From Hong Kong's Cha-Cha champion to behind-the-scenes of "Enter The Dragon," these Bruce Lee photos capture the making of a cultural icon.
Bruce Lee is cherished by film buffs and martial arts fans worldwide, but his legacy goes beyond his work as an action movie star.
Lee started his career as a martial arts teacher in Seattle, and his style of instruction attracted celebrities like actor Steve McQueen and basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. His behind-the-scenes work with Hollywood heavyweights soon translated into onscreen roles for himself, though securing these gigs was no easy task for an Asian American in '70s Hollywood.
Indeed, despite his charisma and popularity among celebrities, Lee was constantly denied lead roles in favor of white actors in eye makeup. And when he did find onscreen work, it was usually in a role that exotified his heritage.
In 1973, Lee scored a starring role in the film Enter the Dragon, a joint production between American and Hong Kong studios. The film was a box office success, but Lee was unable to enjoy the fame that came with it.
While on a trip to Hong Kong, where he was reportedly in talks to star in another major film, Lee dropped dead in his hotel room from a brain edema. He was just 32 years old.
In his brief life, Bruce Lee brought a deeper understanding of martial arts to western audiences and changed the way Asians, and especially Chinese Americans, were represented in U.S. films and popular culture.
Bruce Lee Was Raised A Performer
The son of a Cantonese opera star, Bruce Lee was born Jun Fan Lee on November 27, 1940, in San Francisco, California while his parents were on a performance tour through the U.S.
Lee was reportedly nicknamed Bruce by a nurse at the hospital where he was born, and even though his parents didn't use the nickname while he was growing up, the moniker eventually stuck.
After their tour, Lee's parents returned to Hong Kong where they enrolled him in martial arts classes under the tutelage of Yip Man, a grandmaster of the martial art of wing chun. He also took dance lessons and even won the 1958 Hong Kong cha-cha Championship.
Lee also acted as a child star in a number of movies, appearing in his first role at just three months. He went on to appear in more than 20 films while growing up.
At 18, Bruce Lee moved to the U.S. to pursue a degree in philosophy at the University of Washington in Seattle. With $100 in his pocket, the martial artist boarded a steamship to Seattle where he was able to find employment and housing with a family friend who owned a restaurant in the city. He also briefly worked as a dance instructor.
While he finished his degree, Bruce Lee began to teach wing chun gung fu. "Gung fu" is also the Cantonese pronunciation of kung fu.
He started out teaching small groups of students outside in the city park, but as his lessons became more popular, he was eventually able to open a proper studio. Lee named the studio Jun Fan Gung Fu Institute — and it would be the first of many martial arts studios that he owned.
Bruce Lee relocated to California where he opened two other branches of the Jun Fan Gung Fu Institute in Oakland and Los Angeles. Then in 1964, the young martial artist settled down with his wife Linda and the couple had two children together, Shannon and Brandon Lee.
By this time, Bruce Lee had focused his full attention on his martial arts teachings and expanding his schools. But as fate would have it, his path would take a turn back onto familiar terrain.
Pursuing His Acting Career
Bruce Lee's reputation as a talented martial artist culminated in a fateful invitation from Ed Parker, the father of American kenpo karate, who wanted him to give a demonstration at the International Karate Tournament in Long Beach.
Lee's agile movements there caught the attention of Jay Sebring, a celebrity hairstylist who was well-connected in Hollywood. Sebring was the ex-boyfriend of starlet Sharon Tate, who Lee later trained for a film, and with whom Sebring was brutally murdered by the Manson family in 1969.
Sebring was so impressed by Bruce Lee's demonstration that he raved about it to his client William Dozier, the producer of Batman. After reviewing a recording of Lee's performance at the tournament, Dozier invited the martial artist for a screen test.
"To me, the extraordinary aspect of martial arts lies in its simplicity."
Lee scored his first major acting part on the 1966 American TV series The Green Hornet, where he played Kato, the superhero's sidekick. Lee's prowess in martial arts and his natural charisma quickly made him popular with viewers and Hollywood executives alike.
Meanwhile, Lee developed his own martial art, Jeet Kune Do, which translates to "the way of the intercepting fist."
Bruce Lee's role on The Green Hornet did more than catapult his career, it also made cultural history in America. According to Bruce Thomas, a fellow actor and martial artist who wrote the biography Bruce Lee: Fighting Spirit, "The series marked the first time that kung fu had been seen in the West, outside the movie theaters of the Chinatown districts, and younger viewers were astonished by what they saw."
The series' writers even wrote in more screentime for Lee due to his popularity. But there were some difficulties offscreen with the production. Bruce Lee was often told to downplay his abilities to avoid outshining his co-star Van Williams, who played the titular role on the show. He was also forced to shoot his fight scenes in slow motion because his moves were too fast for the camera to pick up clearly.
The series only lasted a season, but it was popular enough to reach audiences in Hong Kong, where it was cheekily referred to as "The Kato Show."
After the series ended, Bruce Lee landed a few other supporting roles. But it was 1960s Hollywood and so it was difficult for Lee to find roles that depicted fully-formed Chinese or Asian characters without racial stereotypes.
According to Shannon Lee, Bruce Lee's daughter, the performer wrote a TV script in the late 1960s about a Buddhist monk that was ultimately rejected because "a Chinese actor's accent will be hard for people to understand."
But just months later, studio executives made the 1970s show Kung Fu, which was awfully similar to the script Lee had pitched, with white actor David Carradine cast in the lead role.
"My father was up against a difficult system that was not willing to put money behind an Asian as a lead in any way, and not willing to create authentic Asian characters," Shannon Lee said. "I don't think anyone looked at Asians as full humans that come in every variety under the sun, just like everybody else, because there was no representation of that."
Briefly disenchanted by Hollywood, Bruce Lee headed back East to Hong Kong in 1971 where a legion of adoring fans and a booming film industry awaited him.
Finally Finding Some Success — And Dying Suddenly
While his career stalled in the States, the success of Bruce Lee's role on The Green Hornet had turned the actor into a sensation in Hong Kong.
Lee landed his first leading role in Hong Kong in the film The Big Boss in 1971, which was followed by Fist of Fury in 1972. In The Way of the Dragon, also released in 1972, Bruce Lee acted alongside a budding American martial artist-turned-actor named Chuck Norris. The films were a commercial success in multiple countries across Asia.
"Bruce Lee learned from everybody," Norris later said of the martial artist's ability. "He had a very open mind... He believed that everything had strengths and weaknesses and that we should find the strengths in each method."
Soon Hollywood came knocking with earnest at Bruce Lee's door and offered him the leading role in a film produced by American studio Warner Bros and Hong Kong studio Golden Harvest. The film began shooting in January 1973 and was released in theaters several months later — thought Lee would not live to see it.
The film, Enter the Dragon, cemented Bruce Lee's status as a martial arts icon. But Lee never got to see any of that fame. Lee had collapsed in the midst of filming the movie in May and was subsequently diagnosed with cerebral edema, a condition in which excess fluid in the brain creates swelling and pain. Lee was treated without incident and continued with his intense training and diet.
Then, just six weeks before the film's opening on July 20, 1973, Bruce Lee collapsed during a business trip to Hong Kong. This time the actor never woke up. An autopsy revealed that Lee had a buildup of fluid which had increased his brain size by 13 percent.
It's believed that Bruce Lee's death was brought on by a reaction to a pain medication that he had taken before his collapse. But the sudden and inexplicable nature of his demise has spurred conspiracy theories ever since.
Remembering Bruce Lee In Pictures
Enter the Dragon was a box office hit and it catapulted Bruce Lee to international stardom following his death. Bruce Lee's legacy of self-expression, philosophy, innovation, and equality continues to inspire people everywhere, decades after his untimely passing.
The late actor's filmography has become an archive of iconic scenes, as seen in these pictures of Bruce Lee above, and his persona — including his signature yellow jumpsuit in Enter the Dragon — has been immortalized in pop culture. He's also paved the way for other Asian actors like Jackie Chan and Jet Li to secure leading roles in blockbuster movies.
In 2020, the most recent Bruce Lee documentary Be Water debuted on ESPN. His daughter released a book about his martial arts philosophies in Be Water, My Friend: The Teachings of Bruce Lee and contributed as an executive producer on the Cinemax martial arts series Warrior. The show's script was based on an original concept by Bruce Lee, and its second season premiered in October 2020.
"His words are timeless, really," Shannon said, "and I just feel like when I read his words, I feel soothed. I feel hopeful. I feel energized. Those are all things that we will always need and, in some ways, now more than ever."
Now that you've explored these pictures of Bruce Lee, absorb some of the martial artist's teachings through these famous Bruce Lee quotes. Then, read about what happened when Bruce Lee fought a real kung fu master.