I was eight years old when the news of Bruce Lee’s (1940-73) sudden, early death exploded around the world. Naturally he was on my radar. He was the father of the martial arts craze that has not stopped growing in the U.S. over the past half-century. Kids idolized him. Back then, martial arts classes were not yet commonly available — mostly, we just faked the kicks and chops we saw on film and tv, and imitated the vocalizations!
Lee’s output wasn’t huge. He’d become famous as Kato on The Green Hornet (1966-67, inspiration for the eponymous character in the Pink Panther films), was in three episodes of Batman (as Kato), guested on Ironside, Longstreet and Here Come the Brides, and was in the films Marlowe (1969, with James Garner), The Big Boss (1971), Fist of Fury (1972), Way of the Dragon (1972), and Enter the Dragon (1973), the last couple of which directed. But beyond this, Lee’s importation of Asian fighting techniques influenced others, who amplified his reach. Elvis Presley was a martial arts enthusiast, as was the one-time James Bond George Lazenby (who worked with Lee), lots of blaxploitation films showed his influence, and there was the TV show Kung Fu (1972-75). Shortly after he died there was Carl Douglas’s hit song “Kung Fu Fighting” (1974), and the Saturday Morning cartoon show Hong Kong Phooey (1974).
What was less commonly known is that Lee was born in San Francisco’s Chinatown, was the son of Cantonese opera stars, and was a child movie star himself in Hong Kong, where he was raised. When Lee returned to the States to attend school as a young adult he brought with him the martial arts knowledge that was his unique contribution to American popular culture. His children Brandon Lee and Shannon Lee carried on the family tradition. As for his death? His brain had mysteriously swelled, apparently an allergic reaction to an unprescribed painkiller/muscle relaxant he had taken. A shame! He had decades of productive work left in him! And he might have had something entertaining to say about his portrayal in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.