×
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 Film

  • FX's 'Snowfall' Panel TCA Winter Press

    John Singleton Hospitalized After Suffering Stroke

    UPDATED with statements from John Singleton’s family and FX Networks John Singleton, the Oscar nominated director and writer of “Boyz N’ the Hood,” has suffered a stroke. Sources confirm to Variety that Singleton checked himself into the hospital earlier this week after experiencing pain in his leg. The stroke has been characterized by doctors as [...]

  • 'Curse of La Llorona' Leads Slow

    'Curse of La Llorona' Leads Slow Easter Weekend at the Box Office

    New Line’s horror pic “The Curse of La Llorona” will summon a solid $25 million debut at the domestic box office, leading a quiet Easter weekend before Marvel’s “Avengers: Endgame” hits theaters on April 26. The James Wan-produced “La Llorona,” playing in 3,372 theaters, was a hit with hispanic audiences, who accounted for nearly 50% [...]

  • Jim Jarmusch in 'Carmine Street Guitars'

    Film Review: 'Carmine Street Guitars'

    “Carmine Street Guitars” is a one-of-a-kind documentary that exudes a gentle, homespun magic. It’s a no-fuss, 80-minute-long portrait of Rick Kelly, who builds and sells custom guitars out of a modest storefront on Carmine Street in New York’s Greenwich Village, and the film touches on obsessions that have been popping up, like fragrant weeds, in [...]

  • Missing Link Laika Studios

    ‘Missing Link’ Again Tops Studios’ TV Ad Spending

    In this week’s edition of the Variety Movie Commercial Tracker, powered by the TV ad measurement and attribution company iSpot.tv, Annapurna Pictures claims the top spot in spending for the second week in a row with “Missing Link.” Ads placed for the animated film had an estimated media value of $5.91 million through Sunday for [...]

  • Little Woods

    Film Review: 'Little Woods'

    So much of the recent political debate has focused on the United States’ southern border, and on the threat of illegal drugs and criminals filtering up through Mexico. But what of the north, where Americans traffic opiates and prescription pills from Canada across a border that runs nearly three times as long? “Little Woods” opens [...]

  • Beyonce's Netflix Deal Worth a Whopping

    Beyonce's Netflix Deal Worth a Whopping $60 Million (EXCLUSIVE)

    Netflix has become a destination for television visionaries like Shonda Rhimes and Ryan Murphy, with deals worth $100 million and $250 million, respectively, and top comedians like Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle ($40 million and $60 million, respectively). The streaming giant, which just announced it’s added nearly 10 million subscribers in Q1, is honing in [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content