used these glasses as a personal anchor, reminding himself to stay grounded and committed to self-improvement, even amidst the fame and fortune that accompanied his success.
Injuries During Filming
Throughout the filming of Enter the Dragon, Bruce Lee encountered various injuries, including getting bitten by a cobra during a scene. Despite the need for numerous medical treatments, Lee consistently pressed on, determined to complete the film according to schedule. With each injury, he urged filmmakers not to halt recording, seeking medical attention only after finishing the scene.
In 1962, at the age of 22, Bruce Lee returned to Hong Kong to visit his family and friends. During this visit, his father made a sudden request for him to undergo circumcision. Bruce Lee, without a compelling reason to refuse, agreed. He believed that this decision would make him appear more American, showcasing his adaptability and cultural assimilation.
His Son’s Mysterious Death
In a tragic parallel to his father, Bruce Lee, martial artist and actor Brandon Lee also met a premature end on a movie set. Brandon died in 1993 during the filming of The Crow under controversial circumstances involving a firearm accident. The untimely deaths of both father and son cast a somber shadow over their legacies.
Buried Next to His Son
In a poignant and heartbreaking parallel, Bruce Lee and his son, Brandon, find their final resting places side by side. Both are buried at Lake View Cemetery in Seattle, perpetuating the sorrowful connection between the legendary martial artist and actor, and his promising son, whose lives were tragically cut short.
The Only Starring Role for a U.S. Company
Bruce Lee's final film, Enter The Dragon, holds a unique distinction as the only movie funded by an American company. Directed by Robert Clouse, this American-Hong Kong co-production was distributed by Warner Bros. The 99-minute film premiered just a month after Bruce Lee's tragic death. Its remarkable success spawned a wave of fictional works, influencing films, TV series, comic books, and anime.