The immortal Bruce Lee

Bruce Lee in "Enter the Dragon" (1973).
Warner Brothers

Millions around the world have seen the late martial arts star Bruce Lee in action on the screen. But his remarkable career was much more brief than some people may realize. Here's Anthony Mason:

In his films, like "Way of the Dragon," where he has epic fight in the Roman Colisseum with Chuck Norris, Bruce Lee let his moves do most of the talking:

"To me a motion picture is motion. You got to keep the dialogue down to a minimum," he told interviewer Pierre Burton on Canadian television in 1971.

In a no-holds-barred fight, he said, you better use every part of your body: "And when you do punch, you gotta put the whole hip into it and snap it and get all your energy into it."

One of the most influential martial artists of the 20th century, Lee became the first international Asian film hero, a phenomenon who -- four decades after his sudden death at age 32 -- remains an icon.

Playwright and screenwriter David Henry Hwang told Mason that, growing up in the '60s, "If I knew there was going to be an Asian character in a TV show or a movie, I would in general go out of my way NOT to watch it."

Before Bruce Lee, said Hwang, American audiences were usually fed stereotypical Asian characters, like Charlie Chan, who was actually played by a white actor. But in 1966, Lee was cast as the high-kicking sidekick, Kato, in the TV detective series, "The Green Hornet."

"That was huge," said Hwang, "and it's probably why I watched 'The Green Hornet' every week and I can still remember the theme song very well."

Hwang, best known for his Tony Award-winning play, "M. Butterfly," for years has wanted to tell the story of Lee's life.

"Everybody knows him as the star and the martial arts guy with the yell," he said. "But nobody knows how he got there."

Last month, his new play, "Kung Fu," opened in New York's Signature Theatre.

Mason asked, "What part of Bruce Lee surprised you the most?"

"I began approaching Bruce Lee with the idea of him being a symbol almost, 'cause I thought, well, he is sort of the symbol of the rise of the new China," Hwang said. "What surprised me was the degree to which he had to struggle."

Born in San Francisco, Lee grew up in Hong Kong. The son of a Cantonese opera and film star, Lee as a child appeared in 20 Chinese films. His first starring role was in a movie called "The Kid," playing alongside his father.

But after Lee got involved with street gangs in Hong Kong, his father shipped him off to America, where he would settle in Seattle.