Bruce Lee: The Most Dangerous Man in the World
About five on the afternoon of May 10, 1973, Dr. Don Langford, an American missionary surgeon stationed in Hong Kong, was preparing to leave Baptist Hospital in the suburb of Kowloon Tong.
Suddenly, the switchboard operator shouted at him to stand by for an emergency case. Bruce Lee was being rushed to the hospital,
Dr. Langford knew Bruce Lee very well. For the past year and a half, the Tennessee-bom, Tulane-educated doctor and minister had been the kung-Fu star’s family physician, the only doctor in whom Lee reposed any confidence. On more than one occasion, Dr. Langford had received Lee fresh off a film location where he had suffered a damaging kick to the groin or a nasty bum or a slashed hand; for no matter where or how Lee was injured. He insisted always that he be carried to Dr. Langford. The doctor, for his part had come to view these visitations with muted apprehension and even a bit of resentment. for the famous star was a most difficult patient. Indeed, after observing Lee carefully for a considerable period of time. Dr. Langford had come to the conclusion that the actor was in the strict medical sense of the word a ”hysteric.”
For example, instead of coming into the office like any other man and explaining what ailed him, Lee would not permit the doctor to perform his work until he had witnessed a complete enactment of the entire incident that led up to the injury. Instead of getting on with his job. Langford would have to stand by, with the other members of Lee’s adoring entourage. while blows whizzed by his nose and high kicks
missed by inches his precious instrument
cabinet. Then, as the climax to the performance, Lee would gather all his fury into a final paroxysm of rage and swear a blood curdling oath to kill the man responsible for this outrageous humiliation. For Bruce Lee’s image was based on the idea that while he killed scores of men with his bare hands, nobody every laid a finger on him until the final death duel with the supervillain. An injury for Bruce Lee, therefore, was not just a matter of physical pain or nervous anxiety. It was a loss of face. God help the man who made Bruce Lee lose face!
This afternoon proved very different
from those previous occasions. Instead of the great fighter bursting into the emergency room like a pirate boarding a junk. followed by his crew of trusty henchmen, Lee was carried into the clinic in a horizontal position by four men who looked like they were bearing a corpse. All they could tell the doctor was that Lee had been working at Golden Harvest Studios when, for no apparent reason, he had collapsed and lost consciousness. Though Lee had been scooped up and rushed to the hospital, only minutes away from the studio. it was obvious to the doctor that the actor was nearly dead.
Lee was in a deep coma and barely
breathing. His eyes were rolling around in circles. His blood pressure was low and
sinking further. He had no reflexes. His body was drenched with perspiration from a fever of 1 05 °.
The initial picture was that of a stroke
victim or a man who has suffered some traumatic injury. Dr. Langford. a veteran of many years in the Orient. suspected he was seeing a condition not uncommon among young Chinese: a leak, or even a hemorrhage, produced in the brain by a congenital defect in the wall between a vein and an artery. The only remedy was to open the skull and repair the damage.
As the doctor looked about. however. he realized that he would not be able to operate. because his staff was starting to panic. This was not the first time that these otherwise competent nurses and orderlies had faltered and even fled. Every time a famous person was brought in at the point of death, the Chinese, who dread being held responsible in such a case, would seek to escape. Recognizing this danger, Dr. Langford summoned to his aid two other physicians upon whom he could rely: Dr. Cecilia Wong. an anesthesiologist, and Dr. Peter Vevo. Hong Kong’s leading brain specialist.
Even as Langford took these precautions. he saw his patient slipping away. Before any surgical procedure could be attempted. the patient had to be stabilized. Ordering the anesthesia machine brought down from the floor above (to act as a respirator), the doctor inserted a breathing tube into Bruce Lee’s throat and an IV needle into his arm, to counter with glucose the effects of shock. At that moment, Dr. Vu appeared and examined the patient.
What he saw suggested not that there was bleeding inside the skull but rather that the brain had swollen and was pressing dangerously against the cranium. The treatment for this condition was a dehydrating agent called Manito! (the same substance that is used to cut cocaine). Manito!, which is actually synthetic urea, produces a strong flow of urine. With the patient unconscious and unable to urinate, there is the danger that his bladder will rupture. So Langford inserted a catheter into Lee’s penis. It was during this painful procedure that the moribund actor gave his first sign of life. Still unconscious. Bruce Lee reached down and seized the doctor’s hand.
No sooner did Lee exhibit one sign of life than he displayed others. He began to thrash about on the operating table. In these uncontrolled movements, Dr. Lang ford recognized a fresh threat. He recalled the instance, not long since, when a Japanese stuntman had been brought in suffering from a concussion. When Langford shone his flashlight into the man’s eyes, the powerful Japanese had come off the table like an enraged animal and attacked the doctor with hands and feet. The muscular missionary had to fight for his life. Eventually, he subdued the patient. But Langford knew he wouldn’t stand a chance with a demented Bruce Lee. Immediately, he began to tie down the twitching fighter’s arms and legs with adhesive tape.
Over the next couple of hours, Bruce Lee gradually regained consciousness. As Dr. Langford recalls: “First, he opened his eyes. Then, he ranges sore sign but could not speak. He recognized his wife and made signs of recognition. Later, he was able to speak but it was slurred.” A few hours after the onset of the attack, Lee was reproved to St. Theresa Hospital, which had an open bed. At this point, Dr. Wu took over as the admitting physician, and he recalls that Lee had so far recovered that he was able to recollect his collapse and make jokes about it. By the next day, the man who had been so near to dying appeared perfectly normal.
This astonishing recovery coupled with certain telltale symptoms persuaded Dr. Wu and Dr. Langford that Lee had been taking a powerful drug. The day following his collapse. Lee was interrogated by Dr. Wu in the presence of Lee’s wife. Linda. The suspicion that Lee was using a drug was instantly confirmed.
As Lee reported the incident, it all began with his feeling depressed that day at the studio. He had formed the Habit of altering his moods by eating hashish. which he obtained from Katmandu. That afternoon, he had gone into the studio men’s room and taken some of the drug. Instead of experiencing an improvement. he began to feel unwell. Finally, he collapsed against the door of the toilet knocking it open and then sprawling across the studio floor, where he made one last effort to conceal his condition by telling the men who rushed to his rescue that he had dropped his glasses and was searching for them on the floor. ·
Then Lee actually presented Dr. ‘Nu with a sample of the hashish he had been eating. Hashish in Hong Kong is even more exotic than opium in New York. Dr. Wu was highly alarmed by his discovery of Lee’s drug-taking. He warmed Lee sternly that by continuing to take the drug he would scramble his brains’ or even kill himself. After all, he had come within an inch of dying just the day before. If the doctor had been surprised at the discovery that hashish was at the root of Lee’s complaint, he was no less astonished by the attitude that Lee displayed upon receiving the sensible advice to desist.
Lee not only rejected the doctor’s counsel but ridiculed the notion that hashish could harm a man. He explained that. He had been introduced to the drug by a famous Hollywood actor who took very good care of his health, Steve McQueen. If the drug produced harmful effects, Lee argued, his friend, McQueen, would have warmed Lee of the danger. What’s more, Lee protested, he was living under unbearable pressures.
He had a big deal going at that moment with Carlo Ponti that would make Lee the highest-paid actor in the world. He was working on a picture, Game of Death, which demanded that he do everything himself–write, direct. coordinate stunts, act. He was virtually going out of his mind. The one thing that had helped him was hashish. It alone enabled him to relax.
Dr. Wu was not easily persuaded. He pointed out that it made no difference what hashish did or did not do to other people. The drug was deadly for Bruce Lee. It was possible that he had developed a specific allergy or become hypersensitive. Only further tests could tell what had really happened. In the meantime, it was urgent that he stop. “Why can’t you stop?” demanded the doctor. ·
Staring past his white-coated interrogator, Lee groped for the answer. Then he uttered the line that should have been engraved on his tombstone. Speaking with unconscious irony-who could have known that just ten weeks later he would.
“It’s the only thing that makes the clock stop!” Lee exclaimed. The clock that Bruce Lee was trying to stop with drugs was the clock that was always ticking inside his head. One of those young men who fear that they will die before they reap the harvest of their teeming brains, Lee sought always to cram every moment of his life with self-improving, self advancing activity.
An idealist. a perfectionist, a control freak, he would lock on a goal with the tenacity and emotional intensity of the obsessive-compulsive personality and drive himself to the limit in the effort to achieve the mythical ‘’most. ·· Even as he worked at achieving one goal, however, he would be distracted and tormented by the thought that other, equally important goals were· not receiving his at attention. So, he adopted the expedient of performing many activities simultaneously, dividing up his consciousness into” separate tracks and shifting his attention from one endeavor to another. like a man constantly twisting the dial of a television set.
So long as Lee was living in obscurity in Los Angeles. a married man with two children. a coach for movie stars who were studying the martial arts, an occasional performer on TV or in films, he was able to manage his life comfortably.
He was cheerful, self-contained, considerate of others, and so dedicated to his training ideals that he would never smoke or drink, much less experiment with drugs. Once he got into the big time, however, where with each successful picture the opportunities and demands increase at a geometric ratio, he was betrayed by his old habits of mind. Struggling to do everything himself and do it all perfectly, he suffered a massive psychic overload. His personality changed perceptibly as his behavior grew increasingly disturbed. By the end of his life he was like a wildly wobbling wheel that is just about to fly off its axle. The story of Bruce Lee, therefore, is the story of how the ”deadliest man on the planet” finally fell victim to himself.
What was driving Bruce Lee?
What was he striving to attain? To answer these difficult questions, you have to retrace the growth of his personality from his earliest years. One of the most striking features of his character was its swiftness in declaring itself. Indeed, contemplating Bruce Lee’s brief but ardent life is like watching a man being shot from a cannon. The gun powder that drove this human cannonball was probably the now familiar (but then unrecognized) syndrome of the Hyperkinetic or overactive child, a condition that can assert itself as early as the age of six months.
Describing her husband’s childhood in Hong Kong, Linda Lee writes: “He was simply bouncing with energy-running, talking, jumping up and down, playing tricks.” Lee’s older brother, Peter, a dentist today at Hong Kong’s Royal Observatory, confirms this description, adding the amusing detail that the family risk name for little Bruce was “Never Sit Down.” This prodigious energy, which, Lee said in later years, he could feel “bubbling and roaring up” inside him, was not a simple blessing. From the start it created serious problems for the boy and presented him with a grave challenge: either he could learn to control his energy or it would control him-and drive him crazy.
Like most hyperactive children, the young Bruce Lee found it impossible to concentrate on his studies. Even though he was tightly intelligent and loved book. He experienced very serious difficulties all through school. By· the age of eighteen, when he dropped out, he had reached only the equivalent of the tenth grade. On the other hand, Lee was always able to focus his energy perfectly when he was set a task in that other school, which taught him his earliest and best-remembered lessons. show business.
Contrary to what is popularly believed, Bruce Lee was not a martial artist who somehow developed a knack for acting. He was born into show business and became an actor at an age when most children are just entering school. The son of a comedian with the Cantonese Opera (a kind of Chinese vaudeville), Lee had the typical upbringing of a show-biz brat. One of the earliest photos of him in the family album shows the infant Bruce with his face painted like a clown.
At the age of three months, he made his film début, carried on camera in his swaddling clothes. By the age of six, he was playing starring roles. By eighteen, he had appeared in no less than twenty motion pictures and become, as The Little Dragon, the most successful child and juvenile actor on the Mandarin circuit.
Meantime, Lee sucked up the atmosphere of the theater and the movie studio like his mother’s milk. For years he was always going backstage at the Cantonese Opera, going out on tours with his father, spending time on his vacations in the exhilarating company of actors and actresses. One of Bruce Lee’s former teachers recounted to me how he had once asked the boy if he could arrange a tour of a film studio for an out-of-town visitor.
The teacher was as astonished at with which young Lee complied with his request, arranging for a car and driver, conducting the visitors about the lot like a professional guide, and demonstrating at every turn that this was a world in which he was totally at home. In fact, when you view Lee’s early films, the one thing that stands out above everything else is his absolute ease before the camera, which, no matter how intimately it ogles him, never once elicits from him a trace of self-consciousness. If ever man were to the medium born that man was Bruce Lee. Another obvious effect of a show-biz rearing on Bruce Lee was the character it stamped on him as a show-off, a compulsive entertainer, a man who instinctively seizes the center of the stage and goes into his act.
People in later years were astonished at the way Lee behaved at parties, in restaurants, or when they met him for the first time. Instead of relating as one person to another, Bruce Lee saw each new acquaintance as an audience that he must wow. Instantly, he would go into one of his favorite shtick. He might thrust his heavily callused hand at your eyes with blinding speed only to close the lids with the gentleness of a caress.
Or he might fire three fast kicks past your nose, proving that he had the same micrometer control over his feet as he had of his hands. Or he might do his coin trick. Putting a dime on your palm, he’d say, “Let’s see how fast you are!” Then you were supposed to clench your hand before he could grab the coin. Once, twice, he would let you win. The third time, when you opened your hand, you discovered that not only had he grabbed the dime-he had substituted for it a penny at the very least, you would get the Bruce Lee handshake, which did not consist of customary clasp but of a pressing invitation to punch the strong man in the belly.
When you delivered the blow, soft or hard-it made no difference to a steel jacketed bullet like Bruce Lee-he would smile happily and exclaim, “Now, there’s a body!”
These tales of a Bruce Lee who was childishly exhibitionistic and unselfconsciously boastful suggest how close was the man to the boy in this boyish-looking performer. They also underscore a trait that informs his films: his boyish charm. Women were to find this facet of Bruce Lee highly appealing; indeed, it was a sophisticated woman in Hollywood who pointed out to me that Bruce Lee was the first martial arts actor to employ charm in his characterization, the traditional demeanor of the Oriental warrior being grim and forbidding, devoid of appeal for most women.
At puberty, the once playful Bruce Lee began to exhibit a new character that dismayed his family and disgusted his teachers. This middle-class boy, who had always said that it was his ambition to become a doctor, committed himself to a life of fighting in the streets and on the tenement rooftops. “I was a punk,” he told Black Belt in 1966. “and went looking for fights. We used chains and pens with knives hidden inside. Then, one day, I wondered what would happen if I didn’t have my gang behind me when I got into a fight. I began to study kung-Fu.” Nobody has ever offered any explanation for this
revolution in character; yet, it is Bruce
Lee’s “deviant” phase that laid the foundation for everything he achieved in his years of fame. The punk was the father of the warrior. The determined little kid with the toilet chain wrapped around his waist was the progenitor of the noble kung-Fu hero.
One reason for Bruce Lee’s fighting in the streets was obviously his inability to function as a scholar. Another reason was the rage that built up in him at this time–and remained ever after, underlying his often-cheery personality like the lava inside an inactive volcano. Finally, there is the element of imagination or fantasy, which always played a big part in Bruce Lee’s life. Starting at the age of six, Lee had been cast in the roles of an orphan, runaway, outsider, juvenile delinquent. It’s entirely possible that these early experiences in playing movie roles may have led him to play a similar part in the streets. Infect, you could go further and argue that his juvenile acting experience. Decisively affected his subsequent conception of the kung-fu movie. Consider for a moment the archetypal confrontation scene in a mature Bruce Lee film.
The hero, always the outsider, has stepped into a dangerous scene and is surrounded by a mob of menacing hoods. For a moment, he seems doomed outnumbered. his escape cut off, without hope of rescue. Then, in a flash, he is transfigured. The disguise of the modest young man drops off him like a disguising cloak and out steps the kung-Fu killer, the deadliest man on the planet.
Leaping and kicking, spinning and punching in a deadly ballet of animal grace and ferocity, Lee massacres his enemies, dispatching them with such a variety of blows and such ingenious yet spontaneous combinations of movements that the horror and glee of the spectacle whips the audience into a frenzy of wild exultation. Now, when do you suppose that Bruce Lee played a scene like this for the first time? The answer is when he was eight years old.
In Kid Cheung, you see the lad brought reluctantly to school and given a good sound slap to insure his remaining there. Soon, he comes into conflict with the other boys. They surround him like a pack of dogs. At this critical moment, the boy actor does exactly what the man would do more than twenty years later in Enter the Dragon: he picks up a broom handle and lays about him with such good effect that he scatters his attackers and sends them flying.
As Lee’s film career unfolded in the fifties. he was called upon to play roles that were increasingly modeled on the “troubled youth” pictures popular at the time in the United States, films like Blackboard Jungle and I Was a Teenage Werewolf. In his last and most important juvenile film, The Orphan, Lee plays a full-blown street punk. You see him snatching purses, hanging out with his Fagin-like boss (who runs a school for purse snatchers), and even dancing the cha-cha (Lee was local cha-cha champ) in a style that would have suited the Dead-End Kids.
Inevitably, the big scene shapes up as a mass attack by a whole school of boys on the outsider. Lee, cornered like a rat, whips out a wicked-looking switch blade, breaks into the hysterical giggle that was the DJ’s battle cry, and cuts his way through his horrified attackers. So often did Bruce Lee play some variation on the theme of the juvenile delinquent that one is compelled at last to ask: did Bruce Lee make movies or did movies make Bruce Lee?
Whatever the mode, the medium, by which Lee moved from being a screen fighter to being a street fighter, he accomplished the transformation with characteristic zeal and thoroughness. He enrolled himself in a kung-Fu school; attended classes as faithfully there as he cut them at his academic school; and eventually, standing at the head of his own gang, became the terror first of his school, then of the neighboring schools, and finally of the toughest slum districts in the city.
His schoolmasters recall that he loved nothing better than beating up the boys at the nearby English school, one of his best-remembered traits being his resentment of the “white devils.” (Here again you find a prophecy of his later films, which stand James Bond on his head. For just as the Bond films are full of subliminal racism, Bond always defeating the blacks, Jews, and Orientals who are the enemies of the Empire, so Bruce Lee is always knocking the hell out of the Japanese, Americans, Australians, and blacks who are the enemies of the Celestial Empire. In fact, in Hong Kong, a favorite phrase for Lee’s film persona is “Protector of the Chinese People.”)
Eventually the young Bruce Lee’s passion for fighting got so out of hand that he came into collision with both forces of authority in the street: the Mob and the police. Lee’s most dramatic encounter with the Chinese Mob (actually a secret society called the Triads) was recounted to me by Brother Henry Pang, today the headmaster of La Salle College, Bruce Lee’s first school.
One afternoon, Brother Henry and his colleagues in this Christian Brothers school were seated at the dining table in the White Hotspot, a chapter house that was strictly out of bounds for students. Suddenly, into their midst bursts the young Bruce Lee, running as if possessed. Three times he tears around the table, until on the last lap he spies a phone booth and dives inside it. The headmaster orders Brother Henry to investigate this outrageous disturbance.
When the round-faced, bespectacled brother gets the boy talking, he learns that Lee is literally running for his life. In the course of his fighting career, he has beaten up a boy whose father is a big shot in the Triads. Now there is standing outside in the street a whole mob of toughs who are intent on killing Bruce Lee.
If this had been an old-fashioned Hollywood movie, Brother Henry, played by Pat O’Brien, would have admonished the frightened boy and then put his arm around him reassuringly. This being Hong Kong rather than Hollywood, the consequences were rather different. Brother Henry said, “You got yourself into this mess, Lee-now get yourself out!” Whereupon the lad was not only pushed out into the street but expelled from the school.
Subsequently, Lee got into another fight that had even more serious consequences. This time the battle was between Lee and the leader of a rival gang. The two young men met on the roof of an apartment house in Kowloon City, the toughest slum in Hong Kong. They agreed that the winner of the match would toss the loser off the roof. As Lee was removing his jacket, his opponent jumped him with a kick to the head. Lee went wild with rage and wound up breaking both his rival’s arms as well as his thigh bone. The injured boy’s parents took the matter to the police.
The police were well acquainted with Bruce Lee and eager, in those years of soaring juvenile crime rates, to make an example of him. Lee’s mother, Grace, always struggling to protect her favorite child, implored the authorities to be merciful. Eventually, a bargain was struck. The police told Mrs. Lee that they would release her son. but if he ever got into trouble again, she would go to jail. At that point, the mother gave the boy a hundred dollars and put him on a steamer to America.
The epithet always used to characterize the young Bruce Lee in Hong Kong is not “punk” or “juvenile delinquent”; it is “bully.” Early and late (but not in his middle years), Bruce Lee was a man who ruled by intimidation and who drove over anyone who would not stand up to him. If you believe that the child is father to the man, a formula that seems especially apt for a boy-man like Lee, it follows that the key to his personality, particularly the explanation for what was driving him, lies in how you interpret that familiar figure of the streets, the bully. Of all the people with whom I talked about Bruce Lee, none exhibited so much insight into this problem-and into Lee’s character in general-as did Bob Wall, a former karate champion and movie actor, who appeared in three of Bruce Lee’s films.
Wall met Lee in 1963, when the future superstar was just a skinny, funny youngster with a consuming interest in the martial arts. Wall and his toumament teammate, Chuck Norris, took an interest in the kung-fu enthusiast and aided him in many ways, ranging from advice on diet (Lee ate nothing but junk food and had a face covered with pimples) to offering him tips on fighting techniques to loaning him money when he got into jams. Eventually, Wall became one of Lee’s very few intimates; for Lee was a gregarious loner, surrounded by relatives, disciples, pupils, and colleagues but with virtually no confidants. Out of this long friendship and out of the understanding of his own juvenile behavior, which closely paralleled that of Lee, Bob Wall has come to some interesting conclusions about the type of the bully.
Basically, he regards the bully as the
coward turned inside out: the man who is
so fearful of being slighted, scored, or defeated that he sets out deliberately to create and project an image of invulnerability, of muscle and menace, that will terrify the world, even without fighting. The key to Bruce Lee’s personality as Wall sees it, was a profound and pervasive insecurity that commenced when he was a scared little kid getting beaten up by the bigger, tougher kids in school, but which persisted even when Lee had become the most feared boy in the school, or, as Lee’s brother. Robert, put it: the “king gorilla.” What’s more, even in his years of great success and worldwide fame, everything Bruce Lee did betrayed this same gnawing insecurity, the incapacity to recognize that because he was being universally acclaimed, he no longer had to prove him-self, that because he had already reached the goal, he didn’t have to drive so hard.
Ultimately, therefore, what you confront in Bruce Lee is the paradox of a success that raises only the frightening prospect of failure because every fresh success must be bigger than the last success and the only way to obtain this bigger success is to risk an even bigger and more humiliating failure. Nor is this a view held only by Bob Wall, though he voices it most clearly: it is echoed and affirmed by all the brightest people who knew Bruce Lee, who agree that Bruce Lee could never relax and let down his guard because he saw every step in his career as a life-and-death challenge.
Once Bruce Lee established himself in
America, his personality underwent another revolution, or, more precisely, a counterrevolution. The school dropout became the model scholar. Lee obtained a high school diploma and enrolled in college to study philosophy. The street punk became an exemplary husband and father. Lee married nineteen-year-old Linda Emery, a plain, bespectacled girl (who grew to resemble a lay nun), who had lost her father when she was five and developed, apparently, such a yearning for a strong, dominating male presence to whom she could relate in a submissive and obedient manner, that Bruce Lee used to boast that she was “better than an Oriental wife.” Most Important, the boy who had studied kung-Fu to find ways of beating up other boys new became the man whose quest was for a new and vast ly superior martial art that would combine the ruthless realism of the street fighter with a lofty and idealistic conception of selfhood inspired by Tao, Zen, and other Oriental doctrines.
Even as Lee worked doggedly to develop his unpromising physique into the superbly muscled, catlike body that later flashed across the movie screen, even as he analyzed with the aid of a large library and extensive, sometimes eloquent, notes of his own composition, all the possibilities
of hand-to-hand combat, studying boxing and fencing as well as all the Oriental arts, he dreamed of someday returning to the screen as the hero of a new sort of action film.
Moving to Los Angeles to play the part of Kato in “The Green Hornet” on TY, Lee built up an impressive underground reputation both in the martial arts community and in the film colony. His pupils came to include Steve McQueen, James Coburn, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. His friends numbered powerful film executives like Ted Ashley, president of Warner Brothers, Tom Tannenbaum, executive vice-president of Paramount (TY), and Sy Weintraub, producer of the Tarzan films and an officer of National General. All of these people wanted Bruce Lee to succeed, but the system was impossible to beat. As ABC said when it turned Lee down for the lead in its new series “Kung Fu”: “You can’t make a star out of a five-foot-six Chinese actor.”
Behind this obvious obstacle, there lay another, subtler, problem. Like every young actor on the make in Hollywood, Bruce Lee had developed an image that was designed to intrigue. Instead of coming on like a cocky, feisty little street cat, who loved to tell dirty jokes, ball chicks, and sneer at dumb punks-an Oriental Jimmy Cagney-Bruce Lee offered the writers and the studio heads an image that was very spiritual and mysterious. He spoke in parables and paradoxes, saying that water was the strongest of all things and that when he hit, it wasn’t he who hit but it who hit. He affected a profound humility, boasted that he had transcended hate and even anger, never uttered a vulgar word, and refused not only tea and coffee but even a cupcake if he feared it might contain an artificial ingredient. In the Hollywood of the late sixties, full of Zen raps and macrobiotic diets, this sort of act was highly effective. After all, Bruce Lee had grown up in show business; he knew how to put people away-especially show people. The only problem was that when somebody finally sought to translate this disembodied Bruce Lee to the screen, the results were pretty feeble.
Stirling Silliphant, an Academy Award winning screenwriter, who was one of Bruce Lee’s most devoted pupils, fashioned for his master what was supposed to be the perfect vehicle for his image the initial episode of a TY series entitled “Longstreet.” In this slick, carefully crafted production, Lee appears not as a fighter but as a martial arts guru, a sensitive, soft-spoken young man, who works in an antique shop and talks in fortune cookie proverbs. He takes on the impossible assignment of teaching a blind detective how to beat up a bullying dockworker. In the course of the lessons, you soak up the image of the master.
Silliphant sought to make these training sessions as authentic as possible, using the same sort of backqround music that Lee employed, the same air shield for punching, even the master’s favorite exhortations. What comes off the screen, however, is not a thrilling glimpse of Bruce Lee working demonically in his Chinatown kwoon filled with grimy punching bags and bizarre-looking dummies. but just the opposite: a prancing faggot dance instructor lisping, “Sensitivity! A lousy act together for opening
night at Las Vegas. Thank God this travesty of Bruce Lee got no further than the first episode. Though Lee appeared in three more episodes, he was kept in the background posing, like a human dummy.
What happened next is one of the great rallies of show-biz history. Lee, dispirited and dejected (especially after the starring role in “Kung Fu” was given to David Carridine), decided impulsively to take an offer to make a Mandarin movie for a new Hong Kong studio called Golden Harvest for $7,500 (The familiar story of Bruce Lee’s rise to fame commencing with an unexpected phone call from Hong Kong is highly misleading. The truth is that Lee had first approached Raymond Shaw, the head of Hong Kong’s biggest studio, and received an offer of a five-year contract at $500 a month. Lee was insulted by the offer and denounced it bitterly to one of his Hong Kong cronies, named Little Unicom. It was this man who alerted Raymond Chow, head of Golden Harvest, to Lee’s availability.) The picture, shot in a wretched little village near Bangkok for a mere $80,000, turned out to be the purest and most unselfconscious of all Lee’s famous movies. Exhibited in the East as The Big Boss (in the West as Fists of Fury), it broke records throughout the Orient and instantly launched Lee on the career he had been seeking vainly for years in Hollywood.
Being restored to his roots brought to life again the artist in Bruce Lee. The bloodlust of the Chinese film public compelled him to stop philosophizing and start fighting. In no time, he conceived and executed an amazing new style of combat choreography that established him in just two short years -along with Charlie Chaplin and Fred Astaire-one of the three greatest movers in the history of movies.
At the same time that the sanguinary character of Chinese film sparked Lee’s genius for combat, the melodramatic plausibility of these preposterous pictures released Bruce Lee’s powers of fantasy. After all, his beloved king-fu didn’t belong in the modem world, where every punk walk around with a piece in his pocket. Kung-fu was an art that flourished in the never-never land of Oriental cinema, with its archaic conventions, its masklike characters, its easy transition from a highly stylized sense of reality to sheer fairy tale. Overnight Lee dropped his lifelong insistence on the simple, direct style of the street fighter and embraced instead an elaborate and theatrical style filled with increasingly baroque and bizarre flourishes.
The katas, or ritualized training routines, that Lee had ridiculed in the past, he employed now to build suspense before a big fight, as in the dazzling exchange of nunchaku flourishes between himself and
Danny lnosanto in Game of Death. The flying kicks that he said he would never use in actual combat because they made a man too vulnerable to counterblows, he used brilliantly to produce the awesome, flying carpet finale of Fists of Fury. The karate war cry, the ki, which Bruce never
once used in America (and made fun of others for using), he transformed into a thrilling succession of jungle noises, the sounds of wildness and birds screeching over the big beat of meat carcasses being pounded with speedbag gloves or gun powder explosions recorded from near and far. (Nothing about the Bruce Lee movies is more original or more consistently exciting to the imagination than this highly original symphony of martial sound. In fact, it is probably the most rousing “music” since the introduction of acid rock.) Finally, Lee bowed to the tradition of using weapons. instead of bare hands, employing eventually in his own hands or those of his adversaries virtually every weapon in the Oriental armory: single and double stave, two-handed sword, mace, dart, nunchaku, throwing knife, etc. It is highly indicative of where his mind was going that, at the end of his life, he should have been preparing a series of costume pictures that would have presented him in elaborate traditional garments and antique hairstyles impersonating the heroes of Oriental legend, like the blind swords man, Zatoichi.
The most important result of getting back into Mandarin movies was that it inspired Lee to make these simple action films into extravagant and compelling psychodramas. No actor in history has portrayed rage with the conviction and power of Bruce Lee. His great fight sequences are not simply deadly ballets. They are excruciating agons, in which the protagonist expresses with face and body every facet of fury. Like a living Laocoon, Bruce Lee evinces in battle with demon like foes a se ries of grimaces and postures that are the authentic passional equivalents of the traditional Oriental theater masks and attitudes. In fact, the whole secret of Lee’s histrionic genius is his capacity to find and bring to the surface through sheer talent the precise lineaments of the most violent and visceral of all emotions.
Violence is the soul of the Oriental cinema, and it was the Oriental relish for violence in its most brutal forms that gave Bruce Lee the cue he had always been seeking to release the violence that was always pent up in his own soul. Had Lee remained in Hollywood, playing the spooky martial arts guru, he would never have been permitted to go to the lengths that characterize his Mandarin movies. The first thing that strikes you about these films as a Westerner is how they embrace their sanguinary themes without a trace of guilt or inhibition. This was the license that Lee craved, and that he would never have been granted in a country that every day grows more ambivalent and contorted m its efforts to both embrace and reject the violence that seethes in its soul.
By the time he made his second film, Bruce Lee was grimacing like a lunatic and screaming like a jungle beast. So powerful did his presence become on the screen as the result of his laser like focus of primitive emotion, so fell and ruthless became his attacks, so ecstatic his exulta tion in combat, that for the first time in the long violence-crammed history of the cinema, audiences were brought face to face with the primary process, the annihilative instinct per se.
If coming home had an inspiring effect on Bruce Lee the artist, it had a profoundly destructive effect on Bruce Lee the man. In no time he began to revert to his old self and his old ways. The first people who felt the change were Lee’s former friends in Hollywood, who had bought the image of a Bruce Lee who was just too good to make it in Tinsel town. They now got to know the real Bruce Lee, though they assumed that all the distressing changes they observed were just products of stardom. One woman was appalled at Lee’s new look-shades, stagey continental clothes, stacked heels Patek-Phillipe watch, walking stick-which she likened to a “cross between an Oriental rock star and a pimp.” Another old friend was dismayed when he called up Lee with a film offer and was told, “I don’t think you can afford me now.” Stirling Silliphant had la bored for years to get the studios interested in a Bruce Lee vehicle entitled The Silent Flute (released in 1978 as Circle of Iron, with David Carradine) that would also star James Coburm. When Silliphant announced proudly that he had finally gotten the deal together, Lee remarked casually “Why should I carry Coburn?” It was a rude awakening for the Hollywood people. They had thought that “Brucey” was “different.”
The truth is that all the years Lee had lived m California, he had been a soul on ice. Like many aliens, especially those from the Orient, he had adopted a mask and suppressed or sublimated many of his most basic character traits.
Now that he was back home and a star, he let it all hang out. To that extent, he was a gainer. But the same forces that had driven Bruce Lee into juvenile delinquentcy were still alive and active in Hong Kong. Now they began again to take their deadly toll. No unambiguous clues exist to the mystery of Bruce Lee’s chronic hostility in his hometown. The most likely explanation arises from Chinese ideas about class and caste. Lee’s family were actors-not just his father but his cousins-and actors were scored in Chinese society, being regarded not only as low in caste but as immoral beings, the expression, ”He runs with actors and actresses,” connoting total profligacy. Bruce Lee. a sensitive and acute lad, attending the best Chinese school in Heng Kong, may have detected this attitude at an early age in his fellow pupils.
When years later he returned to Hong Kong not as the professional man, the doctor or lawyer his father had wanted him to be, but as an actor-albeit one who soon became a popular idol-he must have experienced again the old rage at being regarded as a social inferior: only now the anger was greatly heightened by his enormous sense of his own worth. Thus the stage was set for a whole series of antagonistic encounters between Lee· and the locals. As Lee’s rage mounted, so did its expressions multiply from outbursts of un controlled violence to apologies for these outbursts, then to projection onto others of the rage Lee felt in himself, and finally to retreat from the world into a world of his own contriving. It is glib, it is wrong, to attribute all this personality distortion to mere success.
No man is really changed by success. What happens is that success works on the successful man’s personality like a truth drug, bringing him out of the closet and revealing to an often astounded world what was always inside his head. Bruce Lee in Hong Kong was always, boy or man. nobody or star, a desperately embattled human being. He desperately embattled that he projects so powerfully from the screen. In the movies, Lee views his private war-though the endings of his pictures are usually vague, as if he didn’t know what to do after a victory. In life, Lee was a loser. Linda Lee reports that during her husband’s final months he summed up his predicament in two absolutely candid but totally contradictory statements. One day he exclaimed: ”There’s no limit, no end in sight, to how far I can ascend!” Another day, in a different mood, he confessed: “I don’t know how long I can keep this up.” A
few weeks later, lee was gone. All the witnesses agree: during the last months of his life, Bruce Lee was heading for a crack-up. No matter how you sized him up. the danger signals were unmistakenable. The most obvious signal was weight loss. During his best years, Lee–who stood between five foot six and five foot seven and was very lightly boned–built himself up through diet and exercise to a peak of 155 pounds. Now this extra poundage began to melt away. Eventually, he went down to 120. When Danny lno santo, Lee’s principal disciple, saw his master for the last time, he was shocked by the change in his appearance. “You’re too thin!” he warned. “How are you going to get your full power?” ”My full power?” hissed Lee. “How about this?” Then he gave lnosanto a shoulder shot that sent the disciple flying twelve feet across the room. All the same, Lee was concerned about his inexplicable weight loss. His solution was to adopt a particularly nauseating diet: congealed bull’s blood mixed with raw hamburger steak.
A more serious sign that Bruce Lee was in trouble was the startling fact that he had abandoned his exercise routine. A fanatic about physical conditioning and training. Lee had spent the better part of his life running, doing calisthenics, lifting weights, practicing martial-arts exercises, and sparring with his students. Believing that running was the best exercise. he did two to six miles of road work every day and pedaled ten to twenty miles every other day on a stationary bicycle. To achieve the ultimate in muscular strength and coordination, he had filled almost every room of his house in Hong Kong with martial-arts gear and exercise machines. most of the latter designed to his own specifications. Now, though, he spent most of his time locked up in his second-floor study, talking frantically on his telephones, sketch ing scenarios. and holding business conferences.
Money occupied the center of Lee’s mind in his last days. After a lifetime of barely breaking even, he was determined now that he was famous enough to make–and keep-a fortune. His ideas of finance were pretty crude. Basically, he was concerned with hiding his wealth. He put his $250,000 house in the name of his “butler,” Nu Ngan, so that in the event of a divorce his wife couldn’t claim a share in the property. A more important consideration was how to hide his money from the IRS; for Lee was intent upon returning to Hollywood now that he was a superstar, but he dreaded the thought that the American government would take an enormous bite out of his eamings. When he sought the advice· of Wemer Wolfen, one of the smartest tax men in Los Angeles. he was told firmly by this expert (who saw Lee as a “street person”) that he would not participate in any illegal schemes. Lee left the lawyer’s office in high dudgeon . .Just before he died. however. Lee sent the tax expert a handwritten note agreeing to follow his advice. This patten of defying reason and then reversing himself was highly characteristic of Lee. It was the yin and yang of his reckless and impulsive temperament.
Another reason that Bruce Lee spent so much time holed up inside his walled villa (not a mansion, by any means, but a narrow, two-story. Japanese-style house with its back to a railroad track) was that he was suffering from paranoia. During his final months, Lee fancied himself, like a character in one of his films. surrounded on every side by enemies. Just as striking as the similarity between life and art, however. was the difference. In his films. Bruce Lee walks fearlessly into death traps, cloaked in the invulnerability provided by his magic arts_ In real life, he craved weapons, especially weapons he could wear on his person without being detected.
So he smuggled into Hong Kong, which has very strict laws against any sort of weapon, a whole arsenal of concealed weapons. Among his deadly tools were a comb that spat out a blade like an ice pick, a tear-gas pen. a sword cane with a twelve-inch blade, a walking stick with a .410 shotgun shell at one end and a tear-gas canister at the other, a pearl-handled .22 caliber magnum-load double-barreled Derringer (smuggled in side a ten-gallon can of .Jack La Lanne protein powder). and a slew of serikens. the six-sided throwing stars that can be hurled with far greater accuracy than a knife or else held between the knuckles like a razor for slashing_ Lee was not content simply to carry these weapons for self-defense_ On more than one occasion. he whipped them out and brandished them with terrifying effect. Typical is the story told by Nang Nguk Chung, personnel manager of Golden Harvest Films and the editor-writer of a Bruce Lee fan magazine_
After the release of Return of the Dragon, the only completed film that Lee wrote, directed, and stunt-coordinated, Mr. Wong wrote a little notice in his fanagazine saying that Bruce Lee had “not matured yet as a director_ That was an understatement, to put it mildly. What Wang didn’t understand when he voiced his timid little criticism was that Bruce Lee–who had always been so open, friendly, and down-to-earth in his relations with the editor of the fan magazine-was now a changed man no sooner did Lee read the notice than he summoned Wong to the office of the boss of the film company, Raymond Chow. The moment Wang walked through the door, he got an order from Lee to sit down. Then the famous star fixed the frail little editor with his most deadly basilisk stare. and clenching his teeth in precisely the manner he used in all his films to warn the villain that his time was near, Lee proceeded to teach the writer his lesson.
”When you take a pen,” he enunciated with pedantic but terrifying precision, “it’s exactly as if you took a knife or a gun. One slip and you’ve inflicted a deadly wound.” Then, just to make the point a little clearer, Lee grabbed his belt buckle and extracted from it one of those concealed knives you see advertised in mercenary magazines like Soldier of Fortune. Laying the tip of the blade precisely on the carotid artery in the editor’s neck. Lee drove home his point.
‘”My knife is just like your pen. If you criticize. you hurt!”
Wang frozen with fear, gasped out the
excuse that he had meant no harm, that his criticism was intended to act as an incentive for Lee to improve. Raymond Chow, another-frail, bespectacled, professorial-looking man, chimed in with his assurances that Wong had meant well. Finally the enraged Bruce Lee could no longer contain his rage. Tuming to the office door,· he gave it one of his famous kicks and sent it flying down the hall. Only then did he begin to simmer down and come to his senses. Characteristically, he wound up shaking hands and apologizing for his choleric behavior.
Editor Wong was by no means the principal offender in the local press. More frequent targets of Lee’s rage were the newspapermen and especially the photographers. Though the local press worshiped Bruce Lee, it was naturally obsessed with the sex life of the man “”who restored masculinity to the Chinese screen,” to quote Golden Harvest’s first Bruce Lee publicity release. Lee, for- his part, was enjoying sexual abundance for the first time in his life_
Brought up in an uptight environment that hadn’t allowed him sexual fulfillment as a youth, involved from the age of twenty-four in a tight marriage. an obscure little Chinaman in Hollywood that is always infatuated with the current style of beauty, Bruce Lee was just now, at the age of thirty-two, having his first taste of being irresistible to women–an experience that would tum most men’s heads_ Unfortunately. he was not discreet in managing his liaisons. Noris Hong Kong-
congested. gossip-ridden. a Chinese village of 5 million souls-the kind of place where concealment is easy. The upshot was that every time Lee indulged himself in a passing affair with one of his co-stars or a model or a courtesan, a story accompanied by a picture of the pair would tum up in the press.
Instead of resigning himself to this provocation. Lee would invariably fly into a rage and go roaring down to the office of the paper with murder in his heart. Charging into the copy room. he would demand to know who had written the story or taken the photograph. If he found his prey, he would slap the man around or choke him by the throat and then smash his camera. When the poor wretch was scared out of his wits, Lee would make a final speech, warming in tones that could not be forgot ten that the next time this happened, he would come back and massacre the entire staff. In a town with two or three papers, these tactics of intimidation might have worked. In Hong Kong, which at that time had 121 dailies. there was always a fresh team of newsmen ready to risk their necks to get a hot scoop on the “Dragon.”
The most serious aspect of Bruce Lee’s bizarre behavior was the threat it posed to his most vital relationships, especially his professional relationships. Everybody who worked with the explosive star recognized that dealing with Lee was like handling dynamite. Every effort was made to avoid tension or quarrels. Lee’s wishes were deferred to in everything; Lee was allowed to call all the shots.
Even so. there was no way to avoid accidents in the tricky business of making movies, especially movies that focused on violent physical combat. One of the most revealing episodes from Lee’s final phase is the story of his deadly confrontation with Bob Wall during the making of Enter the Dragon.
In one scene. Wall, playing a villain, at
tacks Lee with two jagged-edged broken bottles. Lee knocks the bottles out of Wall’s hands with a spinning kick. then he raises his hand to counter the next attack. The first time the scene was tried. Lee missed his kick, and when he spun around with his raised fist. he scored his hand against the jagged glass. The injury was not serious. At most. it would sideline Lee for two weeks. When Wall exclaimed. “Gee, I’m sorry, Bruce!” Lee snapped a curt “No problem” and left for Dr. Lang ford, his personal physician.
The truth was, however, that this accidental injury posed a grave problem be cause it caused Bruce Lee to lose face in front of the crew and the extras. Bruce Lee, after all was regarded by the Chinese as a superman, a fighter who dealt out deadly punishment but who rarely took a blow. much less one that drew blood and put him out of action. Soon Bob Wall began to hear stories that Bruce Lee was going to murder the man who had maimed him. Wall who had known Lee for years and recognized his sensitivity. put his head together with Fred Weintraub, the picture’s producer, and came up with a solution.
One aftemoon. Wall drove out to Bruce Lee’s house and confronted him with the rumors that were going about. Lee denied everything. putting all the blame on the
”Chinese.” Wall persisted, explaining that
he realized how important it was for Lee to maintain his image. Then he outlined his plan for getting the star off the hook. Lee fell in with the suggestion at once.
The first day that shooting resumed, Bruce Lee stood up in front of the assem bled crew and made a short speech in Chinese. He explained that he had intend ed to kill Bob Wall as a matter of honor, but because Wall was an old friend and was needed to complete the picture. Lee had decided to assuage his pride by administering a terrible beating to the white devil. Wall, at this point, opened his gi to show that he was not wearing any protective padding. Then, with the cameras rolling, the men squared off to fight.
Wall had told Lee that no matter how hard he kicked, Wall could take the blow. Now, Lee went to work with a vengeance. His first kick landed with such force that it hurled Wall into an extra standing behind him, breaking the man’s arm. Eight times, Bruce Lee kicked Bob Wall-who never failed to utter loud groans and gasps–un til Lee’s footprints were all over Wall”s chest and abdomen. Finally, the scene was wrapped.
That night Lee took Wall to supper at
Hugo’s, Hong Kong’s finest French res taurant. As they sat at the table, Lee ex claimed: ”Bob, that was the greatest thing anybody ever did for me. Did I hurt you?” Wall replied that he had been hurt worse in other fights.
Though all the American karate men who worked with Bruce Lee respected him for his great abilities and remembered him fondly for the way he had been in the good old days, they grew steadily more disenchanted with his behavior in Hong Kong. Particularly those who were seeking to make a career in films resented the way they were set up in the Bruce Lee films to look like clumsy oafs who could be knocked around at will by a guy who was
much smaller than they. They recognized that when the films were exhibited, the fans would not view them as dramas in which the American Karate men were playing assigned parts. The public would assume that the Americans were in fact inferior fighters, big, klutzy dudes who just couldn’t hold their own against the Dragon.
This struck a sore spot among the Americans because they knew that
though Bruce Lee had worked out with them many times. he had never once engaged in actual competition. His excuse was that toumament fighting was unreal like “swimming on dry land.” But when Joe Lewis (and subsequently, Bill Wallace) introduced full-contact karate, this excuse would no longer hold water. (Light-contact karate was introduced in 1963: you were not supposed to strike the
face, and blows to the body were supposed to be half-pulled. Full-contact karate was introduced by Joe Lewis at Long Beach on January 1 7, 1970.) The feeling among the American karate men was that Bruce Lee simply didn’t want to take the chances every competition fighter took of being hurt or defeated. His image. in other words, was more important to him than the actual test of combat.
The upshot of this feeling was a gradual estrangement between Bruce Lee and his old friends in the karate world. Some of the men who appeared in films with him swore that they would never repeat the ex perience. Others developed a rather wry and ironic attitude toward Lee, making fun of his histrionics on the screen. his poses, grimaces, and noises, none of which had any real connection with the martial arts. They especially ridiculed the notion that Lee could defeat champions who were much taller and heavier than he. or that he could take on a fighter like Muhammed Ali, each man using his own style, and walk off the winner, an idea cherished by many Bruce Lee fans. In short, the karate men protested against the illusion that was the greatest product of Bruce Lee’s art, the universal conviction that he was the deadliest man on the planet.
In the final period of his life, Bruce Lee began to rely on hashish to lift from his op pressed mind all the terrible burdens that were driving him mad. He had a young gofer who was encharged with the dangerous assignment of procuring the drug, which was smuggled in from Nepal. Like many other Oriental countries, Hong Kong has highly punitive laws against illegal drugs. Possession of even five grams of “cannabis resin” is punishable by a fine of
$5 million HK and life imprisonment.
Bruce Lee. an immoderate man by nature
was not the kind to limit himself to just a couple puffs on a hash pipe. In fact, he never smoked hash, because, being a nonsmoker, he had an aversion to inhale in. It was his custom to eat the drug in the form of confections. Bob Wall recalls a vis it to Bruce Lee’s house about six months before Lee’s death during which Lee both
explained and demonstrated his commit mint to the drug he called “the most won direful stuff in the world.”
Wall was sitting in Lee’s second-story
study when Lee offered a plate of cookies to Wall, urging, “Try some of this!” “What is it?” asked Wall. “Hashish in brownies,” smiled Lee. “I thought you were anti-drugs,” replied Wall, genuinely surprised that a man who wouldn’t take a glass of wine would be consuming a dangerous drug. At that point, Lee whipped out a copy of the September 1972- edition of Playboy, which contained a clutch of art class entitled “The Drug Explosion.” Actus ally, there was nothing in any of the pieces that would make a man want to tum on, but the chart prepared by the editorial staff characterized cannabis as providing “re laxation, breakdown of inhibitions … EU phobia, increased appetite”-all things that wore appealing to the anxious, irritant blew, and underweight Bruce Lee. Most mi portent was the fact that no distinction was drawn between marijuana and hashish: both were both lumped together in differ entry beside the rubric “cannabis.”
This was a serious omission. Although grass and hash are prepared from the hen1µ plant, they are for all practical per poses no more the same than are wine and whiskey. Especially when eaten by high-strung types like Bruce Lee hashish proved to be a nightmare drug. lf it doesn’t drive you crazy, it may poison you. Those little “temple balls,” “fingers,” and other goodies from Nepal may be contaminated by having been manufactured in one of the most primitive and un hygienic environments on earth. If you don’t burn the stuff, you are asking for trouble.
Naturally, Bruce Lee, who was not basically a drug adept, knew nothing of these dangers. Yet being a classic know-it-all, he claimed to be an expert on the drug. As the astonished Bob Wall looked at the two page chart spread before his eyes and listened to Lee’s machine-gun rap, he leamed that hashish was vastly superior to marijuana, because instead of damaging your lungs by smoking it, you could eat it like ordinary food. The most important thing, Lee stressed, was the drug’s marvelous capacity for producing relaxation. “At last I’ve found something to relax me!”
crowed Bruce as he put one of the brownies into his mouth.
In the next ten minutes, Bruce Lee ate
three ‘or four hash brownies. Wall recalls
that the brownies had been prepared according to the celebrated recipe of Alice B. Toklas. If that is the case, Bruce Lee was consuming an enormous amount of hashish. Perhaps he had found that it took a great deal to slow him down. If this was his problem he certainly found the solution. For, as Wall recalls, in just an hour Lee was totally transformed by the drug.
Prior to eating the hash, Lee had been talking a mile a minute and demonstrating a new nunchaku routine that made the sticks fly around his head like humming birds’ wings. Then he took off his shirt and threw it on the floor, collapsing into a comfortable chair. Gradually his rate of speech slowed and slowed until finally, Bruce Lee fell totally silent. In all the years he had known Lee, Wall-who is no slouch at talking himself-had never seen his friend shut up. (Lee was such a compulsive talker that in Hong Kong he damaged his car almost every week because he insisted bn looking directly at the per son to whom he was talking as he drove.) Now, for the first time ever, Lee was mute-and Wall was doing all the talking.
Wall at first accepted Lee’s judgment
that eating hashish once a week was an ideal way to give himself the relaxation he could never otherwise obtain. But then Wall began to notice that Lee was suffering from memory loss, repeating himself constantly as if he had no recollection of what he had said the day or the hour just past. This symptom coupled with the weight loss and the striking pallor of his old friend were all, Wall assumed, products of work and stress. (He doesn’t think this today, however.)
Nor is it likely that by the end of his life Bruce Lee was confining himself to one hash binge a week. According to his own statement, he was taking the drug to cheer himself up at the studio and to make love. It’s very difficult to resist any drug that works. (It’s unfortunate that Bruce Lee was so averse to smoking, because a year on Thai weed would have been good therapy for him. It would have done all the things promised by Playboy plus provided this compulsively funny man with hysterical laughs, as well as giving depth to his philosophic moods and exaltation to his budding mythological fantasies.)
When Lee finally collapsed and nearly
died after eating some hashish at the studio, he was advised by his doctors to stop using the drug. Lee. always rebellious and stubborn decided to take his case to a higher court. Within one week of his col
lapse, Lee was living in a bungalow behind the Beverly Hills Hotel and under going neurological tests designed to de termine whether he was suffering from a brain lesion or some other complaint that had not been discovered in Hong Kong. The neurologist was working under a great handicap, however, because all the symptoms had vanished, and the only description of the attack was that provided by the patient and his wife, Linda, both of whom made the mistake of thinking that
Lee had suffered a convulsion. In fact, Lee had not had a convulsion. He had exhibited lot of muscle twitching, a condition to which he was prone, especially when under stress. Otherwise, his symptoms were those of a toxic brain condition produced by drugs.
Inevitably, the neurologist found nothing organically wrong with Bruce Lee; in fact, he told his patient that he had the “body of an eighteen-year-old.” Lee, very frightened by what had happened, sought other opinions and was told by one doctor that it was ridiculous to blame his seizure on hashish. Infact, the doctor confided, he took the stuff himself-and it had never caused him the slightest distress. With that reassuring opinion ringing in his ears, Lee boarded a plane that took himback to Hong Kong-and the life-style that was killing him.
The end came on .July 20, 1973. According to the story that appeared in the official inquest and was later parroted in Linda Lee’s biography of her husband, Bruce Lee went on the last afternon of his life to the apartment of a Taiwanese sex star, Betty Ting-pei, to have a meeting with her and Raymond Chow about Game of Death, in which Betty was to play a part. During the course of the meeting, Lee developed a severe headache, which caused him to retire to Betty’s bed. There he was left by Raymond Chow, who arranged to meet with Lee later in the evening for supper at the Miramar Hotel with another actor being considered for a part in the film, George Lazenby.
When Betty Ting-pei found that she could not rouse Bruce Lee from the sleep into which he had fallen, she called Chow or he called her. In any case, the boss of the studio retumed to the actress’s apart ment to find Lee in a coma. When all ef forts to rouse him failed, an ambulance was called and the actor was received that night at Queen Elizabeth Hospital, dead on arrival.
The real story of what happened that aftemoon is supplied by Bob Wall, who knew all the principals and spoke with them within a few hours of Lee’s death. As Wall knew, Bruce Lee had been involved in a close relationship with Betty Ting-pei for months. The actress was one of the most sought-after sex objects in Hong Kong. Bruce Lee was very pleased with her and had promised to advance her ca reer by getting her a part in his next film. On the fatal day, the pair had an aftemoon date. Betty Ting-pei lived in a posh high rise just a few minutes’ drive from Bruce Lee’s house in suburban Kowloon Tong. The actress’s flat was what the old news papers used to call a “Jove nest”: an apartment decorated like a lady’s boudoir.
According to Wall, Bruce Lee arrived at three in the aftemoon, and after spending some time with Betty, he ate a light meal.
.Judging from the autopsy, Lee had a hash brownie for dessert. Then, he began to complain of a nagging, numbing head ache. (A feeling of constriction in the head is one of the commonest effects of eating hashish.) Betty Ting-pei did not have any aspirin, but she had a pill of similar effect that had been prescribed by her doctor for menstrual distress. This drug, Equagesic. is compounded partly of aspirin and partly of the tranquilizer Miltown. According to Betty Ting-pei’s account. Bruce Lee took just one tablet.
Lee was supposed to meet that night with Raymond Chow, but as the headache worsened. he called to ask that Chow come to Betty Ting-pei’s flat. When Chow arrived, around 9:30, the meeting commenced; but it had to be broken off when Lee’s headache grew so severe that he exclaimed, ”I’ve got to lie down.” Chow chatted for another twenty minutes with the actress; then they both went into the bedroom to check on Lee.
They discovered that he could not be
roused. Chow, with the memory of the recent crisis fresh in his mind, sought medical aid immediately. He dialed several doctors until he reached Betty Ting-pei’s doctor, Chu Pho-hwye, who agreed to come up to the apartment at once. (That Raymond Chow did not summon Bruce Lee’s regular doctor. Don Langford, who lived in the immediate vicinity and who had saved Bruce Lee’s life during a previous seizure of the same sort, is probably explained by the fear of scandal.) Betty Ting-pei’s doctor spent ten minutes trying to revive Lee; then he gave up and summoned an ambulance.
At 11 :24 Ambulance 24 of the Hong Kong Fire Services delivered Lee to the emergency clinic of Queen Elizabeth Hospital. The chief of the three-man ambulance crew, an experienced man, testified subsequently that he had examined Lee when he arrived at the flat. He had found no signs of life. Hence, instead of rushing Lee to the nearest hospital. he had hauled the body clear across town to the govem ment hospital. All the same. when the hospital staff recognized who had been brought to their trauma room, they were galvanized into action. For a full half hour, they sought by every means imaginable to resuscitate the dead man. Finally, there was nothing to do but break the news to Lee’s wife. who had been led to believe that there was some hope of her husband’s survival.
The story of the cover-up that was conducted after Bruce Lee’s death has never been told. It was neither so sinister as many have believed nor so innocent as might have been hoped. The first false and misleading statement about the death was an announcement that the great star had died walking in his garden accompanied by his wife. (The reason for the lie was probably the fact that Enter the Dragon was just at the point of release and ad verse publicity might have jeopardized a property worth potentially hundreds of millions of dollars.) This fib was shot to hell two days later when the ambulance driver sold his story to the press. which reported to a stunned Hong Kong on the mornng of Bruce Lee’s funeral that he had died in the apartment of actress Betty Ting-pei.
Betty Ting-pei, for her part, sought to wriggle out of this painful (and dangerous) situation by insisting that she had been out all aftemoon shopping with her mother. This story was quickly contradicted by a neighbor, who also reported that Bruce Lee had been visiting the actress’s apartment for three months, staying sometimes as long as eight hours, with his red Mercedes parked conspicuously in front of the building.
At this point, the govemment, which had been working vigorously behind the scenes to determine what had really happened, announced the results of a very carefully conducted autopsy, which had been performed several days after the death. The report revealed that the primary cause of death was brain swelling. Lee’s brain had “swollen like a sponge,” increasing in weight from 1 ,400 to 1 ,575 grams. The report noted that cannabis resin had been found in small quantities in the stomach and small intestine, as well and the residue of the tablet of Equagesic. No evidence was discovered of disease or traumatic injury. Bruce Lee had not died a natural death.
The release of the autopsy findings
threw fresh fuel on the flames of speculation. Soon the press had printed all those fantasies about Bruce Lee’s death that are still believed by millions of people the world around. There is a fantasy, in fact, for every temperament, every disposition. Those who believe in the “mysterious East” will tell you that Bruce Lee was killed by a “vibrating palm,” a special blow that the victim may not notice and that does not produce its effect for days, weeks, months, or years. (Interestingly, Bruce Lee himself claimed to be able to deliver this blow.) Those disposed to attribute all mysterious deaths to the machinations of the Mob argue that Bruce Lee was killed by the Triads, whose power he had supposedly defied. (This is the theme of the posthumous film Game of Death.) People in the movie business point the finger of accusation at Run Run Shaw. head of the rival studio in Hong Kong, which was actually negotiating to get Lee away from Raymond Chow when the actor died. There are even those who blame Bruce Lee’s death on Chow, arguing that Lee repeat edly humiliated his boss. so much so that when Lee died, Chow’s wife remarked that the death occurred just in time to save the last scrap of her husband’s pride. (Lee would sneer at Chow publicly, saying:
”You’re nothing-I made you!”) Yet other
theories attribute Bruce Lee’s death to the use of aphrodisiacs, evil influences on his house (”bad fung shui’ ‘), or even the mistake of using the word death in the title of his last picture. What no one wants to con cede is the very great possibility that Lee may have died of an overdose of his own head.
Weeks after Bruce Lee’s death, a govemment inquest was convened to investigate the matter. The govemment was by no means a disinterested party in the in vestigation. Several important issues hinged on the finding. For one thing, Bruce Lee was a youth hero. Every move Lee made was mimicked by thousands of youngsters. If the actor’s use of hashish were blown up into a major issue, Hong Kong might soon find itself afflicted with a hashish epidemic.
Second, there was the matter of the insurance. In January 1973, Bruce Lee had taken out a policy for $500,000. If American Intemational Assurance could prove that he had lied when he stated on the ap plication that he had never used illegal drugs or if it could prove that he had died as a result of using illegal drugs, the widow and her children would be deprived of their insurance benefits. Finally, it was de sirable in the interests of civic pride to put this shocking death in the best light possible, lest people come to believe that Hong Kong was a wicked place where dreadful things happen to even its greatest citizens.
At the same time that the govemment was laboring to put an end to this ugly scandal, it was equally concemed to proceed with the utmost propriety and not ex pose itself to charges of tampering with the evidence or suppressing the facts. Fortunately, the facts were highly ambigu ous. They could be interpreted in a num ber of ways. If the coroner’s inquest chose the most innocent interpretation. the case could be concluded with no damaging consequences. So the strategy was adopted of bringing in from London a fo rensic pathologist of great experience who would be sympathetic to the govem ment’s concems and whose testimony, having such weight, could exert a decisive influence on the final verdict.
To assure that this expert would not be surprised or unprepared for anything that might come to light during the inquest, “‘ private hearing would be convened, before the public hearing, at which all the medical authorities, especially those likely to insist that the death was drug-related, would be invited to give their testimony in advance. When Bruce Lee’s personal physician, Dr. Don Langford, objected that this would taint his evidence, he was told that as the inquest was not an adversary proceeding but a disinterested search for truth, there could be no harm in this little preview-though, of course, when it came time for the public hearing, each witness would testify in a manner that made it appear that he had no knowl edge of what the other witnesses were de poning. The presiding figure at this rehearsal tor the inquest, conducted at Queen Elizabeth Hospital about a week before the public hearing, was the re spected expert recommended by Scot land Yard, R. 0. Teare, Professor of Forensic Pathology at the University of London.
The coroner, C. K. Egbert Tung, who conducted the inquest, and who was re sponsible with the three-man jury for arriv ing at the final verdict, was a lawyer, not a medical man with extensive scientific qualifications. To conduct such an investi gation or even to comprehend the techni cal testimony, which had to be literally spelled out and sometimes translated into Chinese as the coroner took longhand notes, was an extremely formidable enter prise. Even it the coroner had been a high ly trained forensic pathologist, however, he would have had his work cut out tor him, because the Bruce Lee case entailed some very controversial issues, as well as matters into which there has never been any research.
No one, tor example, wanted to say that I Bruce Lee had simply died of hashish poi soning, because fatal cases of this sort are extremely rare and no-re that has been recorded is of absolute certainty. What Lee’s physicians, Dr. Langford and the brain specialist, Dr. Peter Wu, wanted to suggest was the possibility that Lee had developed an allergy or was hypersensi tive to hashish, either alone or in combina tion with other drugs, such as the aspirin in the Equagesic. (Aspirin in combination with certain chemicals produces a power ful effect on the brain known colloquially as a “Mickey Finn.”) Professor Teare, on the other hand, was utterly opposed to al lowing any reference to hashish to appear in the finding, arguing that there were no precedents that would justify such a ver dict.
The Professor was clearly in error. In 1970, tor example, a young athlete died at Antwerp in a room wherA he had been smoking hashish. The highly respected pathologist, Dr. Aubin Heyndrickx, who conducted the autopsy, made an exhaustive effort to determine whether or not hashish had been the cause of death. Eventually, through a great multiplication of the usual number of tests, he was able to rule oul every other imaginable cause. leaving hashish as the presumptive cause
The strongest evidence I collected for death by hashish poisoning was provided by Dr. Francis Mas, a psycho-pharmacol ogist on the faculty of the Albert Einstein Medical College in New York. Or. Mas served his intemship at Casablanca in 1966. He was attached to the emergency room and intensive-care unit of Averroes Hospital. It was not uncommon on a Satur day night tor a patient to be brought in suf fering from overindulgence in hashish. Generally, these people recovered after a night’s sleep.
Once in a while, however, such a case would exhibit precisely the symptoms observed in Bruce Lee, including coma, brin edema. and respiratory collapse.
Before the doctors could reverse the process. the patient would die. Or. Mas ob served one such case personally and was told about another. The only cause for these fatal seizures that the medical staff could discover was that the victims had consumed hashish that was either very fresh or had been prepared in a manner that increased its potency.
That Bruce Lee was consuming hashish of exceptionally high potency is quite probable in view of the drug’s prove nance. Nepalese hash is the most power ful in the world because it is produced by a unique process. Instead of sieving out the tops of the plants, as is done in Morocco, Lebanon, and Afghanistan-a technique that allows the product to become adulter ated with inactive vegetable matter-the Nepalese wait till the sun makes the leaves of their towering plants sweat pure resin. Then they rub off this resin with their bare hands and compress it in scrP.w presses. The resulting product is a pure concentrate of the 400 ingredients that comprise hashish. If the customer can command the best, the so-called Royal Hashish, he will omatn a drug that is often productive of violent effects, including nu merous neurological symptoms. Lau rence Chemlak, the only foreigner ever to study and photograph the production of Royal Hashish at close-hand, describes the effects of this preparation in The Great Books of Hashish, Volume I, as “so potent it was almost lethal.”
When the govemment’s principal ex pert witness. Professor Teare, stopped debunking the notion that Bruce Lee might have perished from hashish toxicity, he was left with the task of explaining how in fact Bruce Lee did die. Strange to say, he employed precisely the same concept as that invoked by the rival doctors: the idea of hypersensitivity. Instead of inferring that Bruce Lee was hypersensitive to one or more of the 400 ingredients of hashish, Professor Teare argued that Lee had over reacted to the three ingredients of Equagesic.
At this point, the professor’s bias should have been apparent to any medically qualified and fair-minded coroner; for if the medical literature contains few cases of hashish poisoning, it contains none of fatal hypersensitivity to one tablet of Equage sic. Not one of the numerous diagnosti cians. neurologists, forensic pathologists, or psychopharmacologists whom I inter viewed conceming this case had the slightest hesitation in rejecting Professor Teare’s hypothesis as untenable and even ridiculous. The Hong Kong coroner. how ever, for reasons best known to himself, adopted this explanation as the final find ing of the court, ascribing Bruce Lee’s death to “hypersensitivity to the ingredi ents of Equagesic.” The inquest found, therefore, that Bruce Lee, one of the best condi1ioned men on earth, had died of an aspirin.
Today, almost ten years after his death (the date of this article), Bruce Lee seems immortal. He has joined the company of those rare pop heroes who not only impress their image indelibly on the consciousness of the entire world bu1 who become forces, powers, pres ences, influencing 1he lives and fantasies of untold millions. It needs no saying that to produce such an immense impact, a man rot only must have ability but also must possess an unmatched instinct for striking just that nerve in the mass con sciousness that is waiting to vibrate. In the case of Bruce Lee, this nerve contains many strands, whose distinctness is best seen by comparing the effect he has in the Orient with 1hat in the West.
The Oriental Bruce Lee-to phrase it bluntly-put balls on 400 million China men. He gave his countrymen-at their moment of entrance into the great world toumament whose rules have been estab lished by the Westem powers-a hero who embodied the Westem gift for ag gressiveness to such an extraordinary de gree that he could beat the Westemers and their Japanese copycats-at their own bloody game. To the Westemer, on the other hand, Bruce Lee offers a fantasy escape from the feelings of terror and helplessness engendered by living in our nightmarish, violence-stalked, urban jungles.
Both Eastem and Westem man suffer from the feeling of being unmanned. Both clamor for restitution of their lost sense of virility. It was Bruce Lee’s function to reaf firm and exalt the masculine essence by
perforri1ing over and over, with ever in creasing charisma. the primitive ritual of n,orlal combat. No wonder, therefore, that Bruce Lee exists for millions of people as a cult figure, who is worshiped-precisely as the ancients worshiped Hercules and Achilles-as a demigod.
It doesn’t take any great understanding of Lee to know that he would have been thrilled oy his posthumous fame. All his lite he struggled to transcend himself and to become more than man. Now he stands exalted in the pop pantheon, unquestion ably the most magical figure produced by popular culture since the great days of the sixties. Yes, the Dragon would have got ten off en the idea of immortality. He would have saluted the world with his crazy jungle-bird squawk of triumph.
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