oo Asian to be anything more than a masked sidekick, Hollywood told Lee, and gave the Kung Fu series lead to David Carradine. Lee returned to Hong Kong and cranked out three flicks that offered nothing but his physical virtuosity and explosive emotional power. Their poor production values couldn't keep audiences from turning him into the world's most popular action star within two years. Fearing that it would be cut out of the action, Hollywood decided that it was ready for an Asian star after all. Bruce Lee's mysterious death at age 32 couldn't keep him from rescuing Asian manhood from Hop Sing hell.
Lee Jun Fan was born November 27, 1940 to a Chinese father and a Chinese-German mother at the Chinese Hospital in San Francisco's Chinatown, making him a U.S. citizen. In light of his later success much is made of the fact that he was born between 6 and 8 a.m., the hour of the dragon, in a year of the dragon as reckoned by the Chinese zodiac. Jun Fan was three months old when his family returned to Hong Kong.
By the age of 18 Bruce Lee had distinguished himself as Hong Kong's top cha cha dancer and champion boxer. He earned a well deserved reputation as a hothead after he got into a number of fights, including one in which he inflicted real injury. His parents decided that he would be safer in the U.S. and sent him to San Francisco to live with a family friend with $100 in his pocket. A few months later he moved to Seattle to work in a Chinese restaurant owned by another friend of his father. Within a few months Lee received a diploma from Edison Technical School and enrolled at the University of Washington as a drama major. He particularly enjoyed his philosophy classes. He also devoted time to teaching kung fu to a group of students, including Linda Emery who would become his wife in 1964. With Linda he had two children. Brandon, born in 1965, was becoming a Hollywood action star when he died after being shot by a dummy bullet lodged in a pistol loaded with blanks during filming of the second installment of The Crow. Shannon too became an actor, but gave up acting after a series of low-budget films.
Thanks to his own father's status as a popular Cantonese opera star, Bruce had appeared in 20 small films by the time he left Hong Kong. His U.S. acting career started after he gave a kung fu demonstration at the 1964 Long Beach Karate Tournament and was spotted by the hairdresser of action producer William Dozier. Dozier cast Lee in the role of Kato in the Green Hornet series which lasted only one season (1966-67). Lee's Kato was so popular that it was transferred into three episodes of the Batman series which was also produced by Dozier. That was followed by guest appearances in several other series, including four episodes of Longstreet.
Feeling that he had enough appeal to star in his own series, Bruce Lee pitched The Warrior which followed the challenges faced by a displaced Shaolin monk wandering the old west. The concept was adopted by Warner Brothers under the title Kung Fu but with David Carradine cast in the lead Lee had wanted for himself. American TV audiences would not embrace a Chinese leading man, Warner explained.
Bitter and disillusioned, Lee returned to Hong Kong and signed a contract with Raymond Chow, a prolific and successful producer of low-budget kung fu flicks through his Golden Harvest studios. Lee's animal magnetism and physical prowess in his debut lead made The Big Boss (aka Five Fingers of Death) (1971) a box office hit of unprecedented proportions throughout Asia, and later, Europe and the Americas. Lee's status as a global action superstar was sealed by Fists of Fury (aka The Chinese Connection) (1972) and Way of the Dragon (1972). Lee also showed his talents as a fight choreographer and writer by taking control of nearly every aspect of Way of the Dragon.
By 1973 Warner recognized that if Hollywood wanted to tap the global profit potential of the exploding martial arts genre, it needed Bruce Lee more than Lee needed it. Warner agreed with Golden Harvest to produce Enter the Dragon as Lee's first big-budget film with Hollywood-quality production values. Bruce Lee never had a chance to enjoy the boost that Enter the Dragon would give his place as the world's most popular action star. Three weeks before the film's release, he was found dead in the apartment of a Hong Kong actress. The coroner deemed it a drug overdose, but to this day conspiracy theories abound about the role played by the Triad or rival martial artists or even figures in the film industry.
Enter the Dragon became one of the top grossers of 1973. It ensured Lee's place among not only the greatest action stars but among Hollywood's most iconic figures of all time. For Asian Americans Bruce Lee's significance transcended acting and movies by liberating an entire generation from the insidious effects of celluloid sterotypes that pigeonholed Asian manhood into the role of houseboys, waiters and other non-entities. Ironically Bruce Lee's biggest impact would have to wait until Hollywood made Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story (1993) starring Jascon Scott Lee. Thanks to a quality script, a superb lead actor and first-rate production values, Dragon elevated Bruce Lee's status from the action genre into the mainstream of Hollywood legend and American culture.