The story of the great martial artist Bruce Lee is one of inspiration and ultimately one of unfulfilled promise, as we wonder what he may have achieved in a career cut short just as he was on the cusp of true international stardom with his tremendous screen presence, good lucks and unique talent. The death in March 2017 of entertainment impresario Fred Weintraub filled in many gaps in the legendary Hong Kong-American martial artist/actor’s career.
It was Weintraub who, after several years as an executive with Warner Bros. Pictures, brought Enter the Dragon to the studio. When the action movie was released in Hong Kong in July 1973, it made Lee a star… posthumously. Six days before the film’s debut, Lee died. He was just 32 years old.
Lee grew up in San Francisco’s Chinatown community on November 27, 1940, but as an infant moved to Hong Kong where he was raised. At 18, he moved back to the U.S. and went on to attend the University of Washington as a drama major.
He was so physically fit and adept at martial arts that he became an instructor and appeared at exhibitions, demonstrating his efficient style. The photogenic Lee was first introduced to Western audiences at 26 in the role of Kato on the short-lived TV series, The Green Hornet, which ran during the 1966-67 season.
Watch a fight scene from The Green Hornet…
At Weintraub’s suggestion, Lee returned to Hong Kong where he starred in three feature films: 1971’s The Big Boss, and 1972’s Fist of Fury and Way of the Dragon. The titles made Lee a star in Asia, paving the way for Enter the Dragon.
A martial arts craze in filmed entertainment was developing in Hollywood. For three seasons, running from 1972-1975, the TV series Kung Fu aired on ABC-TV and starred David Carradine as Shaolin monk Kwai Chang Caine. The series was led by a hugely successful movie-of-the-week months before its debut which helped the program become a breakout hit in its first season. Following Lee’s death, his widow claimed that it was Lee who had developed the series, though there was no paper trail. The production company that made the series? Warner Bros., the sister company of the film studio that made Enter the Dragon.
In the 1973 film, the star’s one-named character, Lee, is working undercover for British intelligence, and travels to the private island of a suspected crime lord, Han, to attend a martial arts competition. We meet fellow experts Roper (John Saxon) and Williams (Jim Kelly), each of whom has dialog and scenes that today is campy and perhaps unintentionally humorous, yet ultimately highly entertaining. Each wins a memorable fight.
When Lee’s first opponent tries to intimidate him, the star calmly replies, “Boards don’t hit back.” Guess who wins this match in our Classic Video?
Lee’s cover is eventually unmasked and he ultimately faces the evil Han in a fight to the finish. Enter the Dragon, with plenty of action–and humor–was made for $850,000 and became a huge box-office hit, with $21 million in North America alone in 1973. Its cumulative worldwide box-office numbers are said to be somewhere between $90-200 million.
On May 10, 1973, while the film was in post-production, Lee suffered seizures and headaches and was rushed to a hospital. Two months later, on July 20, while still recovering and just six days before the film’s release, Lee had another headache. He took a painkiller and went to sleep. Lee was found dead later that evening. Fellow actors Steve McQueen, James Coburn and Chuck Norris were among his pallbearers at his funeral in Seattle. After all, the man was a rock star.