On July 20, 1937, Hong Kong action star Bruce Lee was found in the house of actress Betty Ting Pei, lying down in bed and unresponsive. An ambulance rushed him to a Chinese hospital, but it was too late: Lee was declared dead on arrival. He was 32 years old. His wife Linda returned his body to Seattle, and Hollywood luminaries like Chuck Norris and Steve McQueen were pallbearers at his funeral.
But throughout the dark ceremony of his burial, the same question circulated: what actually happened to Bruce Lee? It’s a question we are still struggling to answer today—and the answers we have are deeply unsettling.
But to address them, we have to start at the beginning.
Enter the Dragon
It’s hard to overstate the impact Bruce Lee’s short career had on action cinema. Born to Lee Hoi-chuen, who was a film star in his own right, the young Bruce began acting when he was just a child. Though born in San Francisco, Lee’s parents moved back to Hong Kong shortly after the birth of their son.
At 16 years old, Lee began to study the Wing Chun style of Kung Fu under the famous master Yip Man. Two years later, having become an incredibly accomplished martial artist, Lee moved back to America and settled in Seattle. After finishing high school and enrolling in the University of Washington, he met his future wife Linda Emery. The couple soon had two children: Brandon and Shannon Lee.
During this time, Lee began to train students in his own style of Kung Fu and slowly tried to crack the Hollywood action film market, starring as the sidekick Kato in the Green Hornet television series—but it wasn’t enough. Dissatisfied with the roles he was getting, Lee moved back to Hong Kong. Once there, he quickly became a star, in part because of his father’s own fame and in part because Green Hornet was actually a great success overseas; people in China even referred to it simply as “The Kato Show.”
But the best—and the worst—was yet to come.
Stardom, perhaps, came too fast. Working with the prominent Hong Kong studio Golden Harvest, Lee landed his first leading role in The Big Boss, and then easily secured further starring roles in Fists of Fury and Way of the Dragon, a film which he also wrote and directed. With all of his success, Hollywood finally came knocking: Warner Brothers wanted him to star in Enter the Dragon, which became his most famous work.
It was also his last completed film.
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