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The immortal Bruce Lee

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.

Linda Lee Cadwell was Linda Emery in 1963 when she met Lee at the University of Washington.

"Meeting Bruce Lee back then was not meeting Bruce Lee much later, you know?" she said. "He was just a cute Chinese guy.

"He was dynamic. From the very first moment I met him, I thought, 'This guy is something else.'"

They would marry and have two children. Lee would teach martial arts classes. His students included Steve McQueen and James Coburn.

In 1971 Lee described his unique fighting style, which he called Jeet Kune Do:

"Be formless, shapeless, like water. You put water in a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water in a bottle, it becomes the bottle. You put water in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow, or it can crash. Be water, my friend."

Those martial arts skills landed Lee the role on "The Green Hornet" in 1966, but Kato proved more memorable than the show -- the series was cancelled after just one season.

And Hollywood couldn't see Lee as a star. When ABC was casting "Kung Fu," a series about a martial artist monk in the Old West, Lee was considered for the lead, but the part went instead to David Carradine.

"When he was passed over for the lead role in 'Kung Fu,' it was just devastating," said Linda Lee Cadwell. "It was like, this is just the old Hollywood all over again."

Rejected by Hollywood, Lee returned to Hong Kong where he was offered the lead role in "The Big Boss."

Linda Lee Cadwell still remembers opening night in Hong Kong:

"The film was over and it was perfectly quiet. All of a sudden, there was an uproar, cheering, clapping, raising him up on their arms, carrying him out of the theatre. They loved it. They loved him."

After his next film, "The Chinese Connection," was an even bigger hit, Hollywood couldn't ignore Lee any more. Warner Brothers cast him in "Enter the Dragon."

By 1973, he was becoming a global action hero when, suddenly, he died of a brain seizure.

"It was devastating," said Linda Lee Cadwell. "It was unbelievable. Still is."

Tens of thousands would turn out in Hong Kong to say goodbye to their beloved "Little Dragon."

For a time Lee's son, Brandon, seemed destined to fill his father's shoes as a martial arts star. But he died in a freak accident on a film set in 1993.

His daughter, Shannon, now runs the Bruce Lee Foundation.

Bruce Lee's daughter, Shannon, today heads the Bruce Lee Foundation, which honors her father's legacy: "He walked his own path and in such a profound and memorable way that it struck a chord with people of all different backgrounds," she told Mason.

He made only a handful of films, but with his fists of fury, Bruce Lee made a lasting impression.

Cole Haribe (right) as Bruce Lee in the new play, "Kung Fu." Joan Marcus/Signature Theatre

Mason asked playwright David Henry Hwang, "Why do you think his stature has grown?"

"People have always appreciated the degree to which Bruce Lee, in his movies, was the underdog," Hwang said. "And I think when those early Hong Kong movies were first starting to be shown in the U.S., you had a huge population of African Americans and Latino Americans who really embraced those martial arts movies and felt Bruce Lee was them."

"They identified with him?"

"Yes. He's the underdog and he's being oppressed. But at some point in the movie, he fights back and succeeds, and triumphs. That's a story that a lot of people can embrace."

They identified with Lee, and they still do. "The key to immortality," Bruce Lee once said, "is first living a life worth remembering."

For more info:

  • Bruce Lee Foundation
  • "Kung Fu" by David Henry Hwang, at the Signature Theatre, New York
  • "Kung Fu" (
  • All Bruce Lee images and footage courtesy of Bruce Lee, LLC. All Rights Reserved. BRUCE LEE is a registered trademark of Bruce Lee Enterprises, LLC. The Bruce Lee name, image, likeness and all related indicia are intellectual property of Bruce Lee Enterprises, LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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