At the time of his sudden and mysterious death in 1973, actor and martial arts expert Bruce Lee (1940-1973) was on the verge of international super-stardom. Rooted strongly in both Oriental and Western cultures, Lee brought to the ancient Chinese fighting art of kung fu the grace of a ballet dancer. He was an actor as well, and infused his performances with humor and a dramatic sensibility that assured a place for king fu films as a new form of cinematic art.

Raised in San Francisco, California, Hong Kong, and Seattle, Washington, Lee had gained his first American audience with a groundbreaking role on the 1966-67 television series The Green Hornet. Eager to challenge Hollywood's stereotypical images of Asian Americans, he returned to Hong Kong and ultimately developed his own style of kung fu. On the strength of his film, Enter the Dragon (1973), Lee returned to the attention of American audiences and posthumously ushered in a new era of cinematic art. Stars such as David Carradine, Chuck Norris, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Steven Seagal, and fellow Hong Kong martial artist Jackie Chan would follow his example, making Lee the father of an enduring style of action hero.

The "Strong One"

In 1939 Lee's father, a popular Chinese opera star, brought his wife and three children with him from Hong Kong to San Francisco while he toured the United States as a performer. At the end of the following year, on November 27, 1940, another son was born to the Lees. In accordance with Chinese tradition, they had not named him, as his father was away in New York; therefore the mother took the advice of her physician and called the boy Bruce because it meant "strong one" in Gaelic. Lee reportedly had a number of Chinese names, but it would be by the name of Bruce that he would become famous.

Stardom began early, with his first film appearance at age three months in a movie called Golden Gate Girl. By then it was 1941, and though their native Hong Kong was occupied by Japanese troops, the Lees decided to return home. According to Chinese superstition, demons sometimes try to steal male children. Out of fear for the young boy's safety, they dressed him as a girl, and even made him attend a girl's school for a while. Meanwhile Lee grew up around the cinema, and appeared in a Hong Kong movie when he was four. Two years later, a director recognized his star quality and put him in another film. By the time he graduated from high school, Lee had appeared in some twenty films.

As a teenager, he became involved in two seemingly contradictory activities: gang warfare and dance. As a dancer he won a cha-cha championship, and as a gang member he risked death on the streets of Hong Kong. Out of fear that he might be caught at some point without his gang, helpless before a group of rivals, Lee began to study the Chinese martial arts of kung fu. The style that attracted his attention was called wing chun, which according to legend was developed by a woman named Yim Wing Chun, who improved on the techniques of a Shaolin Buddhist nun. Lee absorbed the style, and began adding his own improvements. This proved too much for the wing chun masters, who excommunicated him from the school.

Lee's film career continued, and he was becoming a popular actor in the Hong Kong film scene. Producer Run Run Shaw offered the high schooler a lucrative contract, and Lee wanted to take it. But when he got into trouble with the police for fighting, his mother sent him to the United States to live with friends of the family.

Teacher and Actor

Lee finished high school in Edison, Washington, near Seattle. He then enrolled as a philosophy major at the University of Washington, where he supported himself by giving dance lessons and waiting tables at a Chinese restaurant. As a kung fu teacher instructing fellow university students, he met Linda Emery, whom he married in 1964.

The newlyweds moved to California, and Lee-who had begun developing a new fighting style called jeet kune do-ultimately opened three schools in Los Angeles, Oakland, California, and Seattle. He also began to pursue his acting more seriously, and landed a part in the TV series The Green Hornet. The show was based on a 1930s radio program, and Lee played the role of the Hornet's Asian assistant, Kato. He virtually created the role, imbuing Kato with a theatrical fighting style quite unlike that which Lee taught in his schools. The show would be cancelled after one season, but fans would long remember Lee's role.

After the end of The Green Hornet, Lee made guest appearances on TV shows such as Longstreet and Ironside. His most notable role during this time was in the film Marlowe (1969) with James Garner, when he played a memorable part as a high-kicking villain. Clearly Lee had the qualities of a star; but it was just as clear that an Asian American faced limitations within the Hollywood system, which tended to cast Oriental actors in stereotypical roles. Therefore in 1971, the Lees, including son Brandon (born 1965), and daughter Shannon (born 1967) moved to Hong Kong.

Dramatic Rise, Tragic End

Back in Hong Kong, Lee soon signed a two-film contract, and released the movie known to U.S. audiences as Fists of Fury late in 1971. The story, which featured Lee as a fighter seeking revenge on those who had killed his kung fu master, was not original in itself; but the presentation of it was, and the crucial element was Lee. He combined the smooth, flowing style of jeet kune do that he taught in his schools with the loud, aggressive, and highly theatrical methods he had employed as Kato. With the graceful, choreographic qualities of his movements; his good looks and charm; his sense of humor and his acting ability, Lee was one of a kind-a star in the making.

Fists of Fury set box-office records in Hong Kong which were broken only by his next picture, The Chinese Connection, in 1972. Lee established his own film company, Concord Pictures, and began directing movies. The first of these would appear in the U.S. as Way of the Dragon. Lee was enthusiastic about his future, not merely as a performer, but as an artist: "With any luck, " he told a journalist shortly before his death, "I hope to make … the kind of movie where you can just watch the surface story, if you like, or can look deeper into it." Unfortunately, Lee would not live to explore his full potential as a filmmaker: on July 20, 1973, three weeks before his fourth film, Enter the Dragon, was released in the United States, he died suddenly.

Lee's death became a source of controversy. Officially the cause of death was brain swelling as a reaction to aspirin he had taken for a back injury. But the suddenness of his passing, combined with his youth, his good health, and the bizarre timing on the verge of his explosion as an international superstar, spawned rumors that he had been killed by hit men. Some speculated he had run afoul of the Chinese mafia and other powerful interests in the Hong Kong film industry, and had been poisoned. Throughout his life, Lee had been obsessed by fears of his early death, and some believed that the brilliant young star had some sort of bizarre "curse" on him.

According to legend and rumor, when Lee bought a house in Hong Kong shortly before his death, he incurred the wrath of the neighborhood's resident demons. The curse is said to last for three generation. Tragically, the notion of a curse gained eerie credence on June 18, 1993-a month and two days before the 20th anniversary of Lee's death-when Brandon Lee died under equally strange circumstances. While filming a scene for the movie The Crow, he was shot by a gun that supposedly contained blanks but in fact had a live round lodged in its chamber. Like his father, Brandon Lee was on the verge of stardom.

Lee gave the world an enormous artistic legacy, in the process virtually creating a new cinematic art form. By the 1990s, Enter the Dragon alone had grossed more than $100 million, and Lee's influence could be found in the work of numerous Hollywood action heroes. In 1993, Jason Scott Lee (no relation) appeared in Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, directed by Rob Cohen. Actress Lauren Holly played Lee's wife Linda, and Holly became friends with Lee's daughter Shannon.

Shannon Lee once told People that she had not inherited any of her father's or brother's fighting abilities. Although she became host of a TV show featuring martial arts competitions, she has said in most respects she was quite unlike her father.

Further Reading on Bruce Lee

Contemporary Theatre, Film, and Television, Volume 15, Gale, 1996.

Hoffman, Charles, Bruce Lee, Brandon Lee, and the Dragon's Curse, Random House, 1995.

International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, Volume 3: Actors and Actresses, St. James Press, 1992.

Jahn, Michael, Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, Jove Books, 1993.

Lee, Linda, The Life and Tragic Death of Bruce Lee, Star Books, 1975.

Notable Asian Americans, Gale, 1995.

Uyehara, M., Bruce Lee: The Incomparable Fighter, Ohara Publications, 1988.

Maclean's, May 10, 1993.

People, October 23, 1995.

Time, May 17, 1993.