×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

How Bruce Lee’s Star Rose in the U.S. After His Death

July 20 marks the 45th anniversary of the death of Bruce Lee, who had one of the briefest and most remarkable careers in Hollywood history. On July 23, 1973, Variety ran his 300-word obituary on page 7. He didn’t get star treatment because he wasn’t yet a star, at least in the English-speaking world. As Matthew Polly points out in his excellent new bio “Bruce Lee: A Life” (Simon & Schuster), Lee had a career in Asia as a child actor, a dancer (he won Hong Kong’s 1958 Cha-Cha Dance Championship with little brother Robert), a young star (nicknamed “Little Dragon” by his fans) and then a martial-arts practitioner and innovator. The rest of the world discovered him when “Enter the Dragon” opened in 1973, just one month after he died suddenly at age 32. (The cause of death was originally listed as acute cerebral edema, but Polly writes about various other theories for his death.) Variety reviewer Whitney Williams enthused, “Lee socks over a performance seldom equaled in action (movies).” His charisma, good looks and dazzling moves ensured him a posthumous legacy as a star, and as someone who laid the groundwork to bridge the styles of East and West.

He was born Lee Jung-fan in San Francisco, where his father was acting with the Cantonese Opera Company. The family returned to Asia, and Lee began appearing in films at age 6; in 1960, he starred in “The Orphan” as an angry teenager, evoking memories of “Rebel Without a Cause.” It was one of many times he was compared with actor James Dean.

Lee returned to the U.S. where he enrolled at the University of Washington and wrote a master’s thesis that was later expanded into 1963 paperback “Chinese Kung Fu: The Philosophical Art of Self-Defense.” He opened a martial arts school in Seattle, then moved to Los Angeles to pursue his Hollywood dreams.

Lee played sidekick Kato in the series “The Green Hornet,” which lasted 26 episodes starting in 1966. An item in the Aug. 7, 1968, weekly Variety pointed to a big-screen project: “Bruce Lee, an expert on Jeet Kune Do, the Chinese art of using feet as lethal weapons, will stage the fight sequences and also play a role in MGM’s ‘The Little Sister.’ ” (The Raymond Chandler adaptation was retitled “Marlowe.”)

At that point, Western awareness of martial arts was limited, and most of it was centered on judo and karate. As Polly explains in his book, Lee created Jeet Kune Do as “a means of self-defense and self-enlightenment.” It was a hybrid of East and West, of martial arts, philosophy and mysticism, incorporating movements from boxing, kung fu, fencing and other sources.

In Los Angeles, Lee picked up other jobs, including a recurring role in the 1971 series “Longstreet,” and he tutored stars like Steve McQueen and James Coburn in martial arts. But he grew frustrated at seeing Caucasian stars in “yellowface” get leading roles as Asians. (As Lee got closer to stardom, he was crushed to see David Carradine cast in the series “Kung Fu.”)

He returned to Hong Kong with wife Linda and their two children, and he and producer Raymond Chow formed Golden Harvest. He made several hit films and then returned to Hollywood. He finally achieved his goal of becoming the first Asian global superstar, but did so posthumously.

According to the wishes of the widowed Linda, Lee mixed East and West even in death; he was buried in Seattle with a gravestone that was hand-carved in Hong Kong, identifying him as “Founder of Jeet Kune Do.”

In Dec. 27, 1973, Variety did a front-page story and chart summarizing the year’s “top key-city grossers.” The story said the star system was thriving, with most top films sporting marquee names. Among the stars with two films in the year’s top 50 were Barbra Streisand, Robert Redford, Gene Hackman — and Lee. “Enter the Dragon” was No. 20 for the year, with “The Chinese Connection” at No. 47.

The following month, Variety ran an unbylined story about martial arts action films, which had ballooned in popularity after years of being limited to “ethnic houses in the Chinatowns of major American cities.” The story said it was unclear at that point whether martial arts films would be a fad or become a lasting film genre, “but karate and related elements will surely be incorporated into standard actioners in the future.”

The story said that one reason was Lee, who died suddenly “before he could capitalize on his fame. Bruce Lee posters are now available in most cities, giving the actor a James Dean aura in some quarters.”

Like Dean, Lee created a legacy that lasted far beyond his few films. Forty-five years after his death, he is still a reminder that there is a huge audience for films starring Asian leading men.

More Vintage

  • Editorial use only. No book cover

    Reflecting on the Surprise Success of 'Field of Dreams' 30 Years Later

    With baseball season in full swing, it’s time to celebrate the 30th anniversary of “Field of Dreams.” The movie, written and directed by Phil Alden Robinson, was part of a run of late-’80s baseball films: “Bull Durham” and “Eight Men Out” opened in 1988, and “Major League” and “Field of Dreams” the next year. Universal [...]

  • 'Easy Rider' Stars Brought Civil War

    How 'Easy Rider's' Stars Found a Way Around Cannes' Strict Dress Code 50 Years Ago

    The Cannes Film Festival is famous for many things, including its strict dress code for premieres. But when “Easy Rider” debuted 50 years ago, the stars found a fashion loophole in the rigorous “comme il faut” rules. As Variety reported on May 21, 1969, Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda attended in Civil War uniforms. The [...]

  • Dustin Lance Black First Time in

    Dustin Lance Black's Set Design Connections Helped Pave Way to 'Milk' Screenplay

    Dustin Lance Black’s autobiography “Mama’s Boy” (Alfred A. Knopf, $26.95) focuses less on his showbiz career and more on his early formative years. As a painfully shy kid, he survived physical abuse, Mormon repression and Texas-style military conservatism, to become the Oscar-winning screenwriter of “Milk” (2008). He has used his fame to campaign for human [...]

  • Nick Hornby

    Nick Hornby on 'Fever Pitch' Adaptations and His New Sundance TV Project

    In 1997, Tony Blair was the U.K. prime minister, and Oasis, Blur, Pulp, the Spice Girls, Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, “Trainspotting” and “Four Weddings and a Funeral” were among the cultural touchstones of what was dubbed “Cool Britannia.” And bestselling writer Nick Hornby was making his first movie, an adaptation of his hit novel “Fever [...]

  • THE EXORCIST

    'Exorcist' Star Max Von Sydow Doesn't Let Age Define His Roles

    Max von Sydow turned 90 this month, which is a milestone for most people, but age has always seemed incidental to the actor. When he played the elderly, frail Father Merrin in “The Exorcist,” von Sydow was 44 — meaning he was the same age Bradley Cooper is today. In the 1950s, von Sydow had [...]

  • Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon

    Looking Back at the 'Fosse/Verdon' Dancing Legends That Inspired FX Series

    On April 9, FX debuts “Fosse/Verdon,” about two people who may not be household names, but are certainly in the Pantheon to those who love musicals. In the Jan. 25, 1950, issue, Variety reviewer Hobe Morrison lamented the stage revue “Alive and Kicking,” but gave one of the few positive mentions to newcomer Gwen Verdon. [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content