Lee originally gave up acting while in the US pursuing his degree in favor of taking up martial arts, little knowing that would be his big break into the world of acting.
After being spotted at a martial arts exhibition, he was invited to play the role of Kato in the TV version of The Green Hornet. The show only lasted one season, and as he was not thrilled with the prospect of continuing to play second banana, Lee went to Hong Kong to make martial arts films he could showcase to Hollywood.
It worked. After the resounding success of “The Big Boss,” “Fist of Fury” and “Way of the Dragon,” Warner Brothers tabbed him to star in their entry into the kung fu film arena, “Enter the Dragon.” (See more about that movie below.)
Tragically, on the eve of his great US triumph — a mere six days before the release of “Enter the Dragon” — Lee would be dead from acute cerebral edema resulting from a reaction to a painkiller. He was only 32.
Tragedy hadn’t finished with the Lee family, unfortunately. Bruce’s son Brandon — who had become an actor and a martial artist in his own right — would be killed in a prop gun incident on the set of “The Crow” with only eight days of filming remaining.
Brandon Lee died when he was just 28 years young, and was buried alongside his father. – AJW
Bruce Lee, kung fu actor, dies (1973)
From the San Mateo Times (California) July 21, 1973
Hong Kong — American-born actor Bruce Lee, who became a box office star by turning the ancient, unarmed Chinese fighting techniques of kung fu into a film fad, died Friday night. He was 32.
The San Francisco native died of an undisclosed illness shortly after he was admitted to a Hong Kong hospital.
Lee starred in the American television series, “The Green Hornet,” and taught such actors as James Garner, Steve McQueen and James Coburn the arts of karate and kung fu before returning home to Hong Kong to pioneer a fad that made him an Asian and European box office star.
He appeared in such films as “The Fist of Fury,” “The Big Boss,” and “The Way of the Dragon” — all rock ’em, sock ’em hits that set box office records at home and started a fad in the United States.
Lee was born in San Francisco while his parents, members of the Canton opera, were on tour. Back in Hong Kong, he started acting at age nine in Chinese films. He returned to the United States to study, won the Long Beach karate championship and moved into an acting career in Hollywood.
Enter the Dragon, with Bruce Lee (1973)
From the Pasadena Star News (California) July 13, 1973
Bruce Lee is returning to Hollywood a well-heeled hero
Lee arrives in this country in mid-August to promote Warner Bros “Enter the Dragon,” his latest film of the kung fu genre responsible for thrusting him from the status of out-of-work actor to international star within the last several years.
It wasn’t so long ago (before ABC and David Carradine made it a household word) that if you’d asked the American on the street what kung fu was, he’d probably have answered it was a Chinese restaurant or a Cantonese hors d’oeuvre.
The martial arts adventures now rank as the most popular international box office attraction since James Bond, with Bruce Lee the one superstar to emerge as master of the form.
It was in 1969 when Lee, whose greatest claim to fame had been his second-banana portrayals of Kato in “The Green Hornet” series, grew weary of hucking Hollywood’s casting system, and moved to Hong Kong for his first stab at the eastern westerns in “Fist of Fury.”
“Fury” led to “The Big Boss” and “The Chinese Connection,” all low-budget, big-grossing productions that gave audiences the chance to get vicarious kicks from exaggeratedly brutal screen action. And which gave Bruce the opportunity to show off the talent that had earned his membership in the karate Blackbelt Hall of Fame.
“Enter the Dragon,” Warners’ executives inform me, will be a departure from the rest in that it presents an increase in quality and a decrease in violence.
Some of the other epics eventually got “R” ratings, but only after being edited for US distribution and deleting some of the overwhelmingly bloody scenes.
Portions of “Dragon” were filmed in California, but its main bulk was — like those others — shot in Hong Kong, where, according to producer Paul Heller, “It was much easier to recruit several hundred martial artists we needed to portray the crime lord’s army. There the martial arts are a part of everyday life. Everyone practices them, even the man on the street.”
And even, most certainly, Bruce Lee, the man who boasts an 11-room Hong Kong mansion and a fleet of Rolls Royces and Porsche autos among his recently-acquired luxury possessions.
Enter the Dragon movie trailer