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.
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" (Broadway.com)
- 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.