The Life and Death of Bruce Lee: Part One
Dr. Langford Lee’s Personal Doctor
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, desperately ill.
Dr. Langford knew Bruce Lee very well. For the past year and a half, the Tennessee-born, Tulane-educated doctor and minister had been the kung-Fu star’s family physician, the only doctor in whom Lee reposed any confidence.
Tulane University is a private research university in New Orleans, Louisiana. It was founded as a public medical college in 1834 and became a comprehensive university in 1847. The institution was made private under the endowments of Paul Tulane and Josephine Louise Newcomb in 1884
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 bump 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.”
Tao of Jeet Kune Do
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.
Return of the Dragon
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.
105 Degree Fever
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.
Bruce Lee Workout
As the doctor looked about however, he realized that he would not be able to operate, and 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.
Bruce Lee Fencing
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 equally important goals that 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.
Ardent: enthusiastic or passionate.
The gun powder that drove this human cannonball was probably the now familiar (but then unrecognized) syndrome of the Hyper-kinetic 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.”
His younger brothers are the famous martial artist and actor Bruce Lee and musician Robert Lee. He attended the La Salle College where he was good in his study and sports. He started fencing and had influenced his brother Bruce to take up fencing lessons with him when Bruce was around 11 to 14.
Henry Lee was a world class fencer and in March 1958 Lee won the Championship in the first Inter-School Fencing Competition.
In May 1959, Lee joined Bruce in Seattle for a short stay and proceed to Minnesota to further his studies. He later graduated from University of Minnesota and returned to Hong Kong. In the 1960s, Lee taught for a while at La Salle College and joined the Royal Observatory Hong Kong as its Assistant Director.
He was also the coach of La Salle Fencing Team since 1968, with eleven wins at the Inter-School Fencing Championship in thirteen years.
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 highly 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 debut, 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 exhibitionist and unconsciously 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.
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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.
Enter the Dragon
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.
Bruce Lee: Cha-Cha Championship
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.”)
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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.
Bruce Lee’s Fighting Method
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.
Bruce Lee and Bob Wall
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.”
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 tournament 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.
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).
Bruce and Linda Lee
She 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 vastly superior martial art that would combine the ruthless realism of the street fighter with a lofty and idealistic conception of self-hood 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 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.
Bruce Lee and Stirling Silliphant
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 background music that Lee employed, the same air shield for punching, even the master’s favorite exhortations.
Bruce Lee Article
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 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.
David Carridine: Kung Fu
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 unconsciousness 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 (revenge-oriented) 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 kung-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 mask like 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 Kata, 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 counter-blows, 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 speed-bag 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.
Enter the Dragon
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 agony, 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 series of grimaces and postures that are the authentic passionate 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 exultation 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 Patel-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 labored 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 Coburn.
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 delinquency 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 Hong 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 uncontrolled 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.
To be continued…
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